When Mick Mountz decided to start a robotics company, the MIT grad was living in Palo Alto, Calif., and planning to stay put.
It was just after the dot-com boom had gone bust. Mountz had run warehouses for a failed e-commerce company, WebVan. His next idea was to design machines that could speed up the process of collecting all the items needed for warehouse orders.
But everyone he wanted to hire, it seemed, was in Massachusetts, home to a collection of university robotics labs, defense contractors, and a few pioneering companies such as iRobot and Boston Dynamics (both started by Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers). Fund-raising also was a challenge.
So Mountz moved east to found Kiva Systems in Burlington with his old MIT roommate, Peter Wurman.
Amazon bought Kiva for $775 million in 2012 and earlier this month announced a deal to buy iRobot for $1.7 billion, marking the latest sign that if you need the best robotics talent, Boston is the place to be — though folks in Silicon Valley and possibly Pittsburgh might argue the point.
If Amazon’s iRobot deal passes antitrust scrutiny, the designers of iRobot’s popular Roomba vacuum robots will be united with the growing workforce at Kiva, which has built 350,000 robots for Amazon’s warehouses. The iRobot designers would still be focused on the consumer market.
Mountz’s company, since renamed Amazon Robotics, remains based in North Reading, and Amazon is expected to keep iRobot based here, too.
Beyond its early pioneers, Boston’s robotics scene now includes hundreds of companies. Wilmington-based Symbotic, supplying warehouse robots to Walmart, went public in June and has a stock market value approaching $10 billion. Dotted in a ring around Route 128, other emerging players include 6 River Systems, Vicarious Surgical, and Vecna Robotics. Massachusetts robotics startups have raised $1.6 billion in venture capital backing over the past five years, according to data from CB Insights.
Before the iRobot acquisition, Massachusetts was already at the forefront of all things robots. Aaron Pressman, a Boston Globe Tech reporter does a deep dive into the automation scene. 🤖 Read the full story at our link in bio. #Amazon #Roomba #Kiva #iRobot #BostonDynamics♬ original sound - The Boston Globe
“With this kind of ecosystem, you’ve got access to new ideas, new talent, and venture funding,” said Mountz, who left Amazon in 2015 and now invests in small robotics startups. “It’s going to perpetuate nicely for the foreseeable future.”
Fueling further growth, Boston Dynamics and its owner, Hyundai Motor Group, on Friday announced plans for a $400 million artificial intelligence and robotics research center in Cambridge. Boston Dynamics founder and former MIT professor Marc Raibert will lead the effort.
Like Kiva, iRobot, and Boston Dynamics, many of the region’s companies and founders have MIT ties, but it would be a mistake to credit any one university for the robotics boom. The region is home to 36 academic labs focused on the field, ranging from Harvard’s Agile Robotics Lab to the University of Massachusetts Lowell’s New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation, or NERVE, Center and Tufts’ Human Robot Interaction Lab.
Local startups spun out of the labs are drawing attention with flashy YouTube videos. In one, a robotic arm with four finger-like grippers and a retractable suction cup in the center reaches into a plastic tub and picks up a bar of soap, then deposits it onto a conveyor belt. Next, a diet drink, followed by deodorant.
It’s the product of three grad students from Harvard, MIT, and Yale who teamed up to win a DARPA robotics challenge in 2015 and turned their idea into Somerville-based RightHand Robotics.
The task performed by RightHand’s sorting robot would be trivial for even a small child. But in robotics, machines are still trying to master the work of scanning, selecting, and grabbing one item from a jumble of multicolored, multishaped stuff. As they worked on their ideas, the RightHand team got a hand from Kiva, whose founders invested and shared their knowledge.
“As we were struggling with the challenges of ... early pilots and trying to figure it out, we had their experience to draw on,” said RightHand cofounder Leif Jentoft.
Another critical academic player is Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the first school in the country to offer a robotics engineering major to undergraduates. The program has about 420 students, and close to 300 graduate students also focus on robotics, according to department head Jing Xiao.
In interview after interview, local robotics company executives brought up the importance of WPI as a supplier of talented robotics engineers.
“It’s a fantastic school with great kids,” Symbotic chief executive Michael Loparco said. “We’d love to have as many of their kids as we can.” (Symbotic also recruits from other schools such as MIT and Northeastern, he added.)
WPI has long hosted middle school and high school robotics competitions run by FIRST Robotics, the nonprofit created by noted inventor Dean Kamen more than 30 years ago to foster interest in the field.
Yoni Weiner was a teenager living in Arizona when he heard about WPI at a FIRST Robotics world championship competition in 2017. On a visit, he recalled Professor Ken Stafford, who founded the school’s robotics engineering program, greeting students and extolling the virtues of robotics.
“I was looking for what would be the most fun as a college student and WPI looked quite enjoyable,” he said.
After graduating from WPI this spring, Weiner took a job with DEKA Research & Development in New Hampshire, where he is working on autonomous vehicle projects. “People keep telling me ‘You don’t have to work at a WPI pace here,’” he said. “Not that we work slowly here by any means. At WPI, you’re so interested in what you’re doing, you just do it all the time.”
Massachusetts robotics success wasn’t guaranteed, however. About a decade ago, California was luring more startups. So in 2015, the Baker administration joined with tech industry trade group MassTLC to create MassRobotics, a nonprofit now based in the Seaport that provides early support and office space for robotics entrepreneurs.
Those entrepreneurs include the founders of American Robotics, who came to Boston from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh as MassRobotics’ first startup-in-residence. It was a coup for Boston given that Carnegie Mellon had spun off numerous startups in its hometown, particularly for autonomous vehicles. Now American Robotics is based in Waltham and last year became the first company to win Federal Aviation Administration approval to make fully automated commercial drone flights.
So far, MassRobotics’ Seaport facility has hosted 108 companies that have gone on to raise more than $350 million from venture capital firms, the nonprofit said in a March report.
“All this technology was being developed here,” said Tom Ryden, the executive director of MassRobotics who once worked at iRobot. “But a few years ago, there was the sense that founders left and went out to Silicon Valley to develop it.”
The final stimulus for growth of the ecosystem is people who get trained at an established company moving on to start their own companies. The phenomenon is known as the “spillover effect,” explained Fady Saad, who helped create MassRobotics and now runs a robotics-focused VC firm called Cybernetix Ventures.
“People who have been through the experience, seen how it’s done, and what it looks like, are well positioned to do it themselves,” Saad said.
Examples include warehouse robotics firm 6 River Systems, founded by former Kiva executives (and now owned by Shopify); Locus Robotics, another warehouse effort created by one of Kiva’s early customers; gardening robot maker Tertill, now led by one of iRobot’s founders; and Soft Robotics, focused on the food industry with a chief technology officer from iRobot.
Despite decades of progress, there are still opportunities for many more startups to succeed, Mountz said.
“We solved the very low-hanging fruit,” he said. “The next frontier is looking for more repetitive tasks that can be automated.”