The MIT spinout Ori attracted a lot of attention when it unveiled its furniture prototypes in 2014. But after the MIT founders left, they faced a number of enormous challenges. Where will they find space to build and display their products at the apartment level? How do they access the machinery and equipment needed for prototyping? How will they decide on the control systems and software to work with their new furniture? Does anyone care about her innovations?
Ori, who signed a global agreement with Ikea in 2019, got help with all of those challenges when she found a home at MassRobotics, a nonprofit that incubates startups as well as many other networking, education, and industry-building initiatives.
Ori is one of more than 100 startups MassRobotics has supported since its founding in 2014. With more than 40,000 square feet of office and laboratory space, MassRobotics’ headquarters in the Boston Seaport District houses more than 30 test robots, prototype machines, 3D printers, and more.
Today, MassRobotics works with hundreds of companies of all sizes, from startups to large partner companies such as Amazon, Google, and Mitsubishi Electric, promoting collaboration and advancing the robotics industry by publishing standards, hosting events, and organizing educational workshops to inspire the next generation of robotics.
“MassRobotics has been growing the robotics ecosystem in Massachusetts and beyond,” says Daniela Ross, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT, who has served on the MassRobotics board of directors since its inception. “They do much more than just help startups. They work with the academic community on grants, they act as a mediator between companies and research groups, they have educational programs for high school students and they facilitate internships, and they work on diversity and inclusion.”
Just as MIT’s mission is to translate knowledge into impact, MassRobotics’ mission is to help robotics and entrepreneurs make a positive impact by promoting a field that most agree will play an increasingly large role in our work and personal lives.
Says Daniel Theobald ’95 SM ’98, who co-founded MassRobotics with Fady Saad SM ’13, Ty Brady 99, Steve Paschal SM04 and Joyce Seydoupoulos.
Theobald first got the idea for a robotics enterprise when he was touring his company Vecna Robotics for former CSAIL manager Rodney Brooks. Around 2014, he began brainstorming ways to start a bot organization with former Vecna Strategy Director Fadi Saad.
Joyce Siddopoulos, who was on the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council (Mass TLC) at the time, tied the duo with Brady and Paschal, who had been working on a similar idea while at Draper in Cambridge.
“Before MassRobotics, robotics startups were creating amazing technologies, but they weren’t able to easily break into a commercial product, because even if you have a working prototype, you can’t ship anything, and investors want to validate it,” Saad says. . “Our motivation for founding MassRobotics was to help more of these companies succeed.”
Early on, the founders worked with MIT’s Industrial Connectivity Program to solicit input from robotics companies and took help from people including Liz Reynolds, principal research scientist at MIT and executive director of the Center for Industrial Performance at MIT. The first check was written by Gururaj Deshpande, founder of the MIT Deshpande Center for Technology Innovation. Today, dozens of partner companies provide financing as well as the state of Massachusetts.
None of the founders think it’s a coincidence that so many of them hail from MIT.
“When you start, [President L. Rafael Reif] He gave a message I’ll never forget: He said, “Go out into the world,” says Saad, who also recently launched an early-stage robotics venture firm called Cybernetix Ventures. “I think Reeve’s message embodies the DNA of MIT alumni. We are all hackers. We make things happen. We see a problem or a need and we fix it.”
Of course, MIT has also played a large role in strengthening the local robotics ecosystem that MassRobotics seeks to nurture.
“There is a lot of talent, technology, and ideas at MIT, but also a number of startups that came straight out of MIT and we have a number of them,” says Tom Raiden, CEO of MassRobotics. “That’s huge because it’s one thing to create technology, but creating companies is huge for the ecosystem and I think MIT does that very well.”
One of MassRobotics’ leading educational programs is geared toward female high school students from diverse backgrounds. The program includes six months of education over the weekends or summer vacation and a guaranteed internship at a local robotics company.
MassRobotics also recently announced a new “Robotics Medal” that will be awarded each year to a researcher who has made significant discoveries or advances in robotics. The medal comes with a $50,000 prize and a grant that grants the recipient access to MassRobotics facilities.
“This is the first time in our field that we have received such a visual award for a robotic scientist,” says Ross, who is also the Andrew and Irna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. “I hope this sends a positive message to all young aspiring robotics. Robotics is an exciting field of work with an important mission to develop smart tools that help people with physical and cognitive work.”
Meanwhile, MIT’s connections with MassRobotics are complete: After years of collaboration, one of the first graduates of MassRobotics education courses has finished her first year as an undergraduate mechanical engineering student at MIT.
The impact of Theobald’s MassRobotics educational programs struck a few years ago when he received a letter from a young woman who told him it had changed her life.
“The problem with teaching robotics is that it’s very easy for young people to say, ‘Oh that’s hard’ and move on,” says Theobald. “Getting them to sit down and actually build something and realize what they can do is very powerful.”
A few weeks ago, Theobald was at MassRobotics meeting with a group of German businessmen when he got off an elevator on the wrong floor and stumbled on a STEM class with a group of middle school students. He could easily get into a networking session between startups and business leaders or, as Ross did recently, meet with Bloomberg journalists who are hosting a TV segment on the robotics industry.
The breadth of activities hosted by MassRobotics is a testament to the organization’s commitment to advancing every aspect of the industry.
“Robots are the most challenging engineering endeavor humanity has ever done because it involves electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and software — plus you’re trying to simulate human behavior and intelligence — so it requires the best of artificial intelligence,” says Theobald. “Everything has to come together for successful robotics. That’s what we help do.”
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