Startup Empire Robotics wants to help robots get a better grip

A Cornell-spawned startup that moved to Boston last year is releasing its first product this month. Empire Robotics says its “jammable gripper,” priced at about $4000, is one of the first of its kind to be sold commercially.

It’s a kind of robotic hand that looks and feels a lot like a stress ball. Filled with a granular material, in one mode it is squishy enough to envelop an object it’s trying to grab. Then, when a vacuum is created inside the ball, the granules get pulled together, solidifying around the object. The unique design enables the gripper to pick up a wide range of different objects, which can weigh up to 20 pounds. Empire has dubbed its product Versaball. (The picture above shows the Versaball screwing in a light bulb.)

Some of the early work on this new gripper was done in partnership with iRobot of Bedford, and funded by the Pentagon’s R&D arm, DARPA. Empire says it has an exclusive license to a key patent filed by Cornell.

Empire came to Boston last summer. “Our primary motivation in moving to Boston was access to things we knew we would need,” explains chief technology officer John Amend. “Right away that was talent. We hired one of Kiva’s early employees who is great, and aPhD grad from MIT with a background that perfectly matches what we are working on. Now, we’re raising some money and forming strategic partnerships, which Boston has been great for as well.” (The hires to which he refers are director of engineering Patrick Dingle and director of R&D Nadia Cheng.) CEO William Culley is based in Rochester, New York.

Amend says the startup has so far raised slightly less than $1 million in seed funding andSBIR grants from the National Science Foundation. Empire also won cash prizes at seven business plan competitions, and has sold a few of its early prototypes.

The company is based in the Headquarters Boston shared office in Boston’s Innovation District.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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