Investors tilt toward funding robots

In the futuristic 2004 film “I, Robot,” a maverick cop traces a famous inventor’s murder to a humanoid robot. His contemporaries are shocked by the notion that the robot would harm a human.

Investors who saw the flick, which was based on a series of short science fiction stories by Isaac Asimov, might have been confused about which premise was more outlandish: murderous robots or the notion that, even in the year 2035, an entrepreneur can build a successful business mass-producing droids.

Despite their reputation as gadget-geeks, venture capitalists have largely shied away from robotics businesses, and with good reason. With rare exceptions, like the Roomba vacuum and WowWee robot toy line, robotic devices haven’t generated the kinds of mass-market sales volumes that scale-conscious investors target.

Some VCs predict that’s poised to change. In the last six months, at least seven U.S. companies active in the robotics industry have raised more than $50 million combined in venture funding. Three of the companies are focused on the consumer device space, such as Pasadena, Calif.-based Evolution Robotics, which announced last week that it raised a $13.9 million Series B round.

The availability of abundant, cheap processing power and inexpensive, sophisticated sensor technology is fueling the investment in robotics.

“I feel we’ve finally gotten to a point where the price points and the technology are at a place where you can power consumer applications,” says Faysal Sohail, managing director of San Francisco-based CMEA Ventures, which led the recent round for Evolution.

Sohail says that he’s eyeing other investments tied to robotics, with a particular eye for technologies to sell to consumer and light industrial customers, as well as for supply chain and warehouse management.

Sohail’s not alone in forecasting growing demand for consumer robotics. ABI Research predicts that sales from the “personal robotics market” will reach $12 billion by 2015. About half of the revenue will go to robots that perform tasks, and the other half to entertainment devices, according to an ABI report published earlier this year. Much of the revenue will go to makers of enabling components such as processors, microcontrollers and sensors.

Seven-year-old Evolution started out as the brainchild of entrepreneur Bill Gross, founder of Southern California incubator Idealab. The company develops visual pattern recognition and autonomous navigation technology for the robotics market. Customers include Sony, which used its technology in its AIBO robotic dog, WowWee’s Rovio robotic Web cam and several research labs.

Other companies targeting the low-cost robotic device market that have raised money in recent months include Neato Robotics, Ugobe, Kiva Systems and Aetheon.

Some of these startups are competing to develop mobile robots for the workplace. Kiva, which raised $4.1 million in August from Meakem Becker Venture Capital, makes mobile driving devices used to pick up and move items in warehouses and other workplaces.

Aetheon, which makes a robotic delivery system for hospitals, raised $14 million in August from Salix Ventures, Pacific Venture Group and Draper Triangle Ventures.

Consumer devices are also big. Menlo Park, Calif.-based Neato Robotics, which is developing robots that perform household chores, raised $4 million in July from Noventi (formerly known as Cypress Ventures).

Ugobe, based in Emeryville, Calif., makes robotic toys. The company, which is backed by the Band of Angels and other investors, raised an $11.8 million follow-on round in May, bringing its total funding to date to nearly $25 million.

Next on the horizon

CMEA’s Sohail says that he’s optimistic that prices of robotic lawnmowers will soon drop to levels that make them more affordable to more consumers. Currently, mowing bots are on the market, but they cost far more than the average household is willing to pay, he says.

Technologies with potential consumer and military applications are also drawing interest. Matthew McCoe, founder and managing partner of Chart Venture Partners, says he and his partners have been following robotics fairly closely since the fund’s inception in 2006. The firm recently invested in RemoteReality, a maker of 360-degree situational awareness cameras used in unmanned vehicle navigation.

VCs have seen a few robotics investments through to exit, including some public market offerings. Adept Technology, a developer of machine vision software and components, raised $37 million in venture funding before going public in 1995.

Perhaps the best known robotics offering of recent years is iRobot. The Burlington, Mass.-based company raised $38 million in venture funding between 1998 and 2004 from Trident Capital, Fenway Partners, First Albany Corp., iD Ventures and a now-defunct fund called Robotic Ventures.

But iRobot, maker of the Roomba vacuum cleaner, bears little in common with the science fiction of Isaac Asimov. To date, there’s no record of any Roombas going on murderous rampages. However, in looking at the product reviews, the machines do have a history of terrifying house pets.