Unbounded Robotics, an RBR50 company and one of the most promising robotics startups, is shutting down. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company was known for the UBR-1 service robot, which is no longer for sale.
IEEE Spectrum first reported news of the shutdown, and Robotics Business Review has since confirmed it with Unbounded’s PR agency and a source (which will not be named) who received the following email from Unbounded CEO Melonee Wise:
“Unfortunately Unbounded Robotics is in the process of shutting down due to issues with our Willow Garage spin off agreement that prevents us from raising series A investment. Unbounded Robotics is no longer selling the UBR-1.”
Attempts to reach Wise and Unbounded for further comment have been unsuccessful.
Without hearing from Unbounded, it’s hard to know exactly what happened. Based on the email from Wise, Andrew Keisner, an associate in the Intellectual Property and Litigation Practice Groups of Davis & Gilbert, says the shutdown could be a result of a number of legal reasons. However, he says, it highlights the importance of spin-offs properly negotiating the terms of their agreement so that those terms are something they can live with both in the good times and the bad, the short term and long term.
“That goes for both spin-offs from existing companies, as well as spin-offs from universities. Both companies and universities can present groups considering the formation of a spin-off with fairly one-sided terms, especially when it comes to the terms regarding ownership and/or licensing of critical IP.
“A lot of spin-offs don?t want to spend the money or time negotiating such agreements, and often don?t recognize that such agreements can often be negotiated in a way that is acceptable to the company/university while still giving the spin-off a greater chance of success.
“But an equally major flaw when accepting the terms of an agreement allowing a spin-off to use IP is only thinking about how it will work for the spin-off while times are good because, even for the most successful companies, there are always challenges.”
A Promising Robotics Startup
Unbounded was well-respected by the robotics community and investors. In Oct. 2013, Unbounded, not even a year old at the time, won the Pitchfire competition for startups at RoboBusiness 2013, beating out 14 competitors. After winning the event, Wise was ecstatic about the future of Unbounded, rightfully so, saying, “Our Pitchfire win was a validation that we have a good business plan.”
Unbounded Robotics at RoboBusiness 2013.
The company seemed to be moving forward. On April 17, 2014, Unbounded announced the UBR-1 pro model was available for purchase at $50,000, with the goal of shipping to customers in the United States, Canada and Mexico by late August.
In that same announcement, Unbounded said it was “seeking distribution relationships in Asia, Australia, and Europe.” And on June 4, 2014, it signed an agreement with Robotnik, one of Europe?s leading robot product development and R&D companies, to distribute the UBR-1 throughout Europe.
“Since we began taking orders for the UBR-1 in mid-April, we have been in negotiations to secure a distribution channel for Europe and we couldn?t be more pleased to have come to that agreement with Robotnik,” Unbounded wrote on its blog.
Strong Ties to Willow Garage
Unbounded?s connection to Willow Garage was strong, as it is one of numerous for-profit and non-profit companies that spun out of the latter, a privately-funded entity launched by Scott Hassan of Google fame.
All four founders of Unbounded were Willow Garage alumni, with Wise having been Willow Garage?s second employee, where she was manager of robot development, heading a team of engineers developing next-generation robot hardware.
Wise wrote the first real-time controllers for Willow’s PR2 and was part of small teams that wrote several high level applications for the robot. She also was a core team member of the open-source Robot Operating System (ROS), responsible for maintaining and supporting the core drivers, community tools and ROS tutorials.
The Unbounded team had great expectations for the UBR-1. “We hope to push the robotics revolution ahead by democratizing the robot,” Wise said after winning the Pitchfire event. “Now you either have to build your own robot or buy a high-end robot. We want to enable everyone to be able to create applications. It is a little like the idea behind the iPhone without any third-party apps. You won?t have to be a roboticist to have your own unique robot.?