Let?s start with the second day and then backtrack to the first day.
RoboBusiness Europe 2013
Day Two: Friday, April 12:
If the combined Lavante & Potente Rooms had an applause meter on the wall, the needle would have maxed out the decibel level during day two of RoboBusiness Europe.
Day two, entirely devoted to investment and financing of robotics was a big hit that packed in roboticists, systems developers, entrepreneurs, start-ups and academics who were all looking for the same news: hopefully good news about upcoming financial opportunities from people who invest in robotics for a living every day. They got it.
RoboBusiness Europe dished out a day of:
- Business Development & Investment
- Roundtable: Funding Robotics: The Investment Community Speaks
I chaired both sessions and had a ringside seat to the goings-on.
No illusions: real perspectives, the real deal?both joyful and sobering
Money, especially the anticipation of good news about money, has a way of filling a room with attentive listeners, anxious to hear what money people think of the robotics revolution, what kinds of robots and robotic systems they see as winners, and most of all, if, when and how each VC, angel or other investor will pony up real money to finance real opportunities
Although everyone in the room wanted to hear great news about money, no one wanted sugar-coated platitudes on the glory of the robot revolution or hollow, waffling speeches that burnt up time and served up drivel. They got neither; they got the real deal. Everyone was grateful.
Roboticist, Giorgio Metta, former iRobot engineer and now iCub developer at the nearby Italian Institute of Technology, said, a bit apprehensively before things got underway, that he?d worked in robotics the whole of his adult life?loved them since he was small boy?and was now hopeful at long last that an easing of investment capital was close at hand. ?We need it, but I?ll know better after today.?
During the roundtable, Metta would find himself sitting with four investors; he was purposely placed there to be the voice of robotics and to probe the group with his own question set, if the Q&A from attendees missed something important and relevant. He was looking forward to the experience.
Unlike 7AM breakfast meetings in the U.S., this one started at a decent time: 9:30. Halleluiah.
Outside of the room was a breakfast nosh of buttered crostini, orange juice, and a pleasant, white-aproned guy who doled out teeny plastic cups of espresso. I could get very used to this style of meeting.
By 9:45 the room was packed with a pan-European audience, mostly young, but with a moderate influence of gray heads in attendance. Women were there but few. All were raring to go.
Keynoters set the tone for the day
The morning began with four keynote presentations from four very bright and knowledgeable individuals whose backgrounds the audience full of robotics folks knew well and appreciated being there.
Renaud Champion, co-founder and partner in the robotics-only investment fund, Robolution Capital (the name derived from robotics and revolution), and executive director of Syrobo, the French personal robotics trade association. His theme was: Investing in disruptive technologies.
Jan Westerhues, investment partner with Germany?s Robert Bosch Investment Fund. His theme was: Investable companies in robotics.
Girogio Karaghiosoff, roboticist and general director at his own Studio Karaghiosoff and Frizzi, Srl (Srl is Italian for a limited liability company) dealing with intellectual property (IP) protection, planning and management. His theme was: IP, an innovative business tool.
Libor Kral, soft-spoken and evenly pacing himself, went through a set of financial slides that showed the EC?s investment in the 7th Framework since 2006 at ?53B ($69B); ?600M ($774M) for robotics, which he said marked it as the largest civilian R&D robotics program in the world; he couched that a bit by mentioning that the Koreans had an equally sizeable program as well.
Although Kral?s keynote was well-known stuff to the attendees, it was with his Q&A session that things got very interesting. When he had concluded his presentation, a hand immediately shot up from an attendee asking what the EC?s budget would be for Horizon 2020 (2014-2020).
Kral replied that was something he had been carefully trying to avoid, furthering that the European Parliament had recently rejected the request for ?80B for Horizon 2020 and that the final budget would probably come in somewhere south of ?70B but more than that for the 7th Framework. Then he dropped the bombshell.
With the attendees still abuzz from his budget admission, he added that the EC?s new PPP or Private-Public Partnership program would fund robotics commercializations at 70 percent plus 100 percent of the overhead; the private party would be only responsible for 30 percent.
Jaws dropped around the room, especially from some of the money people present. One told me later that such a plan was a double-edged sword sure to finance lots of robotic junk as well as great machines. But he concluded with a shrug, what?s the European Union to do? it?s time for some major chance taking. Europe?s got to do something?and now!
The attendees were electric with the news. I asked Giorgio Metta if this is what he meant by ?I?ll know better after today.? He smiled a very broad yes. This was decidedly good news at which the audience sent the applause meter spiking way up.
The passionate one
Tall, lean and Gallic-looking, Renaud Champion (got to like that last name; he told me many people remark about it), got up and put on a one-man tour de force that sent the applause meter off the dial. Interestingly, he didn?t talk about money so much as passion and making opportunities happen.
Champion immediately connected with the audience. He opened his presentation with video snippets of brontosauri munching on treetops from Jurassic Park and Kubrick?s 2001 Space Odyssey?s hairy humanoid clubbing a skeleton with a bone. The bronto, he pointed out, might have been the biggest thing around for its time, but it went nowhere; the unknown with great potential was the hairy club meister, which is what Champion and company search for and seek out from potential investments in robotics.
Robolution, specifically targeting Europe, tries to get in early and for the long term with what might possibly turn out to be ?a killer app in robotics? that ?could shape a very nice curve exponential rather than a flat curve of growth.? He urged those in the audience to go for it.
His area of preference is in domestic and professional service robotics; and Champion is an expert at evaluating disruptive technology and innovative companies. Plus, his fund sees its cap in the ?60M range, and also brings to the partnership its expertise in marketing, finance, leadership, management and IP. Got a disruptive or innovative idea, proof of concept or even a prototype? Bring it on!
If Champion had been the final speaker, I feel sure that half the room would have rushed him.
Sense and sensibility
Next up was Jan Westerhues, partner with Robert Bosch Investment Fund. Yes, one and the same with the 127-year old Robert Bosch GmbH engineering and electronics firm, which is the world?s largest supplier of automotive parts and components. In short, very big; the Investment Fund is one means for Bosch to stay that way.
Carefully excited in his view of robotics and thoroughly the realist, almost the first word from Westerhues was that of team. An innovation or disruptive technology in robotics must have a team behind it. That is not only the design, R&D and engineering team but also the planners, leaders and management, both financial and marketing, that maintains balance as the innovation moves to market.
Nodding in agreement out in the audience was Diana Saraceni, general partner in Italy?s 360 Capital Partners. She would later reemphasize the primacy of ?team? during the investor roundtable that followed the keynoters.
Westerhues was energetic in his praise of robotics and its bright future, but emphasized that a lot of money can be lost very quickly in robotics without a balanced team being in synchrony with both technology and business objectives.
As such, his investment team analyzes and reviews over two hundred businesses annually yet invests in no more than five. In light of the speakers who preceded him, Westerhues risked being the day?s wet blanket, yet he popped the applause meter almost as high as Champion.
His message was genuine and superbly delivered, and the audience showed its appreciation.
Westerhues also participated in RoboBusiness Europe?s version of speed dating, called RoboMatch, where bilateral meetings are arranged between robotics projects and potentially cooperating business or investment partners. Prospectives have twenty minutes to do their thing during a RoboMatch encounter.
Keeping watch over intellectual property
The last of the keynoters was Giorgio Karaghiosoff, Italian born but of Bulgarian heritage, a roboticist who for twenty years has plied the waters of intellectual property protection strategies.
A large, amiable man, who is the general manager and proprietor of a company that goes by Studio Karaghiosoff and Frizzi, he related his early years of building robots in Munich, some thirty years ago. It was clear to everyone that Karaghiosoff has been around robots for quite some time?and still filled with enthusiasm for the profession. That was a big positive.
Karaghiosoff talked of being creative with intellectual property (IP). In short, don?t stuff it into a coffee can and bury it away while awaiting for opportunity to arrive. It may never.
Instead, IP needs to be recognized for what it is, managed well and then used to best advantage. Maybe the IP becomes the perfect mate to another piece of IP from somewhere else that together are better as a whole than separate.
Knowing what one has in IP, awareness of its value and potential, how best to protect it and build strategies for best use scenarios are best managed by professionals like him.
It would have been nice to hear, but missing from Karaghiosoff?s keynote, were a couple of quick thumbnails of IP that had erred and succeeded, and why.
The main point, however, was well crafted and an eye-opener: IP, strange as it may first appear, can be just as or maybe more important and lucrative than the technology it describes.
A chorus from the investment community speaks
After a quick coffee break of more buttered crostini and espresso, the attendees quickly regrouped and readied for the roundtable?actually a rectangular table?consisting of four individuals representing their respective investment groups. Here?s where the roboticist, Giorgio Metta, got to sit in and participate.
- Matteo Bonfanti, senior analyst from the investment firm, Fondamenta Srl
- Diana Saraceni, general partner 360 Capital Partners
- Giuseppe Prisco, CEO, MEDra Srl; director of Italian Angels for Growth
- Enrico Pittaluga, partner, Italian Business Angels Network
- Giorgia Metta, roboticist, Italian Institute of Technology
First question posed to the group was to offer their general assessment of the robotics revolution: is robotics here with us and surging; still a long ways away; or arriving quickly but with a clouded vision? To a person, each said that the revolution is here now but what exactly to do with it needs more clarification.
Subsequent questions dealt with top mistakes made by start-ups early on and how best to avoid them; what criteria investor?s use to vet potential investments; what are the prime ingredients for success; core competencies and competitive advantages a start-up needs in order to get an investment; and will electronics or mechatronics lead the way?
In general, two distinct sides emerged from the chorus: the views of Bonfanti, Saraceni and Pittulaga fell distinctly on the side of what Westerhues put forward; the dissenter in the group, Prisco, fell in line with Champion?s take on investment strategies.
The resulting Q&A that followed from the attendees was respectful of both views, and quite frankly, they looked in a bit of a quandary as to a true course.
Does it all come down to individual circumstances like the maturity of the new technology? Must it take the form of a distinct and well-formed plan or can scribbles on a napkin get the necessary cash?
The pure investment types would demand a plan or say, get lost. On the other hand, Prisco, also an engineer (twelve years stateside working for Adept Technology and Intuitive Surgical), would gladly encourage and accept a great idea on a napkin. Renaud Champion seemed to like that as well.
Lots to think about
The attendees had been presented with lots of quality ideas and alternatives to think about and digest. When the meeting broke for a networking lunch, knots of people quickly formed around the room, some headed for the keynote speakers and still others just sat looking forward deep in thought.
One thing everyone realized is that robotics is here for sure and is on the move. The reaffirmation and anticipation of that reality was freeing for most. It?s not dreams any longer, it?s time for action. For now, that seemed to be enough.
RoboBusiness Europe 2014
The concluding few minutes of the day were all about the announcement that next year, 2014, RoboBusiness Europe will return.
So, keep a suitcase packed and the RoboBusiness Europe website a daily excursion for your cursor. Horizon 2020 begins in January 2014, and the 2014 edition of RoboBusiness Europe right on its heels.
See next: RoboBusiness Europe 2013, Day One: Friday, April 11