Boston startup gets new funding to make industrial robots easier to use

While many robotics startups focus on developing new hardware, Realtime Robotics in Boston is trying to make all of these robots safer and easier to use through software.

On Thursday, the five-year-old company said it raised $14.4 million in a deal led by Soundproof Ventures, Heroic Ventures and SIP Global Partners.

Robots are widely used in manufacturing, logistics and other industries. But programming robots to do complicated tasks, like welding multiple joints on a car or moving around a warehouse among human workers, remains tricky. Realtime’s software allows companies such as Sony and Toyota to define the tasks a robot should perform without having to program each step.

“If you open your fridge to grab a beer, your hand doesn’t hit the side, you don’t knock other things over, you don’t get your fingers tangled up,” said George Konidaris, lead roboticist and co-founder of RealTime. . “Robots don’t have that basic physical intelligence, spatial mastery, that we get from our motor cortex.”

The problem has plagued 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 may require revising an entire program.

“Having multiple robots collaborate, whether in a logistics, manufacturing or construction operation, has been a challenge,” said Fady Saad, general partner at venture capital firm Cybernetix Ventures and an investor in Realtime. “The Realtime team managed to solve it.”

Realtime employs nearly 100 people, including contractors, with offices in Berlin, Tokyo and Shanghai. Its annual revenue is about $4 million and growing rapidly, chief executive Peter Howard said. “The revenue train is just getting started at this point,” he said.

The initial plan is to launch companies using the 3 million industrial robots already there on Realtime software. Other industries such as agriculture, construction, and food service that are turning to automated machinery will come later.

Raising money hasn’t always been easy, as many VCs interested in robotics favor startups that focus on specific use cases and design both hardware and software. “It’s not that we had trouble raising funds from industry partners, but, man, that Sand Hill Road gang never liked us from day one,” Howard said, referencing some of the best venture capitalists in the Bay Area.

“Silicon Valley has this saying, ‘move fast and break things,'” Konidaris added. “It’s not really 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 earned his doctorate in computer science from UMass Amherst and spent several years at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, he and his three co-founders originally developed the technology for Realtime at Duke, where he was a professor. But when it came time to start a business, 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 MassRobotics in the Seaport’s robotics accelerator program.

“The natural place for that is Boston,” Konidaris said. “That’s where all the talent is, coming out of all the universities.”

Aaron Pressman can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ampressman.

Mavis R. Bernier