Carnegie Mellon, GE Ventures bringing robotics accelerator program to Pittsburgh
August 11, 2015 12:00 AM
Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University
Disaster-response robot CHIMP, which competed in the DARPA Robotics Challenge this summer, is one result of Carnegie Mellon University's growing influence in the robotics region.
By Deborah M. Todd / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A new accelerator program and a $20 million venture fund started by Carnegie Mellon University and GE Ventures could brand Pittsburgh as the official home of the globe’s growing robotics industry.
CMU’s National Robotics Engineering Center and GE Ventures, the investment arm of Fairfield, Conn.-based General Electric, have teamed up to create The Robotics Hub, an independent, early-stage startup accelerator program designed to draw the nation’s best advanced robotics firms to Pittsburgh and to keep those started here firmly in place.
The for-profit Robotics Hub will provide funding through newly created Coal Hill Ventures and access to equipment at CMU and the NREC to chosen companies by 2016, in addition to putting their creations on a fast track toward commercialization.
“The strategy that’s most important to GE is to really get behind startups and help them scale. A lot of companies can come with the money, but what we bring is the ability to scale and the opportunity to commercialize quite quickly, said Alex Tepper, GE Ventures managing director.
Martial Hebert, director of CMU’s Robotics Institute, said in a press release The Robotics Hub would be a chance to help the Institute take even more ideas from the lab to the market.
“A number of robotics companies have spun out of CMU, and many of the innovations created here have been licensed by industry. We have an opportunity to substantially increase the number of startups with roots in Pittsburgh, and so we welcome the assistance that The Robotics Hub promises to provide,” he said.
So far, the team has used an undisclosed investment from GE to kick-start Coal Hill Ventures, a venture capital fund that is expected to grow to $20 million by the end of the year. If all goes well, by early next year Coal Hill will begin writing checks for anywhere between $200,000 and $2 million for 20 to 30 burgeoning robotics companies that will be part of The Robotics Hub. Ten to 15 of the companies chosen are expected to receive rounds closer to the low end while the others will see millions of dollars in funding.
High or low, any amount of second-stage funding will be a boon in a region that has historically been a tough sell for growing startups. Christopher Moehle, managing director of Coal Hill Ventures, said that during conversations with around 30 robotics companies that had spun out of CMU, “25 to 30” CEOs cited getting funding to grow from seed to early stage as one of the toughest challenges in their existence.
“A lot of those companies ended up giving up on the local circuit and moved outside of not only the Western Pennsylvania region but outside of the state,” he said. “[Robotics company] Anki, which is founded by five CMU students, mentioned that they wanted to keep Anki in Pittsburgh but the only way they could get that first million-dollar check was to move to San Francisco.”
Mr. Tepper said GE has already dipped its toe into the robotics sector with investments in San Francisco-based drone software company Airware and Boston-based collaborative robotics company Rethink Robotics. He said GE is ready to dive in headfirst with the venture to form ties with robotics firms focusing on software and hardware for field services such as inspections, maintenance and repairs or collaborative, in-factory and warehouse solutions for manufacturing companies.
While Mr. Moehle said The Robotics Hub will take the best innovations regardless of geography, he was sure it wouldn’t have to look far.
“People in Pittsburgh have been producing very mature, very advanced systems for at least a decade in those areas, so it seemed like a great collaboration point,” Mr. Moehle said.
Deborah M. Todd: email@example.com or 412-263-1652. Twitter: @deborahtodd.
A previous version of this story omitted the first name and title of Christopher Moehle and misstated the number of companies to receive funding from the Robotics Hub.
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