June 26, 2010      

MobileRobots’ CEO Jeanne Dietsch gave a solid presentation at Robotics Trends’ Robotics Summit Conference and Exposition entitled “Driving Autonomous Robot Applications to Market.” In addition to her presentation, Dietsch had a surprise announcement for event attendees.

First, the presentation. Dietsch’s session focused mostly on MobileRobots’ Motivity, which the company describes as “an evolving body of essential technologies for robot application development and deployment far beyond the capabilities of any other mobile robot operating system.”

That’s a mouthful to be sure, and to characterize the description as ambiguous would be an understatement. But the power of Motivity became abundantly clear as Dietsch reviewed a number of well-known mobile robotics systems, ranging from teleoperated systems such as Foster-Miller’s (QinetiQ North America) Talon, to iRobot’s wandering Roomba, and on to industrial automated guide vehicles that navigate using beacons. These systems were then contrasted to robots enabled with Motivity technologies that are able to navigate autonomously in semi-structured or unstructured environments.

Needless to say, the other types of robots seemed hopelessly limited and clumsy compared with the Motivity-enabled systems. The more cynical among you might attribute this solely to clever marketing and a well-designed presentation. To be fair, there is some truth to this charge, but to the credit of Dietsch and MobileRobots, the Motivity story is very compelling.

[Editor’s Note: All sessions at the inaugural event in the Robotics Summit series, which focused on autonomy, mobility, and navigation solutions and ran on June 16, 2010, are available to be viewed on demand at no charge.]

Now the announcement. Dietsch’s surprise announcement came with the first slide in her session. The slide made note that the presentation was sponsored by MobileRobots and Adept Technology (Nasdaq:ADEP). This was for good reason, as it was announced that Adept, a Silicon Valley-based supplier of vision-guided robotics solutions had entered into an agreement to acquire MobileRobots.

According to Adept, MobileRobots generated approximately $4 million in revenues in 2009. They estimate the cost of the MobileRobots acquisition to be $4.5 million. That’s not much of a multiple. Stranger still, the deal calls for a combination of $1 million of cash at closing, plus 763,359 shares of Adept common stock (subject to vesting), and a cash payment of up to $320,000 after one year.

Yet the acquisition, and the terms, make a good deal of sense for both companies. Adept is the largest U.S.-based manufacturer of industrial robots. But with a market cap of approximately $45 million, Adept Technology is a small company, especially when compared with industrial robotics behemoths such as KUKA Robotics, ABB Robotics, Yaskawa (Motoman), and FANUC. Like Adept, these larger companies also produce versions of SCARA, articulated, parallel, and gantry robots.

In the most general sense, Adept differentiates itself from its competitors because it offers, in its own words, “intelligent vision-guided robotics systems and services.” But which of Adept’s aforementioned competitors does not offer vision-based systems and “intelligent” software? Adept’s acquisition of MobileRobots, however, a company offering a variety of field-proven, mobile, autonomous robotics platforms, along with a suite of supporting software tools, really does differentiate Adept from its direct competitors. A quick reading of the announcement could lead one to characterize the agreement as between two companies offering synergistic technologies. Not quite. What the acquisition really provides Adept is a stake in a the nascent market of mobile service robotics – a market I believe will eventually exceed that of traditional fixed-base industrial robots.

With its acquisition by Adept, MobileRobots gains operations, sales, and marketing support. Some Adept technology might also be leveraged. In the near term, this will speed the release of new products, and more important, drive sales (and increase the value of their Adept stock). But it is the mobile service robotics market that will drive the Adept stock price in the long term (and the real revenue multiple for the deal). The former owners of MobileRobots now have a piece of a pie that should expand quite nicely