In the last few months, a Singaporean University hired Nadine as a secretary, a Boston Dynamics employee pushed over his colleague Atlas who was moving boxes at a factory and Tally, a San Francisco Target employee, began checking to make sure all the products in Aisle 3 are fully stocked.
Nadine, Atlas and Tally may live in different cities and industries, but they have several peculiarities in common. None of them need sleep, food or exercise to operate efficiently.
Imagine employing your own secretary who optimizes your schedule, plans your weekends, reminds you about deadlines and iteratively adapts to your preferences and behaviors at a fraction of the cost of a human. Imagine a factory with no humans, no downtime and no errors. Imagine a retail store without checkout lines or items out of stock.
Humanoid robots have entertained us on the big screen for years as “science fiction,” with films like “I, Robot,” “WALL-E” and Steven Spielberg’s “AI” capturing our collective imagination and spirit. In the last five years, however, the number of VC dollars (see chart below) invested into robotics technologies implies that tens of thousands of engineers, data scientists and management teams are now building robots and robotic technologies that will drastically alter our lives over the next few years.
Many of these advances will come from Israel. In healthcare, we see Mazor Robotics helping brain and spine surgeons, XACT Robotics empowering radiologists to improve accuracy and results and ReWalk enabling the disabled to walk again.
In industrial applications, we see Weldobot and SmartTCP enhancing welding capabilities,Dronomy developing autonomous drones and Caja using robotic technology to develop a sophisticated, self-aware warehouse for an industry expected to grow to $79 billion by 2022. NUA is the world’s first robotic luggage that can follow its owner around and avoid obstacles, and is part of a consumer robotics market that is estimated to ship 100 million units by 2020.
We also see applications for the government and military, such as Roboteam, which enables ground troops to minimize contact with targets by sending in robots that scout, report and eliminate threats. These examples only scratch the surface.
Just a few months ago, the Israeli Robotics Association signed a $20 million agreement with a coalition of Chinese investors and the city of Guangzhou, one of China’s biggest industrial centers, to develop robots to serve as workers in China. Israeli researchers will develop the technology, and the Chinese will mass-produce mechanical waiters, cleaners, security guards and construction workers. Likewise, robotics startups will need large capital investments to successfully bring their products and solutions to market.
Israel’s contribution to the global robotics industry need not be limited to the robots themselves. Mobileye, the world leader in advanced driver assistance systems has already started software development to power autonomous vehicles, while Argus provides them with state-of-the-art security. Deepsense, Augury, n-Join and Imubit all provide BI and predictive analytics for industrial robots and IoT, while companies like InTalTech provide their docking stations.
Unfortunately, other than Singulariteam’s $100 million fund, few Israeli VCs can afford the risks and timelines associated with financing the R&D of hardware companies. The deep pockets typically come from corporations whose operations and products benefit the most from robotic innovation, e.g. Toyota, Google, Amazon, Alibaba, Siemens and GE. Many of these corporate investors have R&D centers and/or accelerators in Israel, but often will require their investments to relocate and be geographically closer to their production partners.
VC dollars are coming from blue chip funds like Accel, DFJ, Bessemer, Andreessen Horowitz and Dmitry Grishin’s robotics-only funds. Although Israeli companies may share Intel’s vision of a domestic, “Blue-and-White” hardware production line, Israeli companies will need to partner with major players in the U.S., Japan, Korea, Germany and China in order to grow significantly and secure contracts as design partners before the companies are fully operational.
Intelligent robots are no longer science fiction. They are real. They are here. And powered by advances in Israeli technology, they are only getting smarter.