Company Name: Grabit Inc.
Founder: Charlie Duncheon and Dr Harsha Prahlad
Principals: Robert Roy, VP of Engineering Marcy Alstott, VP of Manufacturing
Contact: Lindsay Wahler, [email protected]
Why Grabit was founded: Automated material and product handling is an increasing part of the supply chain for every product, from commercial retail purchasing to industrial manufacturing. There?s growing demand for more flexible, gentler gripping technologies. When researchers at SRI approached Charlie Duncheon about opportunities to commercialize a new electrostatic adhesion technology, he saw a huge potential and jumped at the chance.
Product: Electroadhesive grippers and conveyer belts; list products and pricing expected in 2014.
Available: First production grippers are expected to be commercially available by mid-2014, with two early customers receiving product a few months earlier.
What it is: An electroadhesion gripping technology that uses a compliant polymer surface to enable low-energy, scratch- and smudge-free handling of diverse products and materials.
Market niche: Logistics and material handling
Funding: $6 million Series A round, with four participants. Round was led by Formation 8, with ABB?s venture arm and Nike making strategic investments, as well. The fourth, undisclosed investor has ?strong industry and government connections in Singapore.? Industry partnerships: Grabit emerged from research at SRI. Currently, the company has not disclosed any of its partnerships, though to date it is focusing on OEMs and customers, rather than industry partnerships.
RBR’s Take: Electrostatic adhesion isn?t a new technology in the world of industrial automation. It?s long been used in the semiconductor industry to handle fragile silicon wafers throughout the production process. But in 2010, researchers at SRI International discovered how to print a circuit on a flexible polymer material; with a tiny amount of current applied, the positive and negative electrodes on the surface are activated, creating an electric field that exerts a force on nearby objects. Charlie Duncheon, an industrial automation veteran hired to evaluate the new approach, saw a sizeable opportunity in the new, low-cost approach. Grabit, formed by Duncheon and Dr. Harsha Prahlad in 2011, provides flexible, electroadhesive grippers and industrial conveyers that enable safer handling of a variety of products and materials.
With 20 patents under its belt, the company is designing systems for 15 different pilot customers. Today, they?re going after fragile glass and panel displays, porous composite materials, and textiles, all of which present challenges to traditional vacuum and mechanical grippers. Grabit has also introduced electrostatic blade grippers that can be used for box handling.
The flexible electrostatic adhesion grippers provide even force on a surface, and don?t require compression to lift items, eliminating scratches and smudges from delicate surfaces and enabling more flexibility and maneuverability.
?Electrostatic force is not something new, high risk,? Duncheon says. ?The breakthrough we have is doing it in a compliant manner with low-cost materials. Finely machined ceramics are very expensive, and hard to scale for large surface areas. We scale up at much lower cost.?
Duncheon says he believes that there?s an existing $3.3 billion market for Grabit?s technology, encompassing everything from manual assist and vacuum grippers, fork trucks, pallet lifting, industrial conveyers, and more.
Beyond that, there are new markets still emerging for the company. Over the long run, the company has the opportunity to move into online retail fulfillment and other more three-dimensional applications, where the flexible surface could enable automated handling of objects with very different shapes.
The company?s first production grippers are likely to focus on printed circuit boards, which have proved challenging to vacuum gripping systems in the past, because they vary in size and punctuated with holes.
?I think the advantage of our technology is the broad flexibility it has to allow robots to handle a wide variety of parts, and being able to do that with three-orders of magnitude less energy,? Duncheon says.