December 14, 2016      

Last night, InTeahouse hosted its holiday celebration at the InterContinental Hotel in downtown Boston. It was an opportunity for the Massachusetts robotics community to continue exploring business opportunities in China. It will take work, however, for some partnerships to be productive.

About 200 people attended the event, including several venture capitalists and startups looking to make deals. One startup representative compared it with “speed dating.” Other attendees included attorneys, investment advisers, and component technology suppliers.

Massachusetts robotics companies are networking through InTeahouse.

Cambridge, Mass.-based InTeahouse is a year-old organization dedicated to helping international entrepreneurs through networking events, advice, and funding, as well as its new network of InTeaHub meeting spaces. It plans to open up to 30 worldwide, starting in Boston’s Back Bay.

U.S. robotics companies also have much to learn as they seek to connect with Chinese investors, but InTeahouse “has made my job easier,” remarked Nam Pham, assistant secretary of business development and trade at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development.

At the same time, “Chinese companies are not so familiar with [Western] culture and laws,” acknowledged Chengyue Jiao, president of China Merchants Bank.

Business Takeaways:

  • InTeahouse is expanding networking opportunities between Chinese investors and manufacturers and global robotics providers.
  • Massachusetts robotics companies are building on a strong local ecosystem and educational base, and a number of co-working spaces and startup accelerators are in the works.
  • China has become the world’s largest consumer of automated systems, but Chinese investment in U.S. robotics businesses will slow somewhat until geopolitical uncertainty abates.

China visit was productive

Earlier this fall, 10 Massachusetts robotics companies went on an expedition to China, visiting five cities in 10 days. The companies included startups and established robotics suppliers such as iRobot Corp., Movia Robotics LLC, Locus Robotics Corp., and Vecna Technologies. For the most part, they were new to the country.

“As you can imagine, it was challenging to get all 11 entrepreneurs going in the same direction at the same time, but it was a learning experience,” said Tom Ryden, executive director at MassRobotics. “I hope that it’s just the first of many such trips.”

In 2017, outbound M&As will slow from their pace in 2015 and 2016.

— Richard Cheng, VP at CCB International Holdings

“In the U.S. and Europe, there is fear that automation will take jobs, but in China, there is a recognition that technology is coming anyway in healthcare, home robotics, and manufacturing,” he added. “China is willing to make investments to stay competitive.”

“It was a bit overwhelming to speak with so many people in that time,” said one participant, who asked not to be named. “The Chinese were very aggressive. They want partnerships and IP, but we’re still getting to know each other.”

“Sure, there are concerns about intellectual property and other issues,” Ryden told Robotics Business Review. “But the huge market opportunity that China presents is worth working through them.”

Chinese investors see the benefits of finding partners in the U.S. and Massachusetts, where technology development is “dramatically different from other countries, where it’s often provincial, siloed,” said Richard Kivel, an entrepreneur and investor at GrayBella Capital.

Kivel, who sits on InTeahouse’s advisory board, cited the example of a recent robotics meeting he attended at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Mechanical and electrical engineers are in the same building with business and healthcare. That’s not something you see everywhere. Non-Americans come here to get their education.”

Ryden said that several of the companies that visited overseas investors and robotics manufacturers are in talks, and at least one is near to closing a deal.

Setting goals for Massachusetts robotics

Deborah Theobald, CEO of Vecna Technologies, greeted the audience in fluent Mandarin and English. She introduced her husband, Daniel Theobald, chief innovation officer at Cambridge, Mass.-based Vecna. He addressed the rapt crowd from California via a VGo telepresence robot.

Massachusetts robotics leaders Daniel and Deborah Theobald

Daniel Theobald on a VGo telepresence robot and Deborah Theobald speak at InTeahouse event.

As a founder of MassRobotics, Daniel Theobald reiterated Ryden’s points about building and retaining businesses in New England. He also cited the need for the robotics industry to consider worker retraining.

“I’ve mentored young people and told them, ‘Get an education so that you’re not flipping hamburgers,'” he said. “But now that McDonald’s is planning to consider robots, they’ll have to do something else.”

“There’s no question that automation is needed for competitiveness,” Theobald said. “But we need to set a good example and use robots to help humans be more human, do more engaging things.”

“Engineers need to remember that they’re designing for others,” he noted. “They should focus on actual problems and end-user needs.”

More on Chinese and Massachusetts Robotics:

‘Waiting for clarity’

Building entrepreneurial bonds and applying robotics to new uses will face some challenges in the coming year, observed Richard Cheng, vice president of CCB International Holdings.

“In 2017, outbound M&As [Chinese mergers and acquisitions] will slow from their pace in 2015 and 2016,” he said. “They’ll be waiting for clarity, so the approval duration from corporate bankers in Beijing will be longer.”

Some of the uncertainty is in response to Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president and his subsequent statements about trade and relations with China.

Massachusetts robotics companies — and the global robotics industry as a whole — can’t wait for long, however. As several attendees noted, the demand for industrial automation, healthcare systems, and service robots makes China an appealing market for U.S. companies.