Denmark-based Blue Ocean Robotics today announced it will acquire Suitable Technologies, makers of the Beam telepresence robots, for an undisclosed amount. The execution of the agreement is subject to a formal approval in the U.S., the company said in a statement.
Blue Ocean, known as the “Robot Venture Factory”, was already a partner of Suitable for more than five years, acting as a reseller of the Beam robots in Europe and other parts of the world. Claus Risager, CEO of Blue Ocean, said customer demand for Beam robots was one of the reasons for the acquisition.
“Beam has turned out to add an incredible amount of value to our customers delivering benefits such as reducing transport costs and CO2 emissions while also improving social relationships with better, faster and more frequent communications between people,” said Risager. “This has resulted in numerous customers coming back time and again to have more robots installed as Beam can be used in such a wide range of scenarios. The revenue growth and market potential prompted us to move forward from partner to acquire the entire business.”
The Beam Presence technology lets users to be present and interact naturally from anywhere in the world through high-quality, lifelike audio and video, the company said. Users can connect into a remote location and have a presence there via display, camera and microphone placed on wheels that the user can physically navigate around, while also receiving a live video stream from the remote location as it is being explored.
Beam was involved with many high-profile uses of the technology, including:
Being the first telepresence robot to visit the White House, enabling then-President Barack Obama to meet the founder and project coordinator of the Disability and Visibility Project, Alice Wong, on the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- Assisted Microsoft Research to optimize the day-to-day operations across geographically dispersed engineering teams.
- Enabled VMware employees to work from home 2-3 days per week while maintaining visibility and connection with the corporate office.
- Enabled Michigan State University to provide virtual students with authentic on-campus presence.
New strategy, opportunities
The new agreement will allow Blue Ocean Robotics to integrate Beam into other robotics projects supported by the company. As a “robot venture factory”, Blue Ocean acts as an umbrella group for individual robotic subsidiaries, which are then responsible for their own sales, marketing, customer support and other commercial activities. For each of these subsidiaries, the end goal is to have them eventually exit and run on their own. Blue Ocean said that Suitable will now be known as Beam Robots ApS, to help manage the global sales of the robots.
Risager admitted the acquisition was a different strategy for the company, which up until now developed its robotics projects internally and worked with strategic partners. “[The acquisition] is clearly part of the overall strategy, but I admit that acquiring Beam is a different way of working than what we normally do,” said Risager in an interview with Robotics Business Review. “All of our other robots have teleoperation features within them. We already have in our toolbox technologies to do the remote presence or teleoperated function of the robot. We could see that in acquiring the Beam, we would be very fit for making the next generation of the Beams because we already have a lot of the tools we need for that.”
Risager said the company will be working on ideas and options for the Beam, including finding ways to reduce the cost of the robots, but also exploring features such as changing the way that users drive the robots around, or manipulation, and tracking objects that the robot sees for better interaction. “Actually we have a whole pile of ideas from customers that said, ‘If the robot could do this, they could use it for that,’ ” said Risager. “We have analyzed the potential markets and many opportunities, but we’ve not yet decided what we’re going to build for the next generation. But many of them we can already build with the technologies we have.”
The acquisition will also allow Blue Ocean to expand its sales of the Beam robots worldwide, including expanding in the U.S. Risager also said that healthcare and hospital clients who use the UVD Robot disinfectant robots have also expressed interest in purchasing Beam robots, giving the company additional revenue and value-add opportunities.
He admitted that several challenges remain for larger adoption of telepresence robots, including the perception by many customers that telepresence can be accomplished with a smartphone and Skype or Facetime. Risager said potential customers need to experience the robots and its added mobility features to truly appreciate the benefits of the technology.
“They don’t get it before they actually drive around with it and meet people in the office, or in the supermarket, or whatever they’re doing with it,” said Risager. “That’s what you really need – it’s all about getting that device into the hands of people.”
One of the areas that Blue Ocean has seen success in reselling the Beam has been in manufacturing space with safety inspections. “If you have a larger company with different locations and you have a safety department where they go out and check the change of machinery or make sure that new machines are integrated in a safe way, the normal practice is that you buy a ticket and fly out to the location, stay in a hotel, use taxis, etc.,” said Risager. “Now, they are deploying the Beams, putting the Beams into the factories, they connect through the Beams, they go down to the machinery and talk to the people there. They inspect, check and approve, and save tons of CO2 but also a lot of time. That is just one application out of dozens of industrial applications.”
Scott Hassan, CEO of Suitable Technologies, was the founder of the Willow Garage robotics research lab and technology incubator. Willow Garage shut down in early 2014, with most of its employees retained by Suitable Technologies. In a statement, Hassan said he was “confident that Blue Ocean Robotics has the commitment, knowhow, and passion to support current Beam customers, acquire new customers, and build the business into new areas.”