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Robotic Rollouts

After years of caution, venture capitalists are warming up to robotics companies such as iRobot, Zoom Systems, and InTouch Technologies.

Alarm:clock is a daily news site that evaluates privately-held technology startups in the areas of hardware, software, the Internet, and wireless communications. One industry overview and one company profile by alarm:clock’s editors come to Technology Review every Wednesday by special arrangement.

Robotic Rollouts
After years of caution, venture capitalists are warming up to robotics companies such as iRobot, Zoom Systems, and InTouch Technologies.

Venture capitalists tend to be fairly conservative people – despite their reputation for risk taking. Consequently, few robot-makers have received venture funding. In fact, it’s possible that many VCs put robot business models on a par with time travel and jet-pack transportation.

With the announcement of a $115 million IPO by Burlington, MA-based iRobot, though, companies commercializing robot technology are beginning to attract VC attention. On his blog Feld Thoughts, venture capitalist Brad Feld admits to such hindsight: “iRobot will go down in my history as one of those companies I was too stupid to invest in…Robotic Vacuum Cleaner? C’mon.” 

iRobot is the breakaway leader in the commercial robots market. The company has shipped more than 1.2 million Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners, each retailing for $150-275. iRobots has also launched a robotic mop, and it has a line of costly military-grade robots. To top off its already-booming sales, the company will be launching a large “I love Robots” ad campaign.

Another robot company, Zoom Systems, raised $12 million in September, in a funding round led by NeoCarta Ventures. Zoom also signed on the chief financial officer of retailer Mervyns’ as its own CFO. The company makes and operates robotic kiosks often located in hotels and airports, which function as automated convenience stores. In addition to snacks and drinks, the kiosks sell high-end items such as iPod Minis, with price points up to $500. The company hopes to have 10,000 machines in place by 2010.

In health care, venture-backed robotics startup InTouch Technology recently raised $12.1 million in a Series C round led by Galen Partners. The company is creating remote-presence robots that allow busy doctors to do virtual consultations. To offset a growing nursing shortage, the company is also developing 1.6-meter-tall robots that help nurses provide care to several patients at a time. About a dozen hospitals are currently using the robots, generally for routine discharge procedures.

Another big wave of robot commercialization may come out of this month’s two big robot events.

On October 8, five autonomous vehicles crossed the finish line in the second annual DARPA Grand Challenge, sponsored by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The robot trucks, built by 23 teams from academia and industry, competed over a 176-kilometer course in the Mojave Desert, with a team from Stanford University taking the $2 million prize.

Meanwhile, 10,000 human beings gathered on October 6-9 in San Jose, CA, for the RoboNexus convention. The event featured an autonomous RoboSoccer champ built in the shape of a seal. Throughout the week’s events, though, iRobot was the star attraction.

Alarm:clock is a daily news site that evaluates privately-held technology startups in the areas of hardware, software, the Internet, and wireless communications. One industry overview and one company profile by alarm:clock’s editors come to Technology Review every Wednesday by special arrangement.

Power to the Processor
Ageia’s new microprocessor boosts the physical realism of PC-based games.

Company: Ageia
HQ: Mountain View, CA
Founded: 2002

Management: Manju Hegde is co-founder, chairman, and CEO. Before, he was co-founder and chief technology officer of Celox Networks, which built an Internet-protocol service switch, and he was also chief technology officer at MinMax Technologies, a fabless semiconductor manufacturer. Curtis Davis, previously the co-founder and CEO of Celox, is Ageia’s co-founder, president, and chief operating officer.

Investors: In September 2005, the company closed a $27 million financing round. Ageia has raised more than $38 million overall with help from Granite Global Ventures and Hercules Technology Growth Capital. Previous investors included Apex Venture Partners, BA Venture Partners, CID Ventures, HIG Ventures, and VentureTech Alliance.

Business Model: The company is a fabless semiconductor maker – meaning it designs processors and outsources their construction – with a focus on the PC gaming market. Its main product is a “physics processing unit,” PhysX, which allows game developers to simulate hair, soft bodies, fluid motion, and collisions more realistically. According to some estimates, Ageia’s processor can animate as many as 40,000 independently moving bodies on today’s high-end CPUs.

Competitors: None at present, but the company might see some in the future from ATI or Nvidia.

Dirt: The five founders of Ageia, the wunderkinder of the gaming world, say they wanted to create a product that could simulate the holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation and convince every PC gamer to look for a PhysX chip in their next desktop or laptop. They appear to be well on their way. Still, there is some skepticism that gamers will fork over additional dollars for yet another graphics processor.

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