It seems like robotics companies are being acquired left-and-right. Just the other week we learned of two more: (1) My Robot Nation, which allows you to design and 3D print custom robot figurines, was acquired by 3D systems. (2) Sensable Technologies, which is best-known in robotics circles for their "Phantom Omni" haptic interfaces (eg. for teleoperation), was just acquired by Geomagic. While the acquisition prices were undisclosed, it's likely that they were smaller than the mega-acquisitions of Kiva Systems by Amazon for $775 Million and Aldebaran Robotics by Softbank for $100 Million. Either way, these recent acquisitions seem to indicate a growing trend in the robotics industry -- that... or I'm just paying more active attention to the business-side of robotics.
For those who don't already know, My Robot Nation is a website that let's you design and 3D print custom robot figurines.
I was feeling frisky, so I fired up a webgl-enabled browser and built one of my own! (Feel free to gift one to me!)
Frankly... My Robot Nation strongly reminds me of Spore's "Creature Creator" crossed with Shapeways (3D printing outsourcer and "social network" for 3D designs). It's a smart idea, and the similarity could not have been lost on My Robot Nation's founders (Mark Danks and Sara Stocker), who were both game industry veterans.
Ostensibly, 3D Systems acquired My Robot Nation to:
Integrate the MRN [My Robot Nation] platform and experience into Cubify.com, enhancing Cubify with hundreds of new fun and easy 3D creation and printing applications, together with its growing developer community.
Ah... so 3D Systems is using this as an acquisition to bolster their upcoming product: Cube -- a desktop 3D printer similar to the now-ubiquitous MakerBot... while simultaneously trying to build up a content database like Shapeways and Thingiverse. It's an intelligent move. 3D Systems needs to make significant inroads if they hope to maintain relevance in the age of desktop 3D printing. With the recent merger of Object and Stratasys, as well as newcomers like Makerbot Industries, the competitive landscape is really heating up!
It's also brilliant on the part of My Robot Nation. There are a ton of niche opportunities related to personal fabrication. If you can bootstrap a company and build up a community, then you'll find plenty of willing suitors... from $1 Billion marketcap companies like 3D Systems and Objet + Stratasys, to $9 Billion marketcap companies like AutoDesk (who recently purchased Otherlab's 3D slicing tools for lasercuters).
Frankly, businesses in this space seem eminently approachable... If only I had some creative ideas on which to act! ;-)
Founded in 1993, Sensable is a leading developer of 3D touch-enabled (force feedback) solutions and technology that allow users to not only see and hear an on-screen computer application, but to actually 'feel' it. The company evolved from undergraduate research done at MIT in the 1990s by industry pioneers Thomas Massie and Dr. Kenneth Salisbury
However, the more I look at it, it seems Sensable's primary focus has shifted toward medical devices in recent years:
The company markets its own 3D modeling solutions as well as its haptic devices and developer toolkits to medical, dental, design, and manufacturing companies...
In robotics circles, Sensable is best-known for their "Phantom Omni" haptic interfaces. My former labmates (from Georgia Tech's Healthcare Robotics Lab) released some of the first ROS drivers and PR2 teleop code for the Phantom Omni. And before that, I participated in a user study using a Phantom Omni and Cody to perform faux robotic sponge baths (ie. "Force Feedback teleoperation to Perform a Cleaning Task"). Apparently, I was the most skilled (or good looking, or something?) at this task, because my labmates featured me in the video! You'll notice the Phantom Omni is the little 6-DoF "pod" with a pen that I'm holding to control a remote robot:
** Note: my labmates went on to make the robotic sponge bathing autonomous, which Hizook previously covered!
Sensable has been relatively successful at raising VC funding. Back in 2000, they raised a $23 Million round to focus on haptic interfaces. But then (it seems) they switched gears a bit, raising $8 Million in 2010 to "compete in the $3 billion worldwide market for dental restoration equipment and supplies." Then, throughout 2011 they raised yet another $3.6 Million out of a target $6 Million (through a series of smaller investments?) before being acquired by Geomagic just the other week. Given these funding levels, the acquisition price needed to be $40 Million at the very least for this to be a respectable exit... (but then again, they seemed unable to fill-up their round in 2011, so who knows!)
Anyway, you guys know how I'm a sucker for hardware teardowns, right? Well, the fine folks at Johns Hopkins' Haptics Lab did some repair work on their Omni and snapped a few internal photos. From left-to-right: base underside, turret side-view, turret front-view, main arm linkage, arm cable-drive, cable-drive closeup.
[ Major hat-tip to Make Parts Fast -- a website dedicated to all things rapid-prototyping. I've been a long-time subscriber to their site, and I learned of both of these acquisitions through them. ]