8 places to allocate $1B in U.S. robotics infrastructure

There are some smart people involved in robotics. Throughout the United States go to any University and most high schools and you’re likely to find some sort of tinkering, coding, soldering and controlling some sort of robotics contraption.

What’s happening is that products like the Arduino and Raspberry Pi have opened up access to low-cost tiny computers, leagues of students have spun up around robotics competitions and it’s finally become somewhat accessible to prototype new ideas.

Which is great because robotics represents a  massive wave of fun, breakthroughs and revenue. Combined with Artificial Intelligence and a whole connected world robots educate, entertain and help us in lots of ways.

But how do you make money in robotics and what’s really needed to win in the industry. 

Entrepreneur Mark Cuban recently suggested to President-elect Donald Trump to consider spending $1B of his proposed $1Trillion infrastructure budget towards robotics. As a founder of a robotics company I of course think that’s a great idea.

However I also really think Mr. Cuban has a point. Let’s think about what infrastructure really means in this coming century. In a sense robotics infrastructure can be education and common tools as much as it is factories and roads.

I do think robotics represent an economic and scientific opportunity that will dwarf the Internet industry.

With successes and failures during both ‘booms’ for nothing else I’ve earned a unique perspective. What I see in robotics is a tremendous blossoming of innovation. Maker spaces and low-cost access and old engineers teaching young engineers. It’s great. But what I don’t see are lots of people making lots of money with truly advanced, easy-to-use robots. I see kids on phones controlling toys and I see very expensive research robots. I don’t see true robots being successfully sold into homes.

The reason is they don’t yet exist. Not from China. Not from Europe. Not from Russia. And definitely not from the United States. Both from a technological  (power, CPU, intelligence) and from a consumer perspective (easy, truly useful) they aren’t quite there yet. Which is great. It means there’s still time for leaders to emerge. And there are some leaders. Softbank. iRobot. Sphero. These are all organizations that are already winning in their markets.  And that doesn’t include medical or industrial robotics which are just massive areas for cost savings and new breakthroughs.

8 areas to spend $1B in Robotics Infrastructure

1. K-12 Education: There is a big push already for STEM and to implement things like Design Thinking and robotics clubs into schools. But it’s focused in affluent areas and there are still lots of barriers.  And frankly much of it misses entrepreneurship and product development which is what we need. The teachers and administrators need people not just money and hardware. It’s hard to create and implement new programs particularly in areas where there isn’t sufficient training.

Let’s first increase access and make sure everyone everywhere can get a hold of the basic building blocks of robotics and machine learning. At the same time teach the basics of Linux including networks and network security.

We’ve found Public Libraries to be great hubs because  they open and somewhat more informal areas for communities but they aren’t staffed to implement robotics innovation either. They can buy the materials but it takes people who know robotics to teach robotics.

2. Entrepreneurs, Artists AND Engineers: The wheels, beeping, sensing and thinking isn’t what makes a robot a robot. It’s the character. It’s how we feel about the robot which is important. That on top of usability and customer-driven product development is what is needed most. Engineers tend to try to solve the most complex problem, not the customer problem and more creative people tend to not think of themselves as hardware engineers.

3. Work WITH China:  I’m not a politician nor do I understand totally all aspects of international trade. But I’ve had the good fortune of working with some brilliant collaborators from China. So that’s my experience and perspective. Maybe we should look at our relationship with China as a huge asset.  How can we work together to innovate even faster. The Chinese has been perfecting their infrastructure for 5,000 years and it’s efficient and full of talent.

How can this relationship be improved and optimized for profits, the environment, and in a way that benefits the employees and shareholders of all parties?

4. Light manufacturing: Ok so you have a product that is working. A successful Kickstarter…pilot customers and more waiting. But you don’t yet have thousands of orders. How do you make leap from maker space idea to the shelves of Target? When they say hardware is hard this is what they are referring to. This is a gap that is hard to cross without a significant highly speculative capital outlay.

The truth is there are quite a few steps and phases in between prototype and mass market and this is a huge opportunity for innovation.  Laser cutting, 3D printing, assembly and packaging. Hardware startups require places they can solder. Try to find a CoWorking space in your town where you can set-up an assembly and soldering line.  If you think about it this is a major barrier that didn’t exist during the dot com boom.

5. Intellectual Capital: As and Global IP Champion Recipient and someone who has several patents and trademarks I can say this process we have in this country is amazing. But it needs to be smoothed out. And I have zero confidence a small U.S. company or individual can hope to protect IP overseas let alone here against the Internet not to mention big companies with teams of lawyers.

Let’s simplify IP management globally and make this a bargaining chip with other countries.

Stealing someone’s concept and then using legal power or international borders to profit from it should be illegal and immoral. How can we open up but also monetize the market for IP sort of like the music industry. If Getty Images can scan and fine people who use images across the entire web we can as a planet figure out how to truly commoditize and open up intellectual capital.

6. Federal Funding for Small Organizations: Grants.gov and SAM are great online resources. And it’s amazing how many grant opportunities are out there. But to a small school, library or business getting a significant federal grant is hard. Not only are the applications very time consuming to an already busy staff, a smaller organization doesn’t have the research capacity that many grants require. And while research is important – the Universities are who drive many of the new truly breakthrough technologies – it’s the small organization who faces the end user or customer and who often needs the funding the most to move forward.

7. Collaborate so we can focus on the real work: This doesn’t mean copy each other. And it doesn’t mean there isn’t a competitive robotics industry. Just the opposite. It simply means lets share the components of our technologies which can be easily integrated.  Maybe a national standard for common basic robot controls and interconnectivity. Let’s open up time and resources to work on robot personalities and artificial intelligence. These algorithms and code sets and data models are what makes a robot valuable.

8. Fuel existing growth: There are some great organizations and companies already out there with some amazing products. Put in place a way for them to identify themselves and then fund and support the ones that will have the most impact. Empower local workforce and manufacturing task forces to map and help drive collective growth for their existing resources. Cut through some of the red tape and make it easier for governments to fund startups with budgets they already have.

So that’s 8 things we can start with to jump-start the robotics innovation here in the United States – an beyond.

-Jalali Hartman