For many in the robotics ecosystem, the COVID-19 pandemic is the best of times and the worst of times. On one hand, the robotics industry is seeing huge interest as the world comes to appreciate the power and potential of robotics in overcoming current and emerging challenges. On the other hand, the economic slow-down, the impact of the virus, and the demands of social distancing are putting huge stress on many innovative robotics startups.
The last couple of years have seen an explosion in companies, primarily small, disruptive robotics startups, coming together to create a vibrant network. This shift from the monolithic silos that characterized robotics only a few years ago promises to deliver better, more cost-effective robots for use in a plethora of scenarios. The ability of these emerging leaders to innovate and create solutions quickly can be seen in the many responses to the current crisis.
The future of the robotics industry looks strong, but robotics startups are in a difficult position in the short-term. By definition robots are physical. This is what makes them such a powerful technology – they have the ability to literally have a direct impact on the real world. But it also means the nature of our business does not lend itself well to working from home. Development requires real-world testing, and it is difficult for teams to do this while maintaining social distancing. Worse, for many, revenue is intrinsically linked to these physical proofs of capability.
We are fortunate at SLAMcore to have a strong financial foundation with plenty of runway. And as a software firm, we are better able to work remotely than many. But, as part of a broad ecosystem, I see the challenges others are facing and understand the fragility of the entire industry – even as we stand on the cusp of huge growth and value.
The only thing we can say with any certainty at the moment is that this will pass. When it does, I expect a surge in interest from:
- Companies looking to use robots
- Investors looking to deploy capital in this space
- A general acceptance from the public that robots are a force for good
Our industry is a delicate ecosystem at a crucial and fragile point as it matures from silos to supply chains. We need as many of us to make it through to the other side as possible and not just become a graveyard for big tech companies to come in and pick up the bones.
I see four practical steps those who benefit from robotics should take to help nurture the industry through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Invest in proofs of concept now: Many multi-nationals have been considering the role of robotics in helping to transform their business. Now is the time to sign off on proof-of-concept trials and prepare for the new normal once the current crisis fades. Pay upfront and start work immediately on the elements that can be done remotely so that physical trials can be ready for when restrictions are lifted.
Collaborate to build your stack: Don’t try to do everything yourself. Robotics startups that did secure significant investment in the good times can support the ecosystem while improving quality, capability and time to market for their products. Identify those parts of the stack that are not core and where outside expertise could add value. Create meaningful projects that help them to help you.
Co-create the hardware platforms of the future: Established hardware companies can ensure they are part of the coming robotics boom by supporting the startups with the essential knowledge and skills to deliver it. Invest in their future by paying these innovators to develop on your platforms. I assure you, the companies you support will not forget.
Keep the taps on: We are fortunate, as a company and as an industry, that VC firms have spotted the opportunity and the promise of robotics. Investments have been made, but they need to be followed up. Don’t close your door to robotics deals. Continue to invest in those companies rapidly creating the solutions that will help solve this crisis, and the next.
I’m proud to be part of this great industry at this pivotal time. We all believe robots are a significant force for good. People are recognizing, now more than ever, the huge value we can add as an industry.
We are well positioned to weather this storm and to deliver this promising future. But our success is reliant on a vibrant and competitive robotics ecosystem. Let’s do everything we can to make sure our industry thrives.
About the Author
Owen Nicholson is CEO of SLAMcore, a London-based startup on a mission to make spatial AI accessible to all. SLAMcore develops algorithms that help robots and drones understand where they are and what’s around them – in an affordable way.
SLAMcore span out from the Department of Computing at Imperial College London in early 2016. Prior to SLAMcore, Nicholson was Operations Manager for the Dyson Robotics Lab at Imperial College London where he was responsible for the strategy, structure and resources required to deliver on core objectives.