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It was the robotics version of ABC’s hit show Shark Tank. Bright-eyed roboticists from 15 startups had two minutes each to pitch their business to a panel of renowned venture capitalist judges. For two hours of RoboBusiness, all the attention was on these startups during the second annual Pitchfire as attendees packed a conference room inside the Hynes Convention Center in Boston.
Fifteen companies entered, but only one could leave victorious. Sogndal, Norway-based nLink, a last-minute entry into the “bloodsport,” as declared by emcee Andra Keay, Silicon Valley Robotics’ managing director, was declared the winner, earning a private consultation with Grishin Robotics and free consulting services.
nLink makes the world’s first Mobile Drilling Robot, which the judges agreed is a truly disruptive technology that will relieve construction workers from overhead work involved with measuring and drilling in concrete ceilings.
“Our ambition is to revolutionize the construction industry worldwide with mobile robots,” says Konrad Fagertun, nLink’s founder and director of business development. “We officially started nLink in 2012, but had been working on the idea for a while before that.”
Fagertun says the Mobile Drilling Robot uses off-the-shelf hardware and a proprietary vision system to perform its job. It also has a friendly user interface. Users program a pre-defined pattern on a tablet (iOS or Android) so that the robot knows where to drill.
Some of the judges questioned whether the construction industry, which is heavily unionized, would be in favor of a robotic solution. “We developed this with direct input from electrical contractors to solve a specific problem,” Fagertun says. “This is a job nobody wants to do, and the Mobile Drilling Robot can save the industry a lot of money.”
As Fagertun stated, nobody wants to manually drill thousands of holes into concrete ceilings during the construction of commercial buildings. It’s not a glorious job, and the toll on one’s body is tremendous.
Fagertun said the Mobile Drilling Robot will greatly reduce work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSD) and musculoskeletal conditions (MSC). Pain from this is the complaint most frequently reported in health interview surveys, according to the European Commission. These medical conditions lead to high costs for both the businesses, and the society they operate in, costing billions of dollars each year.
Pitchfire winner identifies the right problem to solve
An electrical contractor approached the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) looking for a solution to that problem. It just so happens Fagertun has a masters degree from the NTNU School of Entrepreneurship and experience with robotics startups since 2006. Thus, nLink was born.
“There’s so much technology that already exists, the real issue [the robotics industry] has is it needs to find more problems to solve,” says Pitchfire judge Daniel Theobald from Vecna. “nLink had the clearest direction of all the Pitchfire entrants, that’s why they won. They identified a real problem for businesses and found a solution that happens to use robotics.”
Fagertun says nLink has two clients that will begin using the Mobile Drilling Robot in early 2015. He said the business model isn’t selling the Mobile Drilling Robot, it’s “selling drilling holes into concrete ceilings as a service.” In the near future, Fagertun wants to open “several” small drilling companies that will offer this service.
“Again, the long-term goal is to develop a mobile robot platform for the construction industry,” Fagertun says. “We want to develop robotic services for tiling, painting, and other types of construction jobs. Painting might be difficult, however, as it seems to be a job people have a lot more pride in.”
Needless to say, the 2015 RoboBusiness Pitchfire at the San Jose Convention Center can’t come soon enough.
Unbounded Robotics won the inaugural RoboBusiness Pitchfire in 2013, beating out a field of 14 talented competitors. Unbounded has since been shutdown, but former CEO Melonee Wise is at RoboBusiness 2014 listed under a new venture called FYS Systems.