Sunday, March 24, 2013

Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Robotic Start-up Companies

By Frank Tobe, Editor and Publisher, The Robot Report

Fort Mason, San Francisco. Host to the Engadget Expand event held last weekend.
FormLabs' Form 1 $3,300 hi-res 3D printer.
At last weekend's Engadget Expand event in Fort Mason, San Francisco, Kickstarter's co-founder Yancey Strickler started off the show with a presentation of many of Kickstarter's crowd-funding success stories. 17 projects raised $1 million+ in 2012 including Pebble, the customizable watch, Oculus Rift, a  virtual reality headset for video games, SmartThings, a platform and hub that connect household things to the Internet and your smartphone, and Form 1, an affordable plug and play high-res 3D printer. [As an aside, Stanford now teaches a for-credit course on Kickstarter.]

Outside the area where the talks were held were a series of show booths including a group of booths under rival crowd funder Indiegogo's banner. The East Coast / West Coast rivalry between Kickstarter and Indiegogo appears to be good for start-ups and for each company, and it is certainly colorful -- just talk to anybody from Kickstarter about Indiegogo or vice versa. Indiegogo has been pushing globally, incorporating new languages, currencies and localized homepages to encourage foreign investors and campaigns -- and has seen a 20% increase in international activity in recent months. Kickstarter is playing catch-up but definitely moving internationally. All this, plus the New York City versus San Francisco and Silicon Valley competitiveness, makes for a lively rivalry.
The East Coast tech boom, really the New York City tech boom, is very real and growing. 127 start-ups happened in NYC in 2012 - three of which were robotics-related (Falkor Systems, DreamBots, and Robotic Systems & Technologies) and four more nearby (see The Robot Report's Global Map and filter for Start-ups) - showing the vitality of NYC and also that there are serious alternatives to Silicon Valley in terms of software development, technology and entrepreneurship.
Many of the robotics-related start-ups on Kickstarter and Indiegogo fall into two categories: (1) funding for school teams and contests, theater/film/documentary/video/web projects, little gimmicks, gadgets and toys (which call themselves robotic but... it's a stretch), and (2) everything else. A sampling of the eclectic second group includes RoboBrrd, a robotics DIY kit, DiveBot, an ROV with HD cameras, Dragonfly, a GA Tech spin-off hit which raised over $1 million in two days, and RepRapPro Huxley, a new 3D printer which can print all the parts to make... another RepRapPro Huxley.

Certainly this form of crowd-funding is good for some aspects of robotics. But I fear that much time, new-investor enthusiasm, and money are wasted on gimmicks and gadgets that are out of date within a season and have no real follow-up business plan. Further, because crowd funding, like TED Talks, is fun in and of itself, there is a challenge to present, share and seek recognition, an ego-building adventure in addition to the original goal of seeking money for product development.

I understand that from games and toys often comes familiarity, growing awareness and job applicants, but I wonder if a few more successful robotic products like iRobot, Intuitive SurgicalKiva Systems and Liquid Robotics would have the same effect or better effect. This is the theory espoused by Colin Angle, iRobot's CEO, who has said:
The idea that a humanoid robot with arms would push a vacuum cleaner is an image that has set many expectations and, in some ways, has set back the industry, when, by just rethinking what needs to be done, we can build a product that satisfies a specific need (vacuuming), as iRobot did with their Roomba line of robotic vacuums. I used to think that I was a self-respecting high-tech entrepreneur, but it took me becoming a vacuum cleaner salesman to actually have some success for my company, my investors and myself.
Also see my other article about robotics at the Engadget Expand event.