Heartland Robotics Inc announced it has landed $20 million in its latest round of funding. It is a series B venture round led by Highland Capital Partners and other investors namely, Sigma Partners and existing investors Bezos Expeditions and Charles River Ventures. Paul Maeder from Highland will be joining the Heartland board in conjunction with the new funding.
The founder of Heartland Robotics is Rodney Brooks, a former AI researcher at MIT and one of the co-founders of iRobot. Brooks is said to be working on developing a new class of manufacturing robots. In Brooks words, “Our robots will be intuitive to use, intelligent and highly flexible. They’ll be easy to buy train, and deploy and will be unbelievably inexpensive. Heartland Robotics will change the definition of how and where robots can be used, dramatically expanding the robot marketplace.”
Heartland Robotics, headquartered in Central Square and has since managed to raise a cumulative of $32 million for this venture, taking into account the$12 million that Cambridge-based Heartland received in 2009.
Rodney Brooks, a co-founder of iRobot Corp. who retired from MIT earlier this year, after more than a quarter-century as a professor and research lab head there, to focus exclusively on Heartland. Brooks serves as chairman and chief technology officer. Working alongside him are head of software development Paula Long (a co-founder of EqualLogic), engineering chief Miki Rosenberg (formerly of Alung Technologies), and alumni of Segway, iRobot, MKS Instruments Bosch, Handspring, and HP Laboratories. CEO Scott Eckert had been an executive at Dell and Motion Computing before joining Heartland earlier this year. The company has about 20 employees at present.
Heartland has not revealed much about what it is working on, limiting information to, ‘developing robots that will "increase productivity” and “revitalize manufacturing"’. The press release about the project states, “The Company aims to introduce robots "into places that have not been automated before to make manufacturers more efficient, their workers more productive, and keep jobs from migrating to low-cost regions."
Elite who visited Heartland and witnessed demonstrations of its technology were impressed - "the road map is pretty compelling," said one - though all had questions about time period required for the final product to reach customers. Speculation is also rife about the marketing strategy for such a general purpose robotic technology that isn't focused on addressing a specific need or void that one particular industry faces (like the robotic agricultural helpers being developed by Harvest Automation, another local robotics company that raised significant funding recently).
Visitors to Heartland described a light-weight robot, a human look alike waist-up, with a torso; either one or two arms with grippers; and a camera for the head. The robot is on a rolling base and not legs; it can be moved around but is not autonomously mobile. The robotic arm and gripper can be quickly trained to do a repetitive task just by moving them - no software code required - also the robot apparently, can sense when people are close to it, this prevents it from being a potential safety hazard for humans working alongside it. The company is apparently targeting a $5,000 price point, and has been talking with BMW and Procter & Gamble as prospective customers.
Brooks apparently expects Heartland's robot, to perform the kind of assembly and packaging tasks that low-wage factory workers do today. He's interested in encouraging a community of software developers to create applications that will teach the robot how to do different tasks — like using its camera to recognize a defective widget, for instance, and pull it off a conveyor belt.