If Robulution Capital printed its own currency, Bruno Bonnell?s likeness would probably appear on every note, which would be a good thing: a well-deserved tip-of-the-hat gesture to a powerhouse of French robotics who makes things happen, which is to say that robotics?worldwide?needs more Bruno Bonnells.
When Bruno Bonnell declares that ?the transformation of our society by robots has already begun,? he?s very convincing; and it?s not just because of the passion in his voice for all things robotic or his knowledge of robotic technologies or even the time and personal energy he devotes to the cause of transformation, what he refers to as: robolution, from the obvious yoking together of robot and revolution.
He?s even written a book about it, Viva la robolution and begun a ?60-million euro ($80 million) robotics investment fund called Robolution Capital, which opened for business in January of 2012 as the first and only fund to specialize solely in robotics. Although more than admirable are his convictions and all of his putting forth in the name of robolution, the real clincher for Bonnell is the road he?s travelled since 1981?and his experiences on that trek.
During a recent interview, he recounted some of that journey and his lessons learned: he?s more than convinced that once again it?s time for another disruptive technology to sweep over society?and it?s happening right now, ?as we speak,? he emphasizes?and hardly anyone, as it was with the previous high-tech disruptions, will notice what?s happening until it?s upon us. He?s seen it before; he senses it again, and he?s ready. He?s built a system to master and exploit it, the last critical piece of which is Robolution Capital.
Three decades ago, Bonnell experienced his first high-tech road, the computer revolution, helping to introduce France?s first micro-computer, the Thomson TO7, into households throughout the country. When sales lagged because people failed to see any use for the new machine, he says he wrote a book called, The computer at home: what for? The book?together with lots of government TO7 purchases for the public schools got the revolution up to speed in France.
People, mainly kids, soon found out that one of the things you could do with a computer was to play games on it. Bonnell soon was trekking over the nascent video games road, founding Infogrames (later renamed Atari) and growing it through multiple acquisitions into a multi-national video game empire. Then his game empire caught sight of the mother of all game distribution systems, the Internet, and Bonnell was soon co-founding France?s first ISP (Internet Service Provider) Infonie.
Three waves of disruptive technologies later
Three waves of disruptive technologies later, he?s learned a lot along the way. The journey sharpened his entrepreneurial feel for what was about to ramp up next in the high-tech arena and also honed a few important business skills like design, development, production, promotion, sales and distribution. He?s also a trained chemical engineer and earned a degree in economics from Universite Paris IX, all of which helped him to pick up the scent of the next, newest disruptive technology?robotics, specifically, personal robotics.
By 2006, he was president and CEO of Europe?s largest service robot distributor, Robopolis ($70 million in 2011) with 2500 distributors across the Continent and in Korea, with iRobot?s Roomba and Scooba robots its biggest sellers. Building out a sphere of influence for robotics, Bonnell founded SYROBO, the French federation of service robotics, with members ranging from research laboratories to educational institutions to serious robot developers like Gostai and Aldebaran Robotics.
With SYROBO, Bonnell gets buy-in and loyalty from the robot community, while Robopolis can readily offer anyone in that community worldwide distribution for their products. In 2011, he stamped his hometown of Lyon as the capitol of personal robotics with the debut of INNOROBO, a tradeshow that is an international robot showcase for health and medical robotics, urban robots, educational and entertainment robotics, Human Robot Interface (HRI), and Cloud robotics.
Joining the developer party in 2010, Bonnell launched his own company, Awabot, and in 2012 the company rolled out the EMOX Kit, which looks like an iRobot Roomba with side wheels and a ball on top. There the Roomba similarity ends abruptly, however. The little rolling robot is actually a fairly sophisticated robot applications and development tool.
By spring of 2012, INNOROBO?s second year saw it grow larger, more influential and a permanent fixture on the tradeshow circuit. Bonnell admits to purposefully building the system?more like an end-to-end supply chain for personal robotics?but stresses that it won?t evolve into a conglomerate for him to rule. It?s for everyone, especially for France.
In search of a level playing field
He insists that it?s what is needed to compete, citing the U.S. National Robotics Initiative as well as similar initiatives in Europe (European Robotics Initiative; European Robotics Platform (EUROP)) and Korea?s KAR. ?These national initiatives bring with them lots of money and opportunity that are difficult to match privately, if at all.? A pragmatist, he realizes that he needs to follow a different path to succeed?and he does. ?I’m a big fan of The Art of War (by Sun Tzu),? he once said in a 2004 interview with 1up.com, ?it’s my secret to success. As the book teaches, one shouldn’t fight an enemy on their strengths.? Stay decentralized, seems to be the Sun Tzu-like plan afoot here, but be ready to work together to make a push into the marketplace.
Robolution Capital was the concluding piece to his system. A much needed mechanism by which to fund the activities of select robot developers, who could then showcase their wares at INNOROBO, and if customers placed orders, Robopolis was there with the distribution muscle. Hence, Robolution Capital came into being with a bankroll of $80-million to $100-million to get the system rolling.
Robolution Capital is set up like a three-legged stool. Managing the fund is Orkos Capital, an independent private equity management company that specializes in high-tech projects. Scouting the robot landscape for potential investments is the consulting firm Primnext and its founder Renaud Champion. Champion is also a coach at EUROP?s Entrepreneurship Workshops where wannabe robot developers learn the ropes of running a business.
Champion has a ringside seat to cherry-pick potential rock stars for Robulution Capital. Primnext specializes in capital risk, modeling and yield optimization. To date, Primnext has scouted some 200 potential opportunities and pre-qualified about two dozen of them as investment possibilities. Bonnell himself is the third leg, examining people and technologies and ideas, putting pieces of this and that together in his mind, and then deciding what?s next.
Bonnell is wary of bringing to bear overly tight pre-qualifications on potential investments. ?Robotics is too new for that,? he says, contending that there are no financial models to use as a guide. Plus, he doesn?t want to squash creativity and enthusiasm with stringent financial scrutiny. He said that he was personally shocked to learn that hardly any high-tech investment groups even understood much about robotics let alone appreciated its potential and therefore were dismissive of making funding offers. With due diligence at a minimum and gut feel at maximum, he and Champion must carefully consider all comers.
Strength in numbers: small service robotics companies need an association
During a video interview at INNOROBO 2011, Bonnell stressed that service robotics is made up of small companies and that no one of them should try to do everything alone, that each should attach themselves to an association like SYROBO in order to combine strengths. Trying to go it alone with everything from OS to vision systems to mobility to manufacturing won?t work for small companies. Instead, his advice is to utilize a ?gathering of expertise,? as he called it. And that is precisely the great strength of the system that he has put into place for Robolution Capital. He now has the ability to survey potential investments and gather together the exact expertise from each that will go to benefit the whole.
In the process of picking and choosing candidates and then hand grooming the eventual investees, Bonnell is not only creating a greater chance for success for each company but also upping the chances of a heady profit yield per investment for Robolution Capital?s own financial backers, if he picks correctly.