For the robotics ecosystem to grow and benefit local economies, organizations such as MassRobotics are learning to work with government programs such as MassWorks and are connecting academia and industry.
Many cities and regions are trying to position themselves as robotics hubs, but only a few have successfully combined governmental, academic, and industry efforts to be true leaders. Earlier this month, the MassWorks Infrastructure Program awarded the city of Boston a $2.5 million grant that will enable the MassRobotics nonprofit to expand its operations.
Last year, MassRobotics opened its shared workspace in Boston’s Marine Industrial Park. It included 15,000 square feet of laboratory benches, testing space, and offices. The space currently has about 30 corporate tenants, employing 70 people.
“They’re pretty varied in terms of size and stage — most are early stage,” said Tom Ryden, executive director of MassRobotics. “Many are VC-backed or have DARPA or NSF grants, and they’re looking at expanding.”
Approaching the government
MassRobotics had sought public funding for its mission of growing the robotics ecosystem in Massachusetts, but the organization had to find the best path. Because automation is diffused among vertical industries, unlike, say biotechnology, the route to government support isn’t always obvious.
“We had approached the state about our desire to grow and ways to help us expand,” Ryden told Robotics Business Review. “The office of Secretary [of Housing and Economic Development] Jay Ash has been helpful. It said, ‘You could do this or that, but there are limited funds.’”
“MassRobotics is in a building owned by the city of Boston, and once we were aware [of the process], then the city applied for a grant to house our expansion,” he said. “We worked with John Barros, the mayor’s chief of economic development for the city of Boston, and the Boston Planning & Development Agency to put together a MassWorks proposal.”
“The city and state are looking at different ways to encourage economic development,” explained Ryden. “We’re excited about some of the work they’re doing around autonomous vehicles and general technology support.”
“It’s a competitive process, and every city and town in the state applies,” he said. “We needed to get on their radar and ranked highly and then on to state for approval.”
“There are a lot of worthy projects — a lot of infrastructure, housing, and economic development, which is where we fell,” Ryden recalled. “The city of Boston applied for five MassWorks grants and was awarded four.”
MassWorks supports a commons for robotics
During his announcement of the MassWorks grant, Gov. Charlie Baker noted that the expansion will bring in jobs and companies. Massachusetts is already home to about 200 robotics companies, as well as leading schools such as the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“We’re adding some dedicated STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] space for students, incorporating public space,” Ryden noted. “Everyone was very excited at the chance to expose students to the latest projects, companies, and demonstrations.”
With the MassWorks grant, MassRobotics plans to expand its presence in a nine-story building. Boston’s Seaport District is also hosting autonomous vehicle testing. MassRobotics held an open house for its existing co-working space today.
“We’re on the fifth floor and will be expanding into the second floor,” said Ryden. “We expect to start work converting warehouse space to mixed use fairly soon and should be done this year.”
“A big portion will be the lab and prototyping space, electronics and machining, and test and development,” he added. “We’ll also add some more offices and conference rooms.”
Knowledge is power
Part of MassRobotics’ plan is to find the best ways to develop tech talent at all levels for global competitiveness.
“I get asked this question all the time: ‘Robots take jobs; why are you supporting them?’” Ryden observed. “There are lots of jobs that people do but don’t want to, and other countries around the world are investing heavily in developing technologies. We don’t want to lose those jobs, so we need a skilled workforce.”
“We’re working with universities, high schools, and middle schools,” said Ryden. “We’re looking for where we can really provide great value, for example, showing them Raspberry Pi systems and seeing what companies are doing.”
“We’re also working with community colleges and MIT on workforce development,” he said. “We’re teaching people about new technologies for manufacturing and how to use these robots.”
Ryden said he believes that governments and enterprises should address fears of automation by informing one another and the public how robots can benefit society. They should also provide opportunities for workers and businesses of all sizes to take advantage of retraining and other incentives rather than fall prey to fears of automation.
“When Bill Gates said we should tax robots — it’s a pet peeve of mine — when he developed software back in the ’80s like spreadsheets that eliminated bookkeepers, should they have been taxed?” Ryden said. “Robots are more lifelike than software, but the negative reaction is the same thing.”
More than just a pretty space
“We’re much more than a shared workspace,” Ryden said about MassRobotics. “Our mission is to support the entire robotics community. We do outreach, networking, and some technical events. We’re focused on developing technology and helping local companies grow.”
“Our events look at a particular aspect of robotics and how it affects different verticals,” he said. “We’ve recently met around IoT and manufacturing, and we’re interested in doing food and logistics.”
“We’re working to help people throughout the commonwealth. For example, there’s a strong marine contingent on the South Shore, and we’ve had events in western Massachusetts.”
“On the manufacturing and robotics side, we’ve introduced manufacturers to robotics technology and startups to companies that can build their products,” Ryden said. “We’re also showing large corporations ideas of doing things a different way with automation, and we want them to think of Massachusetts as a good place to do business.”
“We also work to get international exposure for Massachusetts companies,” said Ryden. “We’re networking and sharing ideas around technology and development.”
A year ago, MassRobotics sent a contingent of robotics leaders to China to explore partnerships. Talks are still ongoing.
“China is making huge investments in robotics that dwarf what the U.S. is doing. It’s good for potential sales opportunities,” Ryden said. “We’re looking for ways to work together and for more institutes. We’re swamped with inquiries and can’t support them all.”
“We’ve also done events with South Korea, France, and Ireland,” he added. “Singapore is testing autonomous vehicles and has funding that U.S. companies can partake in, and Lyon, France, has a strong robotics cluster. We’ve also had some chats with Israel around robotics, cybersecurity, and forming a shared workspace.”