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Willow Garage Won’t Do Research Anymore, but It’ll Sell You a Robot

The lab developed key technologies that have advanced personal robotics, but its funding wasn’t sustainable.

Funding for important key robotics technologies can be hard to come by.

Willow Garage, a private laboratory that built a popular open-source operating system for robots, as well as the PR2, a capable robot for use by researchers, is rebooting itself. In a blog post published yesterday, CEO Steve Cousins said it will move away from developing new research technologies, and would “enter the world of commercial opportunities.”

Sad robot: The PR2, developed at Willow Garage, is used by several prominent research groups.

Founded in 2006 by early Google engineer Scott Hassan to advance the frontiers of robotics, the Menlo Park, California, lab has spun out several companies and created software and hardware now in use around the world.

Because the facility was independent and under little pressure to pursue short-term products, one of its key contributions to the field was making it easier for robotics researchers to share and build on each other’s work. However, its own long-term funding model—beyond Hassan’s personal backing—was never clear (a one-armed PR2 retails for $285,000, and there are fewer than 50 in outside research facilities today).

By last year, Hassan had become CEO of Suitable Technologies, a Willow Garage spinout that is building telepresence robots for stay-at-home office workers (see “Beam Yourself to Work in a Remote-Controlled Body”). Now Willow Garage will attempt to become a self-sustaining company in its own right. “This is an important change to our funding model,” Cousins wrote.

To some, Willow Garage’s timing is perfect if it wants to fulfill its goal of having a wide-ranging impact on the personal robotics field, although there would likely be near-term funding challenges to support its talented pool of researchers and roboticists (see MIT Technology Review’s “35 Innovators Under 35”: Leila Takayama and Brian Gerkey). Autonomous robots have advanced in laboratories to the point where the PR2 can now fold laundry and fetch a soda, and industrial robots can work side by side to assist human factory workers. But the costs of these advanced robots are still relatively high, and the practicalities are clunky. 

“I think Willow Garage has a lot of good technology … it’s now really the time to do business. We are really close to the situation we were in with personal computing, when the world switched from expensive mainframes,” says Dmitry Grishin, founder of Grishin Robotics, a $25 million New York investment fund for personal robotics companies. “If you want to make a technology big, you need to bring it to market,” adds Grishin, the cofounder and chairman of the Russian Internet giant Mail.Ru Group.

Willow Garage’s move away from creating open-ended R&D tools is, however, a disappointment to the robotics researchers and companies that use its software.

The Georgia Institute of Technology is, for example, using its PR2 to develop software and user interfaces for robots that could assist elderly people living at home. “They have been a key facilitator of collaborative infrastructure for robotics,” says Henrik Christensen, Georgia Tech’s director of robotics. “We have to figure out how this can be continued.”

Willow Garage wrote that it will “not diminish” its support for the nearly 50 PR2s in use today and was already in the process of transitioning oversight of its Robot Operating System to the Open Source Robotics Foundation.

How Willow Garage will become a self-sustaining business isn’t clear, nor for how long Hassan will continue to support the endeavor. A spokesman declined to comment on its plans beyond the information posted on its blog, other than to emphasize it was not shutting down. Willow Garage’s spinoffs include Suitable Technologies and a company called Industrial Perception, which is developing robots that might autonomously load and unload pallets and shipping containers. Its motto: “Providing robots with the skills they’ll need to succeed in the economy of tomorrow.”

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