September 01, 2015      

Robotics Business Review recently sat down with Daniel Theobald, CEO of Vecna Technologies Inc., to continue our conversation regarding the MassRobotics incubator effort and how universities might miss out on STEM education to employers.

MassRobotics, an initiative to encourage robotics development and use in Massachusetts, is collaborating with the state government to catalyze the robotics industry in the same way that the biotech industry was jump-started in the 2000s.

“It’s an educational process. Of course, the government has a responsibility to invest tax dollars wisely,” said Theobald, who serves on the MassRobotics board of directors. Tom Hopcroft, CEO of the Mass Technology Leadership Council (MassTLC) and another member of the MassRobotics board, said he believes that robotics is important to growing industry and jobs.

“Building upon regional strengths, MassRobotics will serve as both a robotics company accelerator and a feeder mechanism supporting other key assets in our broader regional robotics infrastructure: the NERVE Center at UMass Lowell, the UAV test site at Joint Air Base Cape Cod, underwater testing at Woods Hole, and the potential interoperability test site at Devens,” Hopcroft said.

To help the robotics community as MassRobotics is spinning up, Vecna has offered month-to-month office space and machine-shop services at cost. Contact [email protected] for more information.

“It’s not really about the robotics industry — it’s about onshoring jobs and ensuring that we have the most productive workers in the world,” Theobald said. “The goal is to increase the prosperity of every segment of the commonwealth, and automation is what is going to allow that to happen.”

“The only way for U.S. industry to stay competitive is with automation,” he said. “We want to benefit not just robotics, but also manufacturing, textiles, healthcare, and biotech — it cuts across all industries. These industries go where costs are competitive.”

“There’s an opportunity in Massachusetts to set the pace,” Theobald said. “On the flip side, if we don’t step up to the challenge of global competition, we’ll miss out. University of Maryland Professor S.K. Gupta noted in his blog that South Korea understands the necessary conditions for success.”

Colin Angle has thrown iRobot’s support behind the initiative. “iRobot will provide mentoring to engineers, entrepreneurs and designers, advising them of the pitfalls and challenges of robot development — difficult lessons that iRobot learned in its 25-year history,” said the company’s founder and CEO.

“As part of our corporate STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] program, we will make available our employees to serve a significant amount of time as ‘robot ambassadors,’ demonstrating the fun and excitement of STEM to students of all ages,” Angle said. “We are enthusiastic about MassRobotics because we believe a stronger robotics cluster is key to helping us grow our business in Massachusetts.”

A plan for robotics in Massachusetts

Daniela Rus, an MIT computer scientist and a MassRobotics board member, said that “Massachusetts is already the place that sets the pace for inventing and building robots. Massachusetts should also set the pace for using robots.”

Timothy Rowe’s Cambridge Innovation Center is a prototype for part of the MassRobotics model, said Theobald. “The model is to provide a shared workspace and shared resources for startups,” he said. “The rent may seem high, but so is the access to supporting infrastructure and shared space. When you actually do the math, you come out way ahead at CIC rather than leasing and outfitting your own space.”

“CIC firmly believes that MassRobotics is a strategically important piece of the regional Massachusetts innovation infrastructure,” said Rowe.

Risk of educational collapse
“The U.S. shouldn’t rest on its laurels,” Theobald said. “There is a huge unacknowledged risk. The university system is on the verge of a significant disruption, particularly in technical majors, where the technology changes so quickly that many are questioning the value of a traditional university education — especially given the ever-increasing cost.”

“Higher education is becoming too expensive, and technological changes are coming too fast,” he said. “The argument that colleges are teaching students how to learn is becoming less convincing as many companies are starting to hire hotshot software engineers right out of high school.”

“We used to recruit college juniors or seniors for internships, but we’re already recruiting freshmen now,” Theobald said. “I don’t like the idea of skipping college, and I certainly want my children to get a university degree, but it is a trend that is caused in part by the U.S. not educating enough engineers.”

“A small number of people choosing alternatives seems to be starting a ripple effect that could lead to a devaluation of traditional higher-education approaches, especially with open courseware and notable employers starting to offer their own degree programs while you work,” he said. “The most talented are more frequently choosing an early career path that doesn’t include a university, and they don’t tend to go into research.”

“If you’re a student or parent looking at taking on lots of debt over four or five years and still having to look for a job by the end of college versus jumping in to the tech market now and starting to make a great salary immediately, which would you choose? It gets hard to resist at a certain point,” Theobald said.

STEM education is a core tenet of MassRobotics. The hope is to help to reverse this trend and get more people interested in technical careers to meet the ever-increasing demand, Theobald said.