While many robotics startups are focused on developing new hardware, Realtime Robotics in Boston is trying to make all of those robots safer and easier to use through software.
On Thursday, the five-year-old company said it had raised $14.4 million in a deal led by Soundproof Ventures, Heroic Ventures, and SIP Global Partners.
Robots are in widespread use in manufacturing, logistics, and other industries. But programming robots to perform complicated tasks, such as welding multiple joints on a car or moving around a warehouse among human workers, is still tricky. Realtime’s software allows companies such as Sony and Toyota to outline the tasks a robot should perform without needing to program each step.
“If you open your fridge to reach for a beer, your hand doesn’t smack into the side, you don’t knock over other things, you don’t get your fingers tangled,” said George Konidaris, chief roboticist and cofounder of Realtime. “Robots don’t have that basic physical intelligence, the mastery of space, we get from our motor cortex.”
The problem has bedeviled the robotics industry for decades. Automakers, for example, employ teams of hundreds of programmers to choreograph how multiple robots can work together on an assembly line. Changing one step in the process can require revising an entire program.
“Having multiple robots collaborating together, whether in a logistics, manufacturing, or construction operation, has been a challenge,” said Fady Saad, general partner of VC firm Cybernetix Ventures and an investor in Realtime. “The Realtime team managed to solve it.”
Realtime employs almost 100 people including contractors, with offices in Berlin, Tokyo, and Shanghai. Its annual revenue is about $4 million and rising rapidly, chief executive Peter Howard said. “The revenue train is just getting started at this point,” he said.
The initial plan is to pitch companies using the 3 million industrial robots already out there on Realtime’s software. Other industries such as agriculture, construction, and food services that are moving toward automated machines will come later.
Raising money has not always been easy, as many venture capital firms interested in robotics favor startups that hone in on specific-use cases and design both hardware and software. “Not that we’ve had trouble raising money from industrial partners, but, man, that Sand Hill Road gang never liked us from day one,” Howard said, referring to some of the Bay Area’s top VC firms.
“Silicon Valley has that saying, ‘move fast and break things,’ ” Konidaris added. “That’s not actually a good idea with robots. If they break, they can hurt people or shut down a factory. You can’t just do that.”
Although Konidaris got his doctorate in computer science at UMass Amherst and spent several years at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, he and his three cofounders initially developed the technology for Realtime at Duke, where he was a professor. But when it was time to start a company, Konidaris returned to the Boston area to found Realtime. He now teaches at Brown University.
Realtime was one of the first startups to take advantage of the robotics accelerator program at MassRobotics in the Seaport.
“The natural place for this is Boston,” Konidaris said. “That’s where all the talent is, flowing out of all of the universities.”