RBR50 company Built Robotics, a San Francisco-based startup that transforms heavy construction equipment into autonomous robots with its AI guidance system, recently added Jeff Immelt as an advisor. Immelt was Chairman and CEO of General Electric (GE) for 15-plus years and was President and CEO of GE Medical Systems before that.
He stepped down as CEO of GE in August 2017 and is currently a Venture Partner at New Enterprise Associates (NEA). We asked Immelt about why he joined Built Robotics as an advisor, how he can help the company scale, and his thoughts about construction robotics.
What attracted you to Built Robotics?
Built was first brought to my attention in the fall of 2019 after I had joined NEA as a Venture Partner. Built became a portfolio company when NEA led the Series A in 2017. At GE, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to drive strategic growth through new and better technologies in energy and infrastructure. So I have always been keen on companies that are part of the digital transformation of industry, and Built is leading the charge in construction.
Why did you decide to join Built as an advisor?
My first step was meeting the founders and leadership at Built and spending time with them to learn as much as I could about the technology, problem, and market. Construction has both big challenges and opportunities. I have seen technologies that have had a huge impact across manufacturing, medical, and energy during my time at GE, but that sort of innovation just hasn’t yet been available to construction.
Advancements in digitization, automation, robotics, analytics, additive manufacturing, RPA [robotic process automation], and cloud-management have provided tremendous growth elsewhere, and I want to be involved in how those techniques reach into construction.
What expertise will you bring to Built?
I aim to bring expertise in three areas:
- Sharing my deep understanding of industrial customers
- Running global operations for mission-critical infrastructure
- Scaling emerging technologies — like our robots — in established markets.
One of my goals at GE was investing in digital industries and industrial technologies. I will be applying my expertise both on the customer side and on the operational side to position Built for scale.
Can you elaborate on your experience with wind turbines and how it relates to Built’s work in clean energy?
At GE, we used advanced modeling — artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation, additive manufacturing — to help improve manufacturing and software efficiencies that bent the cost curve and made wind turbine technology appetizing for energy companies. That was a big win at GE because we took a technology that was viewed as far-fetched, or not commercially viable, and transformed it into a necessary part of America’s energy infrastructure. We only got to that point by making our manufacturing and distribution of the technology as smart and efficient as possible.
Similar processes can be applied to how we improve the efficiency and productivity on construction job sites. Robotics in construction has traditionally been viewed as similarly bold, but the innovation that Built is pioneering will likely induce a new inflection point that will transform how we build. There is an incredible urgency to build and an appetite for massive projects, but one of the biggest barriers has been the slow adoption and scalability of technology in construction. I’m hoping we can change that.
What do you see as the key parts of operationalizing the business to help it scale?
I’ll be working with Built on making it easier to install robotic capabilities on existing heavy equipment: the manufacture of the AI guidance systems, their distribution, installation, and support. Basically: how can we make this as easy as possible to start using on the job site. For example, GPS went from a speciality military positioning system to something available on every cell phone. Frontier technologies can be designed to move from niche to mass-availability.
This also involves the partner side where we’ll be working with existing customers of the technology to understand the change management processes that were successful to get the technology working on their projects. In addition, I will be providing expertise on making the technology available across geographies. Built recently expanded to Australia, but the demand for this technology is global.
I’ve said before that companies can create software and hardware that can promise customers “no unplanned downtime” — a simple statement that is invaluable to any industry. Robotics will be a big part of that especially as we enter a world with new external challenges and forces. Reliability will be key to the success of robots on the job site.
What are your thoughts on robotics in construction?
It’s long overdue! We’ve had robotics in the automotive industry for nearly half a century, and yet in construction there has been very little adoption of robotics. This is part of the reason why construction is the only major US industry to have declined in productivity over the past few decades. We can’t solve today’s challenges with the same ways of doing things. It’s important to stay innovative and usher in a new era of building tools and methods.
How do you see automation affecting construction in the near future?
Automation is still working primarily on the fringes of construction. Drones, mapping, site scanning, and digital workflows, for example, are just beginning to be adopted by the big firms. I see Built’s work to be exciting because it tackles the core of construction work: the actual building phase. Even the automation of singular tasks and workflows will have a huge impact on how effectively we can build.
Any more thoughts on Built, construction, and industry trends?
At the end of the day, technology has to be easy to use, meet customer needs, and scale. We’ve solved the technology part at Built by launching commercial-grade robots on the job site. Now it’s time to start the next chapter, which is growing the business to lead the market and help construction become a tech-forward industry.
This is going to have an untold impact on everyone’s everyday life: from the roads we drive on, to the infrastructure that connects us, to the homes we live in.