Friday, June 26, 2009

Helen Greiner's Droid Works Wins First Gov't Grant for Flying Bots

Helen Greiner's stealthy new start-up, The Droid Works, has said almost nothing about what they're up to, except that they're working in the field of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles.) So far, Greiner has been funding the Framingham-based company herself, so there aren't any VCs to blab about what they're working on. And the company is small -- just a handful of engineers, including one superstar HP veteran who helped develop the inkjet printer -- so employee leaks are unlikely. All this makes a curious journalist sad.

But when I saw Greiner last night at 'What's Next in Tech,' she mentioned that the company had just landed its first government grant through the SBIR program (Small Business Innovation Research.) I did some searching, and discovered that the company is receiving almost $100,000 to develop flying bots that can operate indoors and out. The description of the work is fascinating, so I'll share it here -- and also mention that Greiner's last company, iRobot, was initially funded not by VCs but by government grants from agencies like NASA.

    An Indoor/Outdoor Robotic Air Vehicle for Emergency Response

    This Small Business Innovation Research Phase I research project will develop underlying technologies that will enable Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAV) to navigate inside houses and buildings. This technology, applied to emergency response situations, will save the lives of police officers, victims, and suspects. Emergency response teams have been slow to adopt unmanned systems to aid in hostage situations, search and rescue, fire fighting, and armed standoffs. The impediment is the capabilities of the available unmanned system. Available ground robots are halted by rough terrain, large steps, and closed doors. Current UAVs can only be used outdoors. If UAVs could also take on indoor applications, they would surpass the capabilities of the ground robots as UAVs can traverse over any terrain, over any step, and enter and exit a building through any opening (including high windows). The technologies needed to enable for small UAVS to perform indoor missions are: indoor flight control and safety around people, which are the areas of the research proposed.

    This project will prevent the loss of life in dangerous situations by reducing emergency response teams' exposure to lethal situations, by increasing the amount of situational information available to emergency response teams, by reducing the level of anxiety of besieged suspects, and by allowing remote inspection of places and things that are harmful to humans.

And if you want a window into some of Greiner's current thinking about bots and artificial intelligence, she wrote a piece this month for Forbes titled 'Who Needs Humanoids?'

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

What's Next in Tech? Discuss the Growth Opportunities, on June 25th

I'm moderating an event on June 25th called "What's Next in Tech: Exploring the Growth Opportunities of 2009 and Beyond."

The idea is to provide a picture of the tech clusters that are going to drive the next waves of growth here in Massachusetts, from cloud computing to robotics to videogames to energy efficiency to social media. Speakers include venture capitalist Bijan Sabet from Spark Capital, iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner, Brian Halligan of HubSpot, and Tim Healy, who runs the publicly-traded EnerNOC. (Note: The early registration rate ends on May 15th -- tomorrow.)

One goal leading up to the event is to start some blog conversation about the high-potential areas in tech right now... a discussion we'll obviously continue at the event on June 25th. (Boston University's Institute for Technology Entrepreneurship & Commercialization is hosting it.)

Bloggers like Don Dodge, Pito Salas, Larry Cheng, Doug Levin, Tom Summit, Gregg Favalora, Furqan Nazeeri, Chris Herot, and the folks at Mobile Monday Boston have already published their lists of "what's next in tech." If you decide to create one, post a link to it in the comments here.

Here's the list of tech areas I'm following most closely (in no particular order...and excluding here all things outside of pure tech, such as life sciences, med devices, energy):

    - Healthcare IT and electronic medical records
    - Digital video (esp. getting Internet video onto the TV)
    - New analytics companies (in the vein of, Visible Measures, Localytics, etc.)
    - Mobile apps
    - Robotics
    - Video games
    - Intersection of IT and energy efficiency/management
    - New forms of media/reporting/content creation
    - Online payment and micropayment
    - Better management/prioritization of e-mail
    - Cloud computing and SaaS (wrong to group those two together?)
    - Social media and marketing (wrote about this pretty recently)
    - Ways of connecting bands (and other creative artists) with their fans (a la Sonicbids)
    - Enhancing e-commerce (a la Paragon Lake, which does custom jewelry)
    - New ways of interfacing with computers (touch, speech, thought, etc.)

I could go on, but that's a start...

(The hashtag for the "What's Next in Tech" event is #whatsnext09. Feel free, of course, to Tweet about it... and hope to see you there!)

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Robot demos and panels at WPI, next week

From Worcester Polytechnic Institute:

    As of fall 2007, WPI is offering the nation's first bachelor's degree program in robotics engineering. The new major grows out of an increasing demand for robots and robotics systems to meet national needs in areas such as defense and security, elder care, automation of household tasks, customized manufacturing, and interactive entertainment, and also responds to the escalating interest in robots among young people. This major, which crosses academic boundaries, is designed to prepare a new breed of engineer with the skills and imagination to develop intelligent machines that go beyond today's reality.

To mark the launch of the program, they're holding a one-day symposium this coming Tuesday, which features speakers like Dean Kamen of DEKA and Helen Greiner or iRobot. They'll also have robot demos -- and the registration price is cheap: $20.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

How iRobot is Like Intel

TIE-Boston put on a really interesting event last night at the MIT Museum: "Mobile and Sociable Robots: At the Leading Edge of Computing."

Cory Kidd from the Media Lab was there, demoing his robotic weight loss coach, which he's hoping to commercialize once he leaves the Lab. I talked with the CTO of Bluefin Robotics, Christopher Wallsmith, about some of their new underwater 'bots that can glide for long periods of time, or hover in place. (Hiawatha wrote a great piece in the Globe earlier this month that included Bluefin.)

But the thing that struck me as most interesting was Helen Greiner's opening talk. (Helen is the co-founder and chairman of iRobot.) Two things struck me, actually.

First was how authentically iRobot has been living up to its mission statement: Build cool stuff, Deliver great product, Make money, and Have fun. They've shipped 2.5 million of their Roomba robotic vaccuum cleaners thus far.

The second thing was that iRobot is the closest thing Boston has to a Google, an Apple, or an Intel: a company that is so clearly the leader in its field that all the best people want to work there (aside from those who're happier in academia). Helen said iRobot now employs about 200 engineers and researchers. These kinds of "magnet" companies not only attract great people, they also make it clear that the region is a center of gravity for their particular industry -- and they start spinning off start-up companies. Q Robotics, one of the other companies on last night's panel, is just such a spin-off. Q CTO Joe Jones was one of the developers of iRobot's Roomba.

That's pretty cool.

(Photo by Jason Grow / Business Week. Chris Brady took some great photos at tonight's event.)

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