Ready Robotics cofounders Kel Guerin (left) and Ben Gibbs
Courtesy of Ready Robotics
Ben Gibbs was working in the tech-transfer office of Johns Hopkins University when he teamed up with Ph.D. robotics researcher Kel Guerin on the technology that became Ready Robotics in 2016. Their idea: Software that could power industrial robots, with an easy-to-use dashboard, enabling even small- and mid-size manufacturers to get the productivity benefit of robotic arms.
Today, the Columbus, Ohio-based company said that it had raised $23 million, led by Canaan, to expand its robotic O/S. The startup counts major manufacturers like Stanley Black & Decker and Smith+Nephew as customers, as well as smaller shops that would not otherwise be able to automate. The new funding brings Ready Robotics’ total investment to $42 million at a valuation that Forbes estimates at $70 million, up from $32.5 million after its last round, according to venture-capital database PitchBook.
“Factories are hungry for robotic automation, but there are only 32,000 robotics engineers employed in U.S. manufacturing today and there are not enough systems integrators,” Gibbs, the company’s 37-year-old CEO, told Forbes. “Where we are at with robotic automation today is like making you write 10,000 lines of code before you can write an article in Word. These bottlenecks are a major problem for factories that are desperate to enable automation to remain competitive.”
Ready’s operating system, called Forge O/S, allows workers without any robotics background or coding experience to easily program the robots their plant uses. Forge O/S can plug and play with the variety of robot manufacturers. That allows plants that have a mix of, say, Kuka and Universal Robots, for different jobs to operate them through one dashboard. “Forge O/S is the first operating system that allows you to operate any robot from any brand, and it does that by fixing all the complex back-end work,” says Guerin, 35. The system starts at a price around $10,000 a year, and goes up from there depending on complexity and the number of robots and factories integrated.
The entire market for robots as a service, including affiliated software, is less than $1 billion out of a total robotics market around $50 billion, according to ABI Research analyst Rian Whitton. But by 2030, he figures, it could grow to more than 30% of a $521 billion market. “It’s quite a nascent space,” he says. “The hardware manufacturers like Kuka and Fanuc have their own control platforms so they don’t have interoperability. What Ready Robotics is trying to do is create a common platform so it doesn’t matter what robots you are using, and anyone can use the platform not just an engineer from CalTech.”
The idea for Ready Robotics grew out of Guerin’s Ph.D. research. “I was preoccupied with the idea of usability,” he says. Before he finished school, he approached Johns Hopkins’ tech transfer office, where he met Gibbs. The two decided to team up to create their own company. “I was itching to get back out into the startup world,” says Gibbs, who had previously founded a company that licensed technology developed by the U.S. Navy. As is common in university spinouts, Johns Hopkins owns a small stake in the business.
Gibbs and Guerin moved operations from Baltimore to Ohio after an investment by Drive Capital, a venture firm based in Columbus that’s managed by former partners of Sequioa Capital, in 2018. “Sixty percent of the factories in the United States are located in the Midwest, and they buy the vast majority of the robot arms,” Gibbs says.
Later that year, Ready began speaking with tools giant Stanley Black & Decker, which has built a team to scour for high-tech startups and innovations to improve operations at its 122 factories worldwide. Sudhi Bangalore, Stanley Black & Decker’s vice president of Industry 4.0, says that when he began looking at ways to scale cobots, or collaborative robots, he discovered that Ready Robotics was already doing a small project with one of the company’s Oregon factories. “We fast-tracked the paperwork to see how they could engage with us on a few sites,” Bangalore says.
In mid-December, Bangalore gave Ready the okay to launch in its Ohio factory, which makes fastening systems, telling the startup it hoped to do so in a tight timetable of four weeks, including the Christmas holidays. “I was quite skeptical about how they would pull everything together,” Bangalore says. “That’s where they proved me wrong.” When the launch proved more difficult than expected due to the plant’s aging infrastructure, he says, “Kel came over and started designing things.”
Since then, Bangalore says, Stanley Black & Decker has expanded its partnership with Ready Robotics to other factories, including a power-tools plant in Greenfield, Indiana, and is considering rolling out further among its 60-or-so U.S. factories. But big companies like Stanley test products all the time, and as the emerging robots-as-a-service field heats up, a key question for that expansion will be whether Ready can scale up at a lower cost. “We pay a premium for this interface they are building,” Bangalore says. “It looks like the industry is catching on. So how can they evolve their value proposition?”
Gibbs and Guerin believe that the emergence of inexpensive robotics and the software with which to operate them would enable automation in factories where it previously had been too costly. A McKinsey study found that 88% of manufacturers and other companies in heavy industry have either increased their spending on robotic automation or plan to do so. Yet getting benefit out of spending on automation has not been easy: The same McKinsey study found that only 4% of those manufacturers showed significant bottom-line improvements.
“There have been all these investments in computer vision and machine learning, yet you are not seeing it live up to the hype in the industrial setting out of a few use cases,” says Canaan’s Rayfe Gaspar-Asaoka, who led the investment in Ready. “What we learned is that the software programmability of the robots is just broken.”
For Canaan, the deal follows an earlier investment in retail robotics firm Berkshire Grey, which raised a whopping $263 million from investors that include SoftBank and Khosla Ventures in January.
Other investors in the Ready Robotics deal include RRE Ventures, Eniac Ventures and Drive Capital.