Suffolk Construction is best known for building iconic structures like the Millennium Tower and the Luis Vidal-designed Terminal E extension at Logan Airport. But facing increasing labor shortages and inflation challenges, the company has also turned its attention to helping build innovative startups in construction tech.
Chief executive and chair John Fish and MassRobotics executive director Tom Ryden welcomed dozens of robotics investors and entrepreneurs to the company’s Roxbury headquarters last month to talk tech over spring rolls and chicken dumplings. Suffolk Technologies, the company’s venture capital arm, has invested in more than 30 construction tech startups so far.
“We are at a point in time that, if we don’t come up with innovative ways to change the paradigm in construction, the industry will slow itself down,” Fish told attendees.
A panel of four contractors made clear that there is a significant opportunity for improving productivity in the trades. Convincing union employees that robotic systems will help without taking away jobs is a challenge, however.
“With recent technology we’ve implemented, we’ve had success being able to go to our employees and saying, this part of your job that’s the most tedious, the most cumbersome, we think we’ve found a solution for you,” Kevin Gill Jr., president of sheet metal contractor McCusker-Gill in Hingham, said at the conference. His company is looking at using robots to mark up the layout of a site to indicate where ducts and access panels need to go, for example.
Massachusetts is already a hub for the robotics industry. Early pioneers such as Boston Dynamics and Kiva Systems, now Amazon Robotics, have been joined by many dozens of startups including Locus Robotics and RightHand Robotics. In construction, Building Machines in Hudson is making robots for casting concrete, and Reframe Systems in Somerville, founded by three former Amazon Robotics engineers, is using robots to build prefab housing.
Startups working on robots for construction historically have been overlooked by Silicon Valley investors who prefer to back software companies, noted Alice Leung, a vice president at Brick & Mortar Ventures.
“At the end of the day, we’re building stuff on site,” she said at the Suffolk gathering. “This next wave of tech for construction, a lot of it is going to be hardware and robotics, whether Silicon Valley VCs like it or not. It’s the only way we’re going to move our industry forward.”
Suffolk was not the only local player attracting a global audience to talk robotics in Boston. Earlier in June, local venture capitalist Fady Saad of Cybernetix Ventures convened several hundred investors, entrepreneurs, and analysts to talk robotics at the South Boston headquarters of nonprofit Artists for Humanity. For the site of the first “Robotics Invest” conference, Saad said he chose a venue where city teenagers learn about art and design to signify “the importance of balancing arts and science, human and machine, financial returns and societal impact.”
Mick Mountz and Pete Wurman, the cofounders of Kiva Systems, spoke about how they built their startup and sold it to Amazon in 2012 for $775 million. Mountz said Amazon first bought several of their customers, including Zappos and Diapers.com.
“We thought about changing our tag line to ‘Buy a Kiva, get bought by Amazon,’” Mountz said. “And then it happened to us and it wasn’t funny anymore.”