Startups, Investors Discuss Robotics at Pittsburgh Venture Fair

Pittsburgh-based Roadbotics offers a system that can identify road cracks via smartphone app. Source: Roadbotics

May 28, 2019      
Ray Linsenmayer

PITTSBURGH – Investors and robotics startup companies gathered here recently as part of the second annual AI/Robotics Venture Fair, held on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University. The event was also held in conjunction with the 5th annual Hardware Cup Pitch Competition finals.

The venture fair was sponsored by Innovation Works, one of the most active robotics investor companies in the U.S. that focuses on early stage investments. The startup competition was hosted by IW’s accelerator, AlphaLab Gear.

Finalists for the Hardware Cup were the winners of preliminary rounds held in seven U.S. and four international cities. The finalists gave three-minute pitches to a room full of investors and a panel of judges, which included Atin Batra of Q Venture Partners, David motley of Blue Tree Venture Fund, and Melissa Winters of RevUp.

Yodel Labs, a Pittsburgh-based startup that lets retailers create and provide very accurate schematics for where items are located in stores, won the $50,000 first prize. According to CEO Patrick Lazik, “Our ultrasound beacons are differentiated by their 20-cm accuracy. They are wireless, and rechargeable using solar power from overhead light fixtures.”

Raleigh-based VitalFlo won second prize. The company gives asthma patients a way to regularly monitor their lung health and environments at home, and then shares that information with their doctor. “This is the first system that combines all of these measurements for a doctor’s use,” according to VitalFlo founder and CEO Luke Marshall.

Third place in the Hardware Cup went to AlgenAir. The Baltimore-based company has developed the first consumer natural air purifier that both uses algae to reduce carbon dioxide and traditional air filters to remove particulate matter. According to founders Kelsey Abernathy and Dan Fucich, they can remove as much Co2 from a 10×12 room as 25 house plants.

“This is the first year that a Pittsburgh company has won the Hardware Cup, which is really exciting,” said Illana Diamond, managing director of Hardware and Alpha Lab Gear at IW. “Over the last five years, the companies that are competing seem to be bigger and further along. There are more connected devices, heavy robotics, and health-related competitors as well.”

Venture Fair attracts robotics investors

The AI/Robotics Venture Fair the next day attracted more than 150 investors who came to listen to 21 Pittsburgh-based companies talk about the problems they are trying to solve.

One of the robotics presenters in the healthcare space was Forest Devices. Forest creates a device that increases the accuracy of stroke diagnoses so EMTs can get patients to the right hospital the first time. EMTs can apply this test in around two minutes after about an hour of training. The company said the FDA has cleared the product for its third clinical trial, which will begin as soon as Forest closes its next round of funding.

Doctors only started performing thrombectomies (a procedure to remove blood clots) on patients with severe strokes in 2015, and only 200 hospitals in the country provide them even now. “The only way to determine whether a patient’s stroke is severe enough to require transport to one of those 200  hospitals”, said CEO Matt Kesinger, “is a clinical exam that is at most 70% accurate.” This results in around half of all US stroke patients (300,000) being sent to the wrong hospital every year. Getting them to the right hospital after that takes an average of around two hours, which significantly increases the likelihood of both complications and disability. According to Forest Devices, detecting a severe stroke in the ambulance can help get patients get to the right hospital more quickly, and therefore save lives.

Mark DeSantis CEO Roadbotics Pittsburgh venture fair article

Mark DeSantis, CEO, Roadbotics.

Another presenter has a robotics solution that’s mainly used in transportation. Roadbotics turns an Android smart phone into a windshield camera that takes pictures of the road. Artificial intelligence then determines the condition of that road.

“What we’ve done, is take all the learning that’s in a pavement engineer’s toolbox and put it into AI,” said CEO Mark DeSantis. “When we see an alligator crack in a road in France, Detroit, or India, we know it’s an alligator crack. No one has done that before using AI.”

Roadbotics can either collect this information itself, use partners such as street sweepers, or work with engineering firms that are already contracted to do the road surveillance. The company has raised $3.9 million so far, and is in the middle of raising an $8 million Series A.

A third presenter, Velcocity Robotics, is squarely focused on construction. The commercial construction industry is beset by a shortage of labor, glaring inefficiencies, and a tremendous amount of sheer waste. Velocity Robotics aims to tackle these issues with an “automated positioning device that cuts the time it takes to measure and cut wood by half while reducing waste by up to 30%,” said Gina Fleitman, director of business development.

The company is initially targeting cuts made with a contractor’s existing miter saw. “Miter saws are used to cut angles for things like moldings”, Fleitman explains, “and therefore often utilize the most expensive materials.” Multiple measurements can be typed into the the Autoset device, which are then reordered to optimize wood usage. The cuts are then accurate to 1/64th of an inch to further minimize waste.

Connectivity is also a big innovation, according to Fleitman. A contractor can use a laser measuring tool, for example, and the resulting measurements can automatically be sent via smartphone to an Autoset device at a factory anywhere in the world. This lets cutting and measuring be done simultaneously, according to the company, which rapidly speeds up production.

Data is often at least as important as the hardware for investors, according to Illana Diamond. “That’s an important aspect of the connected device. More and more you are seeing people not trying to make money on the hardware but monetizing the data, monetizing the connections and monetizing whatever social information they get.”