If you had the financial freedom to do what you want in life, what would you choose to do? Esben Østergaard started asking himself that very question late in 2018.
He had helped grow the nascent collaborative robotics market by founding Universal Robots (UR) in 2003. The Danish company has become the market leader by focusing on robot arms that are easy to set up and program, can be deployed flexibly, and are relatively safe to operate around people.
Østergaard made a fortune when Teradyne acquired UR in May 2015 for $350 million. He took part of the money he made from that sale and re-invested it into Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR), another Danish company that has developed autonomous mobile robots. About three years later, Teradyne acquired MiR for $272 million.
Østergaard receives recognition, then steps away
Østergaard was named a winner of the 2018 Engelberger Robotics Award. Known as the “Nobel Prize of robotics,” the Robotic Industries Association has bestowed the award upon 126 robotics experts from 17 nations since its inception in 1977. Østergaard was recognized for spearheading the development of the UR cobot arms. UR has now sold more than 40,000 units worldwide.
He remained with UR until March 2019, when he stepped down. Østergaard said at the time, “At some point, you also have to say that if you want to try something new in life; maybe now is the right time for me.”
It didn’t take him long to figure out what to do next. His wife, Richa Misri, helped.
“On Christmas Eve in 2018, my wife and I were home alone. No kids, no family. We had a simple Christmas meal,” he recalled. “She prepared a PowerPoint for me about the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. She said, ‘We have the freedom to do whatever we want now,’ and asked what we could do to make the world a better place.”
In April 2019, Østergaard and Misri founded REInvest Robotics, an accelerator platform that provides advice, guidance, and angel funding to robotics startups. It invests for profit in companies that are aligned with the UN goals. Half of its returns from this are then re-invested in not-for-profit activities also aligned with the UN goals.
REInvest Robotics helping humanity through robotics
REInvest Robotics wants to work with forward-looking robotics startups that, like its founders, believe the future is bright because humans can use machines to solve challenges ranging from the simple to the complex.
Odense, Denmark-based Farmdroid is developing an autonomous lightweight ground robot that automates sowing and weed removal on agricultural land. This means crops are grown organically, with carbon-neutral methods, and without damage to the soil’s microstructure.
“Farmers use lots of herbicides, and that’s not great for anything,” Østergaard said. “If we can avoid that, it’s a good thing.”
Tutobo is a startup in Athens, Greece, that supplies robot toys to teach children how to code using storytelling and gamification.
“Education is the key to the future,” Østergaard said. “If we can improve education, it’s a good way to make the world a better place. But education is not my core competency. My core competency is robotics. It’s probably best for me to help the world through robotics.”
Setting course for the future
Besides his work through REInvest Robotics, Østergaard is a board member of Odense Robotics, a world-leading robotics cluster that is home to more than 130 companies and more than 3,600 employees. He is also a board member at EffiMat Storage Technology A/S, a Danish logistics and supply chain specialist, drone software company Lorenz Technology, and The Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Institute
In addition, Østergaard continues to work with the Danish government to formulate its first national robotics strategy, which was announced earlier this week.
“Robotics is on a similar trajectory to what the IT industry went through the last 30 to 50 years,” Østergaard said. “Robotics is coming-out of super-controlled environments and being spread out into new areas outside manufacturing, including construction, logistics, and agriculture.”
Østergaard admitted he has thought about what his identity would be without UR and MiR. Safe to say, he has found his footing with REInvest Robotics.
“I am completely convinced humankind will improve if we accelerate robotics in the right way,” he stressed. “People are afraid of technology and change, but technology has improved humankind throughout history — lowering infant mortality rates, curing diseases, even going to the supermarket is better than in the olden days.
“New tech will disrupt jobs, but there will be jobs that people never dreamed about. Some of the best paid jobs today would not be recognizable as jobs 200 years ago. Imagine an 1800s farmer looking at people ‘working’ at Google. We need to deal with all the bumps and people who are negatively affected, but the bigger picture is that it’s for the better.”