November 20, 2015      

Nearly every country, state, and municipality is hoping to get a piece of the growing robotics pie, but for the industry to thrive and create jobs, a region must meet certain conditions. The commonwealth of Massachusetts has a strong educational base, a tech-savvy workforce, and a track record of successful robotics startups.

So what more does the state need to do to nurture the local robotics industry and encourage investment as it has with biotech? According to Tom Ryden, the new executive director at MassRobotics, it’s partly a matter of providing a physical space for inventors and businesspeople.

Robotics develops in New England

Other institutions are working to help the robotics industry. For example, Harvard University this past summer established a Physical Sciences and Engineering Accelerator fund, which offers $50,000 to $100,000 for selected projects for up to a year.

The University of Massachusetts Lowell won grants totaling $1.06 million from Google Inc., the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute for Standards and Technology for research into robotics for emergency response, mobile manufacturing, and assisting people with mobility issues.

“We’re looking at creating robots that will work more effectively and safely for people,” said Holly Yanco, director of the New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center at UMass Lowell.

In addition, the NERVE Center and Northeastern University received one of NASA’s two R5 prototypes to develop and test the autonomous robots for collaborative space exploration alongside humans. They were chosen based on their entries in the DARPA Robotics Challenge and will receive as much as $250,000 a year for two years.

And thanks to oceanographic interests around Cape Cod, Hydroid LLC has been hiring people to make its underwater drones for mine detection.

The Devens Interoperability Playground northwest of Boston is also intended to encourage robotics businesses, similar to the Cambridge Innovation Space and Vecna’s offices for rent.

The Massachusetts robotics sector is healthy: Nine area high-tech companies have raised $100 million or more this year, including Boston-based Rethink Robotics.

Ryden was previously director of sales and marketing at consumer and military robotics provider iRobot Corp. and founder and CEO of telepresence firm VGo Communications Inc., which was recently acquired by Vecna Technologies Inc. Executives from all of these companies sit on MassRobotics’ board of directors.

MassRobotics also hopes to facilitate information-sharing among startups and more established robotics companies, Ryden said.

The nonprofit organization originated in conversations among members of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, or MassTLC, last year.

Since then, MassRobotics has been in talks with the state government to raise $20 million for a co-working space.

In the meantime, MassRobotics has started a Robotics Interest Group on Meetup.com, and Ryden told Robotics Business Review what how his organization plans to help area startups overcome challenges in robotics.

What are the obstacles that Massachusetts must overcome to stay competitive in robotics?

Ryden: The mission of MassRobotics is to help create and grow the next generation of powerhouse robotics companies by providing entrepreneurs and innovative robotics startups with the space and resources they need to develop, prototype, test, challenge, and nurture early ideas.

Some of the obstacles we believe there are for Massachusetts startups to become leaders in the field are limited access to the infrastructure needed to develop and commercialize mobile robots; the high cost of services such as prototyping, testing, maintenance, IT, and security; and the lack of a robust ecosystem that can help in thought-sharing and creative exchange.

The technology in robotics and their components are developing so rapidly that it is difficult for companies to stay current. We believe by being a resource or clearinghouse of information on robotics, we can help our companies be more competitive.

More on Startups and MassRobotics:

What role do “makerspaces” play in the future of robotics?

Ryden: Makerspaces offer a great opportunity for DIYs to get together with like-minded artists, engineers, [and] inventors and build things. They provide the access to the tools needed to create robots, and I think they are a great way for people to get started.

What are robotics employers in Massachusetts looking for?

Ryden: It depends on the stage a company is at. IRobot has very different needs than CyPhy or another robotics startup, but I think everyone is looking for people that are passionate about the field of robotics and wanting to make a difference.