Below are three of the biggest learnings I have seen repeatedly from meeting with hundreds of robotic companies over the last few years.
These differentiate the early stage companies which have gone on to raise additional capital and go to market from the ones that just created shiny prototypes but could never take off.
First, Fill a Real-World Need
Perhaps the most essential ingredient for successful robotics tech is that it must fill a real-world need. It almost seems too obvious, right?
However, we’ve seen hundreds of robotics startups fail because they started with the technology, and then tried to find a problem for the solution.
The startups that are succeeding are those that truly know how to perform a given task. They understand an industry and create a solution to a real-world problem or an improvement to an existing process.
For instance, a startup looking into robotic mowing of large grassy areas should have at least one person who comes from an industrial-scale lawn mowing background. This sort of field-specific knowledge helps bridge the gap between technical development and real value. Despite being perhaps the greatest differentiator between success and failure, many startups neglect this practical knowledge.
You Need a Sound Business Model
The second key to success is that you need to start with a business model that makes sense and makes enough money to fund your growth. It might sound counterintuitive, but the robot isn't the most important part of your business. For example, if you build an excellent robot, but find yourself unable to ship it around the world, that will limit your prospects.
Some companies are trying to sell a robot when renting (Robot-as-a-Service) would be a better business model, or vice-versa. It's critical to understand the industry you're entering in order to make your robot a success.
When you have an amazing robot that you don't know what to do with, you'll lose to the adequate but affordable robot that's backed by a robust business model.
Every. Single. Time.
Make Your Robot Practical and Accessible
The third element of success in robotics is removing complexity. Nothing is truly level-five autonomous – yet – and even when it is eventually, there will still be the need for human oversight and guidance. For your new tech to succeed, you need to make it work today.
If you're dead set on the idea of perfect autonomy, your robot will not be ready for the market any time soon. Indeed, you might expect to spend another five to ten years working on it. Allowing a human to work and collaborate with a robot to cover its weaknesses will empower you to reach the market much sooner and more effectively.
The basic idea is that the human should be able to take the robot, set it up, and handle the pieces of a job that the robot struggles with. Meanwhile, the robot performs the pieces of the job that it's good at, and it provides value by outperforming a human in these areas. Instead of thinking that you want to automate the entire job, set a goal of using robotics to help a human do the job better, faster, and more efficiently than before.
We have seen companies actually track a corporate monthly metric of the percent of tasks the robot can currently do well enough vs a human to guide their development. If you amortize the cost of the robot over its lifetime, many times if the robot can do 30% of the human tasks, it still saves significant cost over a human.
The Success of Future Robotics
Most robotic companies don't fail because of their technology.
In fact, their technology may be great. However, they fail because the time and cost to get their idea to market has been measured in years - sometimes decades.
Your robots don’t need to be needlessly complex – they just need to deliver real value today and have a well-thought-out business model based on practical knowledge of the industry.