Venture capitalist Brad Feld continues to advance the evolution of Colorado’s tech ecosystem with his most recent investment in Modular Robotics. Feld’s VC firm, Foundry Group, recently invested $3 million in the maker of robot construction kits for children. The cash will allow the start-up to expand its facilities and increase its order fulfillment capacity.
“I believe the machines have already taken over and are just patiently waiting for us to catch up with them. As part of this, every kid should learn how to program, create things, and work with robots. ModRobotics plans to be an integral part of that,” —Brad Feld, Foundry Group Co-Founder
Feld has previously invested in robotics companies such as Orbotix (a robotic ball controlled by a smartphone) and MakerBot (3D printers). Both Orbotix and Modular Robotics are based in Boulder, Colorado, where Feld envisions building a thriving robotics community similar to the software hub that is Silicon Valley.
His Boulder is for Robots Meetup Group was inspired by Steve Wozniak’s Homebrew Computer Club and is an integral part of the “Boulder is for Robots” movement designed to bring the area’s manufacturers and thinkers together.
According to Feld, Boulder is home to a number of robotics companies that produce the sensors and electronic components tinkerers need to build robots at home:
“For example, Sparkfun enables tens of thousands of amateurs and researchers to create electronic and mechatronic artifacts. They do that not only by retailing hard-to-acquire electronic components and innovative pre-fabbed modules that drastically increase the productivity of hobbyists, entrepreneurs and researchers across the nation, but they also provide free access to a wealth of educational resources that allow amateurs to mimic industrial processes, often just using kitchen equipment. Similarly, Acroname and RoadNarrow Robotics retails sensors and ready-made devices for building state-of-the-art robots, including laser scanners, motor drivers, and digital servos. All three companies actively develop hardware and software that make the integration of ever more complex mechatronic products possible in garages. They also contribute to a pool of ‘Can-Do’ people that spin off companies.”
The nearby Aurora, Colorado is also home to affordable PCB manufacturing and board assembly services, which provides further logistical advantages for prototype building.
Why Modular Robotics?
Feld has invested in the quintessential Colorado start-up with Modular Robotics–also referred to as ModRobotics. The company’s additive technology marks a significant evolution from the basic kits that once inspired today’s DIYers.
“I believe the machines have already taken over and are just patiently waiting for us to catch up with them. As part of this, every kid should learn how to program, create things, and work with robots. ModRobotics plans to be an integral part of that,” said Feld.
The company runs out of a home-turned-office in Boulder, and currently employs 18 people. Its robot kits contain several Cubelets, which are modular magnetic blocks that can be snapped together to form small self-powered robots. The Cubelets can be assembled with no programming or wiring.
Each Cubelet has a different function. Black ones, for instance, are sensors, and the colorful ones are “thinking” Cubelets that react to the senors. You control your robot with hand gestures.
You can start simple and add blocks to give your robot specific functions. You can make your robot drive when your hand comes near it. You can build one that knows to stop before it gets to the edge of a table. You can construct one that chases things.
ModRobotics’ target customers are “kids, educators, technologists, alpha-geeks, engineers and artists,” Eric Schweikardt, ModRobotics’ design director has said.
ModRobotics was originally started as an academic research project. Until recently, the company relied on sales and National Science Foundation Small Business Innovative Research grants to finance its growth. In 2010 the company received a two-year, $486,906 SBIR grant. According to Schweikardt, the challenge was figuring out how to do it all in a way that could make the robots affordable. The prototype for a single Cubelet was $340. He needed it to be $10 in order to make a viable business.
Parts are now shipped from 8 different Chinese manufacturers and assembled in the Boulder office. Since beginning assembly, it has shipped over 20,000 Cubelets to customers who order the product from the company’s website, modrobotics.com. A kit of six currently sells on Modular Robotics’ Web site for $160.Read More