Reporting from New York, America’s novel COVID-19 hotspot, provides little comfort. In between moments of quiet anxiety, there are bright spots – family time, personal reflection, and Gov. Cuomo’s daily briefings. As a robot enthusiast, I have some advice for our state’s Winston Churchill – deploy robots to offset critical workers. New York City is currently calling up 40,000 formerly retired healthcare professionals to augment its current hospital staff. In other places, such as China and South Korea, administrators have used robots for sanitation, deliveries, and even patient examinations.
As The Robot Report has noted, Blue Ocean Robotics’ UVD Robots ApS spinoff has shipped 2,000 units of its mobile disinfection robot, to China to combat COVID-19. Recently, I caught up with Claus Risager, founder and CEO of Blue Ocean, to discuss how business has been affected by the global pandemic.
Robotics ‘venture factory’
The Danish roboticist has been on the forefront of mechatronic innovation since the late 1980s. Founding the company in 2013, Risager set out “to develop mobile robots that are tailor made to specific service applications in healthcare, hospitality, construction and agriculture.”
I first met the Blue Ocean team when it approached my portfolio company, Que Innovations, for autism therapy devices. Since then, I have seen the Nordic startup take a leading role in shaping robotics worldwide.
“The company is a ‘robot venture factory,’ in the sense that we have a portfolio of robots each marketed under its unique brand name,” said Risager. “Today, we have UVD Robots, Beam Robots, and PTR Robots in our portfolio.”
Risager also promotes “robotic entrepreneurship,” by cycling best practices and reusing components to commercialize new innovations.
“We have been able to streamline the process of going from an idea, through design, development and commercialization all the way to scale up and doing so in a way which is better, faster and more cost effective than others due to the reuse of well-proven components,” he explained. “Thus, the capital it takes, the risks and the time it takes are significantly reduced. Today, our robots are sold in approximately 50 countries around the world, and we are present in the Americas, Europe, and Asian-Pacific regions.”
Telepresence likely to persist
Last August, Blue Ocean acquired the assets of telepresence leader Beam from Suitable Technologies in the U.S. This game-changing deal expanded Risager’s market share in the remote office and telehealth space, especially now during the present health crisis.
As of the middle of last month, 58% of America’s knowledge workers were using online video tools and telepresence applications to maintain employee productivity. By contrast, in 2018, only 5.3% of Americans worked from home.
Analysts predict that the current uptick will spill over to the robot telepresence market that was previously estimated (pre-pandemic) to grow to over $300 million by 2023. Based upon post-COVID-19 adoption, it could be as much as 10 times the original projections.
For instance, telehealth is fast becoming the first line of treatment against the novel corona virus, accelerating the demand for Beam’s products. While sales figures are undisclosed, Research and Markets formerly estimated that medical use cases would climb to $100 billion by 2024.
Risager is keeping his team focused on the long term, regardless of the SARS-CoV-2 bump: “The telepresence robots have been shown to mainly address three major value propositions: 1) infection prevention simply because people can interact but being on a physical distance; 2) social inclusion as the robots enables in a very simple and easy way for people to be together in ways they would otherwise not be able to; and 3) climate change as the robots enable people to work together on a distance and thus reduce travel and CO2 emissions.”
“In short, the telepresence robots change the way business is done and how people interact in general,” he said.
Mobile robots roll onward and upward
As personal protection equipment (PPE) is becoming increasingly more scarce, Risager claims that his fleet of disinfecting robots could be part of the solution. “Over the last six years, we have been working with bacteriological and virological specialists from local Danish hospitals to make a mobile robot which can assist cleaning staff with disinfecting patient rooms,” he said.
Risager observed that demand has steadily increased for UVD’s autonomous disinfection robots, even before COVID-19.
“We introduced the UVD robots into the market in 2018 and have seen significant growth rates of 400% annually,” he said. “But clearly with the coronavirus crisis, there is a very high demand for our UVD robots, and we are currently doing everything we can to produce and deliver all those that are ordered from all over the world. We are proud that our robots are directly in action in places like Wuhan, Italy, South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, the U.S., and many other places as well.”
The results have been promising, as the robot reduces usage of cleaning supplies, materials, and employees.”Various test results indicate that we are able to reduce the number of infected people with 40% to 50% in those hospital rooms where the UVD robots were applied,” shared Risager.
Blue Ocean sees UVD’s sales growing substantially, from medical facilities and cruise ships to transportation hubs and nursing homes.
In 2018, Grand View Research estimated that the market for “global antiseptics and disinfectants” was already over $16 billion. However, this does not account for the post-coronavirus effect or the use of machines.
“In the pre-corona period, we had experienced a solid growth in both telepresence and UVD robots,” said Risager. “This shows that COVID-19 or not, there is a significant market potential and pull from the markets towards such types of robots. After the corona crisis and with contingency plans, I believe everyone wants to have better tools at their hands to deal with such kinds of crises.”
“Another thing we see is that people very quickly get used to working in different ways – more digitally – and this I believe will be a major driver forward for especially the telepresence robots,” he added. “For the UVD robots, the fact that the market is no longer just hospitals, but also the other market verticals will mean that the need for these robots will most likely continue to be very significant.
What is the ‘new normal?’
Sitting in the worst-hit metropolis in the U.S. so far, I pressed Risager for his opinion on “the new normal.”
“First of all, I believe the post-corona period will be one where every country on earth will start working more on establishing contingency plans for pandemics,” he said. “Due to SARS and MERS, countries like Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea had already very fast responding and very detailed contingency plans for virus outbreaks, and thus these countries do not have exponential spreading of the virus. They have a constant number of people being infected, and this completely changes the situation such that closing down the society and business is not necessary.”
The robot executive remarked further how his business is responding: “The coming year seems to be very much focused on a further scale up of our sales of telepresence and UVD robots. More and more solutions providers and distributors are on-boarded, and more and more customers have started using our robots or increased their fleet of installed robots.”
Blue Ocean’s biggest challenge right now is scaling up, but Risager is optimistic that his company is ready.
“We have also moved to a new and much larger building, which enables us to produce thousands of our robots every year under the same roof and where we also have outstanding facilities for our development and testing,” he said.
Blue Ocean’s ingenuity could be a silver lining in the COVID-19 crisis, joining a growing list of robotics and other businesses altruistically teaming up to defeat an invisible enemy.