In June 2014, seven UK tech start-ups were invited to California for the first Robotics and Autonomous Systems Mission, hosted by UKTI and the UK government’s innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board.

Confirming recent news that the Bristol-Bath region is home to a globally significant tech sector, three of the companies chosen to represent the UK – MapleBird, Reach Robotics and Agilic – are local to the two cities. A fourth, D-risQ, has offices in nearby Malvern, Worcestershire.

MapleBird are world leaders in the development of UAVs – insect-scale Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – while Reach Robotics and Agilic seek to bring robotics into classrooms using their Mecha Monster and Tiddlybot. We spoke to three of the four founders of the South West startups, Glenn Smith, Silas Adekunle and Harry Gee, to hear their thoughts on the week-long conference which brought together universities, labs, workshops and pitching sessions in San Diego and San Francisco.

Why a Mission now?

Today, robotics research is reaching peak importance within the UK tech scene. Maplebird CEO Glenn Smith explains this is the result of advanced technologies being made more accessible to developers, particularly through the proliferation of the smartphone and other micro-devices. Designers and programmers now have access to powerful, low-consumption chipsets and IMUs, wireless technologies, lightweight cameras and motion detectors to build into their devices.

Glenn also cites a shift in the commercial side of development; 3D printers, CAD and CAM systems now make rapid prototyping possible, while crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo allow teams to test the market potential for their designs before investing in their development. Agilic, for example, are currently part-way through a Kickstarter campaign for their Tiddlybot.

As a result, “hardware in general and robotics in a more specialised context is beginning to earn more focus from the investment community”, Glenn says. “Hence some of the venture capitalists are getting interested in investing – which is important as these are the guys that are taking risks in the trends they think are important, as opposed to some government body saying they believe [robotics] is important. The UK has been identified as having the background skillsets to be competitive on the global stage.”

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The three roboteers: (From left to right) Harry Gee, Glenn Smith and Silas Adekunle

TechSPARK: With the context described above in mind, what did you hope to achieve from the Mission?

Glenn Smith, MapleBird: The trip was an entrepreneurs’ mission as opposed to a trade one – it was for guys with early-stage companies to go to the US, gain exposure and widen their perspective in terms of what’s out there technology-wise. We also wanted to see what’s going on with regards investment and the startup scene for robotics in the States.

Silas Adekunle, Reach Robotics: For me it was mostly about looking for the connections regarding the manufacturing and the supply chain for my product. Investment, as well.

Harry Gee, PiBot/TiddlyBot: I was planning to come to the US anyway; I’ve been working up to a Kickstarter launch for quite a while now, separate to the recently completed one (see video below). I also came out to the US three or four months ago, for two weeks. I had already made good contacts with people and was looking to build on those.

TS: Of the things you saw in California, what impressed you most?

GS: The hardware accelerators. There are places like TechShop – an open-access tool shop where people can get access to machines to try and build stuff – and FabLab which offers a similar service. We saw ‘making communities’ developing around these organisations; spaces where people get to use some of these machines by paying a monthly subscription fee. It’s something we don’t really have here in the UK and it’s one of the things which enables things to happen faster out in the States. I’d be very keen to see more of that stuff happening here.

SA: I agree with Glenn. For me, it was also seeing big corporations creating and nurturing environments for small startups – it was the attitude of the people there that impressed me most. Everyone’s really happy to try something out and if it doesn’t work, to move on.

TS: You don’t see that happening over here?

SA: Not so much; [the Americans] have more of a go-getter attitude when it comes to startups and the bigger businesses realise that. They encourage them to go out there and try things because they know that the smaller companies are the ones that are going to expand the market. When you’re a big corporation you tend to be narrow-minded; you need the smaller companies to innovate and make the market interesting. [The bigger companies] recognise that and put in the work to keep that ecosystem going.

“When you’re a big corporation you tend to be narrow-minded; you need the smaller companies to innovate and make the market interesting”

 

HG: For me it was about the people – from the outside, I always understood [Silicon Valley] to be about the hardware. Actually, you come here and realise it’s more about the way the companies work with each other. They’re very open – it’s an ecosystem of companies and individuals that work very well together. You learn that to grow a good business, it’s important to foster good relationships and become a participant in the ecosystem of other businesses.

GS: Another highlight was seeing the research focus of a lot of the universities out there. There’s a lot of very good academic work going on, but [the universities are] also very keen to commercialise their technologies and figure out how they can roll-out some of their research to the startup companies. Take the University of San Diego for instance, where the IT department has outsourced to a partner company for one of their research teams to put a robotic toy onto the market – it’s taken them two and half years to go from design to manufacture but now they’re about to release two million units in time for Christmas. That was a really interesting story and definitely something I think would be interesting to expose to UK academia.

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TS: Is there anything else you’d like to see repeated here in the UK?

GS: I think the hardware labs where normal people could come along and try new manufacturing technologies. It doesn’t have to be something hugely expensive – an old warehouse maybe, with second-hand machines. But people could go there and get time with the machine or hire an operator to use the equipment for them. There were some really interesting employment-driven schemes out there too, where people were being taken on having recently been made unemployed, then skilling themselves up with the operation of the machines.

They could then make one or two versions of the item for a client; these might lead to small production run which the person would be getting paid for. If the product is a hit, the local technician with the manufacturing skills might then be employed by the new company. It’s a nice social angle. There are lots of guys here who have ideas and want to try to get them going. That kind of environment is something I think would be healthy for the UK community.

TS: Did the trip change your goals or the way you’ll work in future?

SA: I talked to people who have been through the process my company will have to go through, and got advice from them. That allowed me to have a clearer vision as to where I want to take my company. I took a lot of positives from that.

TS: Do you think you’ll return to the US?

SA: I might do soon as I made some good connections, and I’ll definitely have to follow up on them in the near future.

HG: I don’t want to completely move to the Valley, but I do want to develop a presence there; I want to maintain the bulk of my business in the UK, but I’m now considering developing a small but global operation that can take the best of both worlds – California and my established business in Bristol. It’s changed my outlook in many ways. For me this was the first time I’d tried marketing my product and I learned a lot in that respect – marketing for the US in particular. Even down to really basic things: I realised that the name of my robot they don’t understand over there. ‘Tiddly‘ is a very British word.

For more information on the Robotics Mission and the Research Technology Board, head to roboticsmission.org. Thanks go to Glenn, Silas and Henry for taking the time to talk to TechSPARK.