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This nonprofit is making life easier for robotics and AI startups

There are 18 companies together at MassRobotics.

By Kathryn O'Neill  |  October 3, 2017

MassRobotics_space

Maciej Pietrusinski from Andros Robotics works in MassRobotics' shared space. Photo credit: Mimi Phan

Why It Matters

Because companies that matter aren't awash in profits overnight. Accelerators like MassRobotics help entrepreneurs working on hard problems get off the ground.

You think starting a company is hard? Try starting a robotics company.

Expensive equipment. Long lead times. The tough leap from concept to commercialization. There is no overnight success. But in Boston’s seaport district, MassRobotics is running as a “startup escalator” with 18 robotics and artificial intelligence companies in residence at it’s 15,000-square foot site.

“You cannot have a successful industry without successful companies,” said co-founder Fady Saad, SDM ’13.

Incorporated in 2015, MassRobotics helps startups move from working prototype to marketable product by providing offices, a machine shop, and a robot testing platform; access to high-tech equipment such as electronics testing tools and a 3-D printer; and connections to partners.

“It's very hard to commercialize a robotics technology,” said Saad, who was recently named to the Boston Business Journal's “40 Under 40” list. “You need manufacturing partners, supply chain partners. You need components. There are a lot of dependencies, moving parts.”

This complexity is why the traditional startup accelerator model falls short for robotics and AI companies, Saad said. Designed with input from industry stakeholders — including nearly 25 corporate partners — MassRobotics' offerings are meant to give entrepreneurs in robotics and AI a boost beyond that needed in less capital-intensive industries, such as software.

Massrobotics_FadyMassRobotics co-founder Fady Saad. Photo credit: Mimi Phan

“You could have a software working prototype in six months and push it out and let people use it. This is impossible with robotics,” Saad said, noting that while early versions of software are commonly released to the public, the risks involved in releasing a less-than-perfect drone or self-driving vehicle are prohibitively high. “You need it close to perfect.” And for a robotics startup, two years to launch would be on the short side, Saad said.

At MassRobotics, young companies have the freedom they need to test, validate, and iterate. “If the robot crashes into the wall, the building's not going to fall down,” said Peter Howard, president and CEO of Realtime Robotics, which is developing a robotics component that aids with motion planning.

Plus, he said, the space is affordable. “It helped us a lot when we just had a few pennies to rub together,” he said. Howard said his company also benefits from MassRobotics' extensive industry connections. “It's a network business to raise funding,” he said.

This network is at the heart of MassRobotics, which draws large, successful organizations — such as founding partners Vecna, Cambridge Innovation Center, Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, and Draper — together with startups to nurture innovation. “[MassRobotics] has connected us to investors, machine shops, and vendors we may use,” said Reese Mozer, founder and CEO of American Robotics, which is developing autonomous drones for agriculture.

The MassRobotics community also provides a forum for sharing technical knowledge, funding ideas, and even ethical concerns. There’s a book club, a newsletter, and events that let children interact with robots, an effort to support science and technology education.

Co-founded by Saad; Stephen Paschall SM ’04; Tye Brady SM ’99; Daniel Theobald SB ’95, SM ’98; and Joyce Sidopoulos, MassRobotics is supported by membership fees paid by the startups and through corporate partners and government grants.

Saad said he expects the MassRobotics community will continue to grow as the companies it nurtures begin to take off. Already, its first company graduated out of its space. Square Robot, which builds systems for submerged oil and gas inspections, moved to MassRobotics in February with three people, and six months later expanded to a space across the street with a team of 11.

MassRobotics is now eyeing an additional 25,000 square feet of space to house as many as 40 more startups, Saad said.

"We want to be sure this is a world-class, state-of-the-art space," Saad said. "I see a future where MassRobotics is the center of gravity for robotics worldwide.”