In July, and possibly even earlier, a rumor began to diffuse among Silicon Valley’s tightknit robotics community indicating that Unbounded Robotics, a spinoff from the robotic research incubator Willow Garage and producer of the UBR-1, an inexpensive, mobile manipulation robot, was about to fold. On a personal note, I first got wind of a potential shutdown in early August, and three thousand miles away from Unbounded’s Santa Clara offices.
It appears that the rumor was well founded. Unbounded has indeed shut down, although some confirmative sources are softer than others. For example, Unbounded’s last Twitter posting was on July 18th. Previously, Unbounded’s Tweeter feed was updated every couple of days, or even multiple times per day. Solid confirmation came by way of an excellent piece in the IEEE Spectrum written by Evan Ackerman, which cited an Email by Unbounded’s CEO Melonee Wise indicating that the company was in the process of shutting down. Unbounded’s PR firm has also confined that the company has ceased operations and are no longer a customer (although Unbounded is still listed as a current client).
The news came as a shock to the robotics community, and as a gut punch to that subset which hails from the mid-peninsula. After all, Unbounded was regarded as something of an industry darling since the company’s launch in Spring 2013. And why not? The backstory, as a spinoff of the well regarded Willow Garage and headed by smart, capable Willow alums, resonated extremely well. The award winning UBR-1, the company’s single armed, mobile manipulation platform, was highly photogenic and videogenic. More importantly, the UBR-1 was built upon, and in some ways improved upon, Willow’s dual armed PR2 research robot (the ROS based systems are similar in appearance as well). Even better yet, at $50K, Unbounded’s UBR-1 was much less costly than the PR2 ($200-$400K). But it seems that the UBR-1, which was only unveiled in October 2013 at the RoboBusiness Leadership Summit, and made available for preorder in April 2014, was not to be.
What Happened? - The reason for Unbounded’s closure, namely that there was a kerfuffle over intellectual property, shared technology or, more likely, direct competition with other Willow spinoffs, made sense at first blush (again, described in the IEEE piece - “Unfortunately Unbounded Robotics is in the process of shutting down due to issues with our Willow Garage spin off agreement that prevents us from raising series A investment”.). But on further reflection, it just did not make sense that Unbounded would launch a business and announce a product without determining beforehand if there were any constraints or limiting factors that would preclude the company from attracting funding. Clearly, there must another story.
Premise 1 – Embrace the Obvious - Given this assumption, it is easy to come up with any number of possible scenarios that would lead to Unbounded’s shutdown. I settled upon what I thought was the most obvious conclusion. Namely, Unbounded Robotics failed to secure funding from a greedy and clueless VC community, and this was abetted by Unbounded’s lack of business acumen in their choice of target market. That is, Unbounded approached the VC community with a business plan that emphasized UBR-1’s role as a low cost, research platform and the company’s target market as PhD level researchers at universities and corporate research centers. The research robotics sector is a viable, exciting market, albeit a small one. VCs, however, in their quest for a quick and massive payoff, begged off funding the company.
Premise 1 Fail - While describing VCs as greedy might be personally satisfying and possibly even true, as a whole they are decidedly not clueless. Also, it is very common for robotics start-ups to focus exclusively on technology, remaining blithely unaware of business imperatives and larger market issues. But the Unbounded Robotics founders did not appear to be of that ilk. In fact, the company clearly described the UBR-1 as an open platform that could be used for many types of applications, including material handling for light manufacturing, as a mobile delivery platform for hospital logistics, and more. I would also argue that over time the company placed an increasingly greater emphasis on the commercial potential of the UBR-1.
Mobile Manipulation - At this time robotic manipulation is quite advanced, and new technologies and techniques are continually being released that increase capabilities. Technologies for mobility and navigation, too, are mature. Every day autonomous mobile robotic systems prove themselves in hospitals, warehouses and even on the battlefield.
One could make the argument that problems associated with robotic mobility and navigation, along with manipulation, have largely been solved (no Emails please, I understand there are major challenges to overcome and functionally to be added, but I am trying to make the larger point). One could also contend that for the most part the robotics sector consists of one class of commercial robotic systems that can autonomously navigate and move from place-to-place, and a second, separate class of stationary commercial robots that are extremely adept at manipulation. What is lacking are robotic systems that can move autonomously, and when they have arrived at their destination, actually perform useful work.
Combining mobility and manipulation – mobile manipulation is the term - is something of a holy grail for robotics. The capability is rightly viewed as a game changer, and one that would open up a very large number of opportunities across many markets for all manner of applications. As a result, a large number of research initiatives are currently underway which focus on mobile manipulation. Only a few companies have actually produced commercial mobile manipulation platforms - Robotnik’s G-WAM, KUKA’s Omnirob, and Neobotix’s MM series come to mind - but these Frankenplatforms (yes, I said it) are clearly early efforts. What is lacking is a robust, well designed, true mobile manipulation platform, like, well, like the UBR-1.
Little Sense, Perfect Sense - Given that there is a solid business case for producing a commercial class mobile manipulator, and that a first-to-market advantage is still available, it makes little sense that Unbounded could not attract early stage funding. However, it makes perfect sense if “the Willow Garage spin off agreement… prevents us from raising series A investment”.
Without specific information regarding the “Willow Garage spinoff agreement”, it is impossible to determine what actually transpired. But it is easy to imagine how unforeseen conflicts could arise. For example, consider two other companies that are offshoots of Willow Garage, Suitable Technologies, the maker of the Beam mobile, remotely controlled, telepresence system, and Savioke, the producer of the SaviOne autonomous delivery robot currently undergoing trials. For each system, the robot travels to a destination, autonomously in the case of the SaviOne, and then… well that’s it. They are both simply mobile platforms.
This does not imply that there is no business case for either the Beam or the SaviOne. But the value proposition for both platforms would be greatly increased if they could 1) move and navigate autonomously (absolutely mandatory functionality), and 2) manipulate objects in the physical world after arriving at a destination.
I have no knowledge of the Willow spinoff agreement, but presumably it would be of no consequence if technologies embedded into the theUBR-1 were not to be included in other systems. Perhaps, that was case at one time. But the addition of autonomous, mobile manipulation functionality in existing or upcoming platforms – say something similar to Savioke’s SaviOne or Suitable’s Beam – could become problematical, especially so in the case of Suitable Technologies as the company’s President and CEO, Scott Hassan, was also the founder of Willow Garage.
Unbounded Rebounded - So what becomes of Unbounded Robotics? Does the company simply become a footnote in Valley robotics lore? And what of the founders and what might have been?
Consider the Unbounded cofounders, CEO Melonee Wise, CTO Michael Ferguson and Derek King, Lead Systems Engineer, as well as the market opportunity represented by commercial mobile manipulation platforms. Consider again that on Linked-In each have updated their profile so that their current business is no longer listed as Unbounded Robotics, but simply “robotics start-up”. And pardon me if I would ask you to consider once more, what would highly knowledgeable roboticists, which have the proven ability to develop and deliver a low cost, highly functional mobile manipulation platform based on commodity hardware and the open source software do if they were not constrained by existing “spinoff agreements”? What would you do?
Tags - Unbounded Robotics, UBR-1, PR2, Willow Garage, Suitable Technologies, Beam mobile, Savioke, manipulation, mobile manipulation.
Dan Kara is Practice Director, Robotics at ABI Research. He can be reached at kara(AT)abiresearch.com. You can follow Dan Kara on Twitter: @ABI_Robotics.