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Insights into Growing a Robotics Business
Successful executives share advice at RoboBusiness 2012
By Henry Lenard

When building a robotics company, having a vision and welcoming early customer input in your product are essential to success.

“You need to find early customers that can be good beta sites for your product. You can only develop in a lab for so long. At some point, you need to get it out there as you don’t know what you don’t know,” said Aldo Zini, CEO of Aethon. “It is critical that you have these early customers that understand you are partly in the development mode.”

Mr. Zini’s remarks were part of a panel on starting and growing a robotics business at the RoboBusiness Leadership Summit in Pittsburgh.

“Very trusted customers that will give you good feedback are important. And you need to have a good representative sample,” said Lloyd Spencer, CEO of CoroWare.

“You can only develop in a lab for so long. At some point, you need to get it out there, as you don’t know what you don’t know.” Aldo Zini, CEO of Aethon

Autonomous Solutions CEO Mel Torrie added that you want to get your product out fast without compromising safety.  “Ship as soon as it is safe, but let your customers know that it might not have every feature initially. That you are looking for their feedback,” he said.

Mr. Spencer said that when to ship is also important, as different positions within a company may have different perspectives.

“The CEO may want to ship as soon as possible, while the engineers will want to wait until the product has enough features, Mr. Spencer said, adding to make sure internal support and sales people are very familiar with the product before it is rolled out.

Protecting your intellectual property is also important.

“Patents are part of the valuation. The investment community wants to know that your company is building products and offering services. Defensible patents improve the ability of your company to raise capital,” Mr. Zini said. “IP strategy can change as your company develops, but you still must be protective of certain things. My advice is to always have a good patent attorney.”

The panelists also stressed having non-engineers on your team as you grow your business.

“To build a business, you need business people. We also brought in health care professionals as they understood the market to which we sell,” said Mr. Zini, whose company sells mobile robotic platforms to hospitals.

Mr. Torrie said that hiring a CFO is a top priority, followed by human resources. “Once you get larger, HR becomes a great distraction,” he said.

Mr. Spencer said he sees three major functions to a company: delivery (in which he includes engineering), sales and finance. “If you are lacking in one of these areas, it makes it very difficult on the other two,” he said.

As your robotics company grows, finances will always be an issue, reminded Mr. Zini.

“Cash is king until you are profitable and even then and beyond it is essential for your success,” he said.

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About the author

Henry Lenard is the former editor-in-chief of the Pittsburgh Business Times and also was editor-in-chief of the former Industry.Net, a national network of regional publications covering manufacturing and computer technology.

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