MIT spin-out Ori garnered a lot of attention when it unveiled its makeover furniture prototypes in 2014. But after the founders left MIT, they faced a number of daunting challenges. Where would they find the space to build and demonstrate their apartment scale products? How would they have access to the machines and equipment needed for prototyping? How would they decide which control systems and software to use with their new furniture? Did anyone care about his innovations?
Ori, who signed a global deal with Ikea in 2019, got help with all of these challenges when he found a home at MassRobotics, a nonprofit that incubates startups in addition to many other initiatives. networking, education and industry development.
Ori is one of more than 100 start-ups supported by MassRobotics since its inception in 2014. With over 40,000 square feet of office and lab space, MassRobotics’ headquarters in Boston’s Seaport District is home to more than 30 test robots, prototyping machines, 3D printers, and more.
Today, MassRobotics works with hundreds of companies of all sizes, from startups to large enterprise partners like Amazon, Google and Mitsubishi Electric, fostering collaboration and advancing the robotics industry by publishing standards, hosting events and organizing educational workshops to inspire the next generation of roboticists.
“MassRobotics is growing the robotics ecosystem in Massachusetts and beyond,” says Daniela Rus, director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT, who has served on MassRobotics’ board since its inception. “He does so much more than help startups. They work with the university community on grants, they act as intermediaries between companies and research groups, they have educational programs for high school students and facilitate internships, and they also work on diversity and inclusion.
Just as MIT’s mission emphasizes translating knowledge into impact, MassRobotics’ mission is to help roboticists and entrepreneurs make a positive impact by advancing a field that most believe will play a increasingly important in our work and personal lives.
“We are tasked with envisioning a future that is better, more equitable and sustainable than the past, and then making it happen,” says Daniel Theobald ’95 SM ’98, who co-founded MassRobotics with Fady Saad SM ’13, Tye Brady ’99 , Steve Paschall SM ’04 and Joyce Sidopoulos.
Gather an industry
Theobald had the idea of starting a robotics organization when he showed former CSAIL director Rodney Brooks his company Vecna Robotics. Around 2014, he started thinking about ways to start a robotics organization with former Vecna strategy director Fady Saad.
Joyce Sidopoulos, who was working at the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council (Mass TLC) at the time, connected the duo with Brady and Paschall, who were working on a similar idea at Draper in Cambridge.
“Before MassRobotics, robotics startups were creating amazing technologies, but they couldn’t easily break through to a commercialized product, because even if you have a working prototype, you can’t ship anything, and investors want to see validation,” says Saad. . “Our motivation for founding MassRobotics was to help more of these companies succeed.”
From the beginning, the founders worked with MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program to secure contributions from robotics companies and received help from people such as Liz Reynolds, MIT Senior Researcher and Executive Director of the MIT Industrial Performance Center . The first check was written by Gururaj Deshpande, founder of the MIT Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. Today, dozens of corporate partners provide funds as well as the state of Massachusetts.
None of the founders think it’s a coincidence that so many of them come from MIT.
” At first, [President L. Rafael Reif] gave a message that I’ll never forget: he said, ‘Go hack the world,'” says Saad, who also recently launched an investment firm for robotics start-ups called Cybernetix Ventures. “I think Reif’s message captures the DNA of MIT alumni. We’re all hackers. We make things happen. We see a problem or a need and we fix it.
Of course, MIT has also played a huge role in strengthening the local robotics ecosystem that MassRobotics seeks to foster.
“A lot of talent, technology, and ideas are at MIT, but a number of startups also came directly from MIT and we host a number of them,” said MassRobotics executive director Tom Ryden. “It’s huge because building technology is one thing, but building companies is huge for the ecosystem and I think MIT does it exceptionally well.”
One of MassRobotics’ main educational programs is for high school girls from a variety of backgrounds. The program includes six months of training during weekends or summer holidays and a guaranteed internship at a local robotics company.
MassRobotics also recently announced a new “Robotics Medal” which will be awarded annually to a researcher who has made significant discoveries or advances in robotics. The medal comes with a $50,000 prize and a scholarship that will grant the recipient access to MassRobotics facilities.
“It’s the first time in our field that we’ve given such a visible award to a female roboticist,” says Rus, who is also the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. “I hope this sends a positive message to all budding young roboticists. Robotics is an exciting field of work with the important mission of developing intelligent tools that help people with their physical and cognitive work.
Meanwhile, MIT’s ties with MassRobotics have come full circle: After years of collaboration, one of the first graduates of MassRobotics’ training courses has just completed his first year of undergraduate mechanical engineering at MIT.
Advance an industry
The impact of MassRobotics’ educational programs touched Theobald a few years ago when he received a letter from a young woman who told him they 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 build something and realize what they can do is so powerful.”
A few weeks ago, Theobald was at MassRobotics meeting with a group of German business leaders when he got off the elevator on the wrong floor and came across a STEM education session with a group of college kids. He might as well have walked into a networking session between startups and business leaders or, as Rus recently did, bumped into Bloomberg reporters hosting a TV segment about the robotics industry.
The breadth of activities organized by MassRobotics demonstrates the organization’s commitment to advancing all aspects of the industry.
“Robotics is the most difficult engineering activity that mankind has ever undertaken, because it involves electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, software – plus you try to imitate the behavior and the human intelligence – so it requires the best of artificial intelligence,” says Theobald. “Everything must come together for successful robotics. That’s what we help to do.