February 17, 2017      

Silicon Valley might be the best known regional hub for innovation and high-tech, but it has no shortage of competition in the U.S. or worldwide. Boston startups now have another reason to consider staying in Massachusetts, which counts MIT and more than 150 robotics companies among its residents.

Nonprofit MassRobotics, which initially considered space in Cambridge, Mass., and elsewhere, today officially opened its Shared Robotics Innovation Space in Boston’s Seaport Innovation District. The fifth floor of a renovated industrial building includes six offices and “hot desks on demand,” plus shared laboratories, meeting rooms, and a kitchen.

In addition to 8-ft. rented lab benches and shared electronics equipment, there is also a machine shop that can be reserved. It will include CNC, a lathe, a laser cutter, and 3D printers, as well as specialist support from sponsors for training and safety.

Startups are welcome at MassRobotics' shared workspace.

Tom Ryden welcomes people to MassRobotics’ shared space for robotics startups.

“The building, which can host everything from drones to self-driving cars, is a perfect location to help build the premier hub of robotics development in the country,” said Thomas Ryden, founder of VGo Communications Inc. (now owned by Vecna Technologies Inc.) and executive director of MassRobotics.

“We also have a full loading dock and elevators that have 12,000-lb. capacity,” he said.

Boston startups start to move in

The tenants of the MassRobotics co-working space so far include a diverse range of organizations, some of which are just emerging from “stealth mode.”

American Robotics Inc.

American Robotics has been working on cloud-connected drones for precision agriculture. It was founded by alumni from Carnegie Mellon and Stanford universities and is working to combine autonomous data collection and analytics.

Chief Technology Officer Vijay Somandepalli noted that gathering and acting on the data from mobile sensors in real time is one expression of the industrial Internet of Things also emerging in factories and warehouses. American Robotics is looking for partners as it begins testing its products, and it’s also watching the European agricultural market, which has been more open to automation than the U.S. one.

Brain Robotics Capital

Brain Robotics Capital is a managing partner of MassRobotics and has another office in the same building. It is starting a new venture fund for robotics, artificial intelligence, and big data.

In addition, the firm has worked with social robot maker Jibo Inc. and its Chinese partner.

Hurdler Motors Inc.

Hurdler Motors was among the first Boston startups to set up shop in the new space, according to President Michael Goren. He moved from Schenectady, N.Y., and is working on personal mobility and electric vehicles.

“We’re working on last-mile delivery vehicles and single-passenger autonomous indoor/outdoor robotic vehicles,” he said. “We’re looking at eliminating the accessibility problems of the central city and human-scale assistance.”

Goren described the Climbmobile as a legged robot that can provide greater mobility than a wheelchair and can actually carry a person up a flight of stairs.

Square Robot Inc.

Square Robot founder William O’Halloran previously worked at BlueFin Robotics before it was acquired by defense supplier General Dynamics. His team is working on a product for infrastructure inspection in “subsea and GPS-denied environments” for the oil and gas industry.

Critical infrastructure inspection is a growth area for drone and robotics usage, said Brendan Gibbons, senior software engineer and co-founder of Square Robot.

U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory

The military isn’t really a Boston startup, but it does have an office in the space with the intent of participating in the local robotics community.

The laboratory is interested in conducting pure research and wants to collaborate with New England robotics firms, said Charlene Stokes, a research psychologist at the Air Force’s Human Machine Social Systems (HMSS) Program.

“We’re interested in advancing the commercial sector through fundamental research and advances,” she said.

The office is more interested in working with robotics innovators than in federal contracts or procurement issues, Marissa McCoy, director of business development and partnerships at the lab, told Robotics Business Review.

Helping hands for Boston startups and robotics

Arrow Electronics is a sponsor of the shared space and co-hosted a preview event with the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council (MassTLC) last month. The Centennial, Colo.-based company provides design, global supply chain, and other technology services.

Boston startups can rent benches in MassRobotics' space.

The Shared Robotics Innovation Space includes lab benches and prototyping assistance.

The $24 billion business is providing participating startups with preferred access to its CAD, PLM, and other software, as well as to 24-hour tech support, according to General Manager Howie Porter.

“Our goal is to help companies scale up and provide a level of service that’s a differentiator,” he said.

A neighbor that robotics startups could find helpful is New Valence Robotics, or NVBots. It has developed what it calls “the world’s first fully automated cloud 3D printing management platform.” The company can 3D-print materials including metals and produces manufacturing management software and cloud-based drivers.

This enables more tailored and flexible processes, said A.J. Perez, founder and chairman of NVBots. He showed a metal golf putter head that was printed in only six minutes. Like Brain Robotics, NVBots is in the same building, and Perez offered tours of his facilities to any visitors to the MassRobotics space.

The Shared Robotics Innovation Space is in the part of Boston where nuTonomy is allowed to test self-driving cars. It’s too close to Logan International Airport for outdoor testing of aerial drones, but Ryden said, “We’re actively exploring indoor possibilities and other locations.”

Other companies in the local robotics ecosystem that are supporting MassRobotics include Amazon Robotics (formerly Kiva Systems), Autodesk, iRobot, Locus Robotics, Rethink Robotics, and Vecna. In addition, other partners include Panasonic, Liberty Mutual, and the Mass Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

Expansion goals

The Shared Robotics Innovation Space “is affordable for startups, compared with other space in Boston or Cambridge,” said Joyce Sidopoulos, co-founder of MassRobotics.

MassRobotics co-founders

Co-founders of MassRobotics (not shown: Vecna CTO Daniel Theobald).

MassRobotics is still actively looking for partners and sponsors to help outfit its own larger second-floor area with 25,000 square feet to ultimately host more than 30 Boston startups, said Ryden. The current “alpha” space has a total of 14,000 square feet.

“We’re looking for feedback from the community on what would be useful,” he added. “We’re not an incubator, but we are providing shared infrastructure and prototyping facilities toward commercialization.”

MassRobotics is among the collaborators in the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute, along with MIT, Northeastern University, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

The $250 million ARM initiative is a public-private partnership between industry, government, and academia intended to develop robotics for manufacturing and defense through standards and testing protocols.

The state of Massachusetts also recently awarded a $5 million grant for workforce development and training.

“It’s nice to see parts of the government recognize that robotics can create high-skilled, well-paying jobs rather than take them,” Ryden said. “Underemployment is a big issue. With robotics and cobots, people are more efficient, and their value goes up.”

Robotics companies in Massachusetts employ 4,700 people and generated $1.6 billion in revenue in 2015, according to the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

Drawing regional and international interest

MassRobotics has received help from the state of Massachusetts and the city of Boston for its shared space, but it has also found interest from farther afield. Representatives from the British consulate and the Bavarian U.S. Offices for Economic Development, Chinese investors, and a South Korean agency running a questionnaire were among the attendees at last month’s event.

In addition, Fady Saad, MassRobotics co-founder and director of partnerships, recently visited Chile. “I met key government and industry leaders who are very interested to utilize the robotics critical mass in MassRobotics cluster to further develop the mining industry,” he said.

“We want partners who will work with us to shape and lead the robotics and AI industries, not only in the U.S., but also worldwide,” Saad said. “We’ve hosted delegations from Ireland, Mexico, and China, among others.”