Massachusetts is considered by many to be the leading robotics cluster in the world. That message was hammered home last night as 120-plus leaders of the state’s robotics community gathered to celebrate the grand opening of MassRobotics’ new headquarters. MassRobotics is an independent, non-profit organization helping to bring about the next global evolution of robotics.
Heavy hitters from the robotics industry and local government were in attendance, including Colin Angle, CEO and Co-Founder of iRobot, Tye Brady, Chief Technologist of Amazon Robotics, Daniel Theobald, Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Vecna Robotics, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker. Brady and Theobald are founders of MassRobotics, while Angle is on the board of directors. Leading academic institutions were also out in full force, including Harvard University, MIT, Northeastern University, Tufts, UMass Lowell, and WPI.
Attendees toured the new space and saw hands-on demos from startup residents. The expansion adds 25,000 square feet to give MassRobotics a total of 40,000 square feet in Boston’s Seaport Innovation District. A $2.5 million MassWorks grant assisted in funding more than half the design and construction investment in the new facility. The balance of the funding was raised from more than 35 corporate partners with the largest contributions from Analog Devices, Amazon Robotics, iRobot, Harmonic Drive, Mitsubishi Electric, MITRE, General Motors and Cowen.
“The dynamic, impressive and innovative robotics industry, both here in Massachusetts and around the world, deserves a state-of-the-art facility to call home. At MassRobotics, we’re proud to provide it,” said Tom Ryden, Executive Director, MassRobotics. “Our expansion is driven by the needs of our community, residents and partners. The world looks to Massachusetts for advances in robotics, and the robotics industry looks to MassRobotics to provide the resources, community and physical infrastructure so the next generation of robotics startups can grow. We’re excited to welcome the industry to our new home, and we’re already thinking about what comes next.”
MassRobotics can now support more than 70 companies and more than 200 employees. In addition to the shared workspace, residents now have access to electronics and mechanical workshops with soldering irons, scopes, 3D printers, laser cutters, mini CNC machines and other assembly tools that are crucial when designing robotics systems.
The space also offers various robotics platforms for R&D purposes, including collaborative robot arms from Rethink Robotics and Universal Robots and autonomous mobile robots from Ava Robotics, Mobile Industrial Robots and Toyota. The new space offers 18 private offices, four midsize conference rooms, a boardroom and a 100-person event space.
Growing robotics startups
MassRobotics was established in 2015 and opened its initial space in February 2017. It attracts startups not only from the United States, but also has current residents from Canada, Germany, Israel, Singapore, Spain and other worldwide locations.
Perhaps its most successful startup is Realtime Robotics, which is developing a specialized processor for generating safe motion plans in micro-seconds for autonomous vehicles and industrial robots. Realtime was founded in 2016, graduated from MassRobotics in 2019, and now has more than 50 employees. The Boston-based company recently closed an $11.7M Series A financing round.
Peter Howard, President and CEO of Realtime Robotics, stumbled upon MassRobotics in May 2017. “We had intended to sign up for a commercial shared workspace the following week, but held off to visit MassRobotics. It turns out that was a real stroke of luck.”
Howard added that MassRobotics is a perfect place for robotics startups for a number of reasons. “Compared to the commercial option, it was less than half the cost for a far better and more appropriate workspace, with incredible flexibility to grow and shrink with project needs and infrastructure requirements. We found ourselves with like-minded people that would share experience and technical know-how supportively.
“Having all kinds of robots available for development was an enormous boost for us when we started out, enabling us to expand talent and payroll instead of paying for robot purchases. Finally, having the support of the MassRobotics team, helping connect us with customers, investors, advisors, and researchers, we would definitely not have made the rapid progress we have achieved had we not stumbled on the amazing resource that is MassRobotics.”
Other alumni of MassRobotics include American Robotics, a drone developer specializing in agricultural automation, Autonodyne, a company that builds systems to enable autonomous flight for civil and defense applications, and Square Robot, which builds systems for submerged oil and gas inspections.
Southie Autonomy has been a resident of MassRobotics since 2017. Winner of the 2018 RoboBusiness Pitchfire startup contest, Southie Autonomy is developing intelligent robot software that enables any industrial robot to be re-purposed and re-deployed by any person, without robotics expertise or even computer skills.
“The ability to use resources here without having to contract out for them and get them done quicker makes a big difference for us,” said Ned Semonite, General Manager at Southie Autonomy.
Capitalizing on local talent
The theme of the night was the strength of the local talent pool and infrastructure. MassRobotics board member Tim Rowe, Chairman CEO and Founder of the Cambridge Innovation Center, highlighted several notable inventions developed in Massachusetts, including the computer, internet and telephone. “Massachusetts is an incredibly innovative area, so it’s no surprise the world’s largest innovation area for robotics is here,” he said.
Angle, who noted this is iRobot’s 30th year in business, emphasized how the robotics industry has drastically changed since iRobot was founded in 1990. “If you wanted a robot to have voice understanding or object understanding, you had to invent it,” he said. “Now things have become a lot easier due to the innovation in mobile, gaming, and wireless communication.
“There has been skepticism that one day we will have robots. In 2019, that flipped aggressively from skepticism to impatience. The industry went from fringe to mainstream, and the opportunity is represented in this building. We need MassRobotics so peers can get together and share lessons from people who have been down this road before. The amount of money flowing into this space makes this a magical moment. MassRobotics is a catalyst for this exciting industry, and I expect great things.”
Mayor Walsh said MassRobotics is a great Boston story. “Imagine if we didn’t work this out,” he said. “We would’ve lost a great opportunity.”
He emphasized that Massachusetts is working harder to nurture and retain its local talent. “People come to school here, but leave for Silicon Valley or somewhere else,” he said. “We have all this incredibly brain power here and it goes elsewhere. How do we change that? It’s all about bringing people and great startups together.”
Mayor Walsh was born and raised in Boston. If you’ve ever heard him speak, you will recognize his thick Boston accent. During his speech he made one request to the robotics developers in the room: “If you’re designing a robot that speaks, we want it to have a Boston accent.”
Brady mentioned Amazon has invested $3 billion in Massachusetts since 2011. Most recently, the company announced it’s opening a $40 million Amazon Robotics Innovation Hub in Westborough, Mass. that will feature corporate offices, R&D labs, and manufacturing space. This will be in addition to Amazon Robotics’ site in North Reading, Mass. Brady said Amazon Robotics manufactures all of its robots in Massachusetts.
“The robots are cool, and you’ll see amazing tech throughout these halls. But it’s all about the people,” he said. “They need each other and resources to take an idea and turn it into something. As we enter the golden age of robotics, I believe in the power of community. These people share the common vision that robots will extend human capabilities to make the world a better place. Welcome to the hub of the robotics universe, welcome to MassRobotics.”