A full look at where we’ve been and the journey we’re on in the robotics landscape
Our story at READY Robotics has its roots over 10 years ago at Carnegie Mellon University, where our founder and now CTO, Kel Guerin, was receiving his Masters degrees in electrical engineering and robotics. Inspired by interactions between humans and robots, Kel helped lay the foundation for what would become the future of accessible robotics solutions for manufacturers.
Fast-forward to today, and we now see every aspect of the robotics industry rapidly evolving, not unlike the computer industry was in the 1980s. It could not be a more exciting time to see where READY Robotics is going, and also reflect back on why we started this journey.
Going to the moon and back
Kel focused his work at Carnegie Mellon University on building camera systems for robots designed to operate in outer space and explore the moon. After graduating in 2009, Kel began working as a robotics engineer for the National Robotics Engineering Center where he shifted focus to underground mining robots. As many robotic solutions for these space and mining applications had already been developed and tested, and Kel found himself more interested in reducing the complexity of the interaction between these robots and humans.
Kel’s interest in human-computer interaction continued as he pursued his Ph.D. focusing on robotics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. In 2009, he met his Ph.D. advisor and future Board Advisor, Greg Hager, who is renowned in the computer vision space and helped him focus his research on novel surgical interfaces for medical robots. Kel was particularly excited by the cross-section of medicine and interaction between humans and surgical robots.
Noting that his Ph.D. research on surgical robots was relatively theoretical, it soon became clear to Kel that the accurate interactions between humans and robots so critical for patient safety also had more broad applicability. He was therefore open to other new applications of robots and interfaces that could make a difference for humans in other areas as well.
Transforming for manufacturers
In 2014, Kel received a chance request from a local factory in Baltimore. The factory had expressed that they needed help setting up a few FANUC industrial robots that they had purchased, but had been sitting idle in the factory. Though what they were trying to setup was not difficult, they were unable to find highly skilled workers that had the capability to deal with the current complexities of the industrial robots.
The idea was sparked! It occurred to Kel that this was a novel opportunity to dramatically improve the interaction between factory workers and industrial robots to be more user friendly and far less complex. Here was a direct application of the interaction problems he had been studying, with a real possibility of bringing possible solutions to the global industrial manufacturing industry.
|At this time, Kel pivoted his Ph.D. research to industrial manufacturing. He began to research deeply the experiences of factory workers who had deep domain expertise, yet limited tech knowledge. As Kel shared, “I began to ask myself, how do you build software so that programming a robot becomes as easy as playing Candy Crush? How do you make robots so easy to program that you don’t have to hire outside resources? The goal became to make an effortless experience for robotics users, so they can spend more of their time on high-level tasks versus more mundane, robotic processes.”||“I began to ask myself, how do you build software so that programming a robot becomes as easy as playing Candy Crush?”|
The interaction between the factory worker and industrial robot could be seamless, and Kel was up for the challenge.
Getting READY for launch
As READY technology continued developing in 2013, Kel met Ben Gibbs, who was working as an Associate Director at Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures (JHTV). Ben had established and managed the Commercialization Strategy Group for JHTV, and he focused on helping Johns Hopkins faculty with translating new inventions to market. Ben was an expert at sussing out product demand, patenting foundational technology, and developing plans to drive new products to successful launch.
Kel and Ben immediately hit it off, and Kel learned of Ben’s deep prior knowledge of the industrial manufacturing industry. Ben was instrumental in helping Kel think about the viable commercialization of the technology being developed and the possibility of becoming a company.
Recognizing the requirements of building a company, Kel knew he needed a co-founder to ensure READY’s success in the competitive industrial manufacturing industry. After raising an initial seed fundraise of $3.75M in early 2016, Kel asked Ben to be the new company’s CEO and co-founder, Ben accepted. The initial seed investment included funding from the state of Maryland to help READY spin completely out from Johns Hopkins University by June 2016. Additional big investors in the seed round included Eniac Investors, RRE Ventures, Sagamore Ventures and Emerald Development Managers.
READY Robotics was launched. Working together as CEO and CTO, Ben and Kel focused on enabling manufacturers to more easily deploy robots to the factory floor through a user-friendly, patented technology platform and safe plug-and-play hardware. The company began developing a line of intuitive-to-use, easy to control industrial robotic software called Forge, which is a suite of products that requires minimum installation effort, no robotic or programming experience necessary.
Growth in the Garage
Manufacturing operations for READY Robotics began in June 2016. At the time, our team was only six full-time employees who worked out of City Garage, an incubator and innovation center in Baltimore. By providing office space and mentorship, City Garage helped READY Robotics, as well as many other manufacturing startups, to grow in size and quadruple production.
“Our team used seed funding to really prove out the technology, build the core product, and test it in as many industries as we could to really understand how READY would fit the market,” said Kel. Market fit with industrial manufacturers continued to be established through 2017, and in July 2017, the team announced their first enterprise-ready hardware and software platform that made it dramatically easier for large scale factories to deploy robotic automation in one day; it was called Forge/Station.
The successful launch of Forge/Station helped lead to our Series A fundraise of $15M in December 2017. The round was led by Drive Capital, with participation from Eniac Ventures and RRE Ventures, and was raised to help expand READY’s operations and total production. The fundraise was a reflection of our work for the prior 18 months, where we had found product-market fit amongst small-to-enterprise size industrial manufacturing customers.
Drive Capital invests primarily in Midwest companies that are revitalizing new businesses and entrepreneurial ecosystems in the region. Noting that the Midwest continues to be a stronghold of manufacturing in the United States, with many manufacturers headquartered in Ohio, Illinois and Michigan, READY made the decision to move its headquarters from Baltimore to Columbus, Ohio. Unlike a move to Silicon Valley, this move to the Midwest would enable the company to have more direct proximity and accessibility to manufacturers across industries, including the automotive, machinery, and steel industries.
Seeing the potential for growth and positive impact in the Midwest, READY Robotics moved their headquarters to Columbus in February 2018. Over 29 manufacturing companies are headquartered in Columbus, as well as Drive Capital.
Why READY Robotics is unique
|READY Robotics is actively working to accelerate the robotics industry, which has mirrored – and will continue to mirror – the great progress of the computer industry. “Robots today are like how computers were in 1985. Most robots are bespoke and entirely customized, no one is thinking about user experience, and every robot brand has its own programming language and software. Industrial robots are incredibly fragmented and hardware interface standards are nowhere near where they should be,” says Kel.||“Robots today are like how computers were in 1985. Most robots are bespoke and entirely customized, no one is thinking about user experience, and every robot brand has its own programming language and software.”|
Noting the similarity between the computer and robotics industries, the three main catalysts that transformed the computer industry were: 1) a new focus on simple user experience, as can be seen with Apple products, 2) the development of common software and the Windows operating system, and 3) common hardware, like USB plug-and-play devices. READY Robotics is unique because it is the only company tackling all three same issues for the robotics industry.
With the introduction of Forge/OS (software), Forge/Ctrl (hardware), Forge/Station and automation tools, READY Robotics offers companies both an accessible user experience and common software + hardware plug-ins to address fragmentation across all types of robots. Forge/OS enables developers to work off a common operating system (versus unique software languages for every robot), and Forge/Ctrl makes it possible to plug in any tool, such as a gripper, into any robot in the market.
By making robotics more easy-to-use for both factory workers and developers alike, READY aims to drive adoption of robots and engage the developer market to create new and exciting functionalities for robots. As Kel notes, “We want to make the robotics tech landscape accessible and exciting to all developers. READY Robotics’ tech is truly ready to be used and developed.”
Why industrial robots now
A major reason that there is significant growth in the global industrial robots industry is due to the reduced cost of robots and computing components, which mirrored the reduction of costs in the computer industry. Industrial robots have decreased in costs so significantly over the past decade that their costs are now comparable to wages for factory workers. Though these robots may have only made sense for the automotive industry in the past (when robots could cost $75K each), today even small businesses can afford robots that are as inexpensive as $10K each.
The introduction of collaborative robots, or cobots, have also encouraged factories across industries to adopt robotic technology and accelerate production efficiency. With the robotics industry heating up worldwide, many companies are creating peripheral devices that makes the inconsistency of software and hardware even more complicated. “Eventually, a platform will emerge that consolidates the market,” says Kel. As a critical mass of developers grows, the READY team expects there to be a race-to-the-bottom for consistency and driving down costs. READY Robotics is leading this push towards consistency today.
“In 20 years there will probably be five companies that control most of manufacturing on planet earth, just like the average of about three to five companies dominating most industries,” notes Kel. “Our team at READY Robotics wants to be one of the companies at the top. We started READY Robotics to help completely transform and simplify industrial robots, and we know we have the team and products to do so.”