It’s been a torrid few years for robotics companies, with a string of high profile failures around the world. But at least one company, Denmark’s Blue Ocean Robotics, is doing well, helped recently by the coronavirus outbreak.
Led by Claus Risager, the startup has started to ship hundreds of its hospital robots to China through its subsidiary UVD Robots. UVD’s robots rove around healthcare facilities spreading UV light to disinfect rooms contaminated with viruses or bacteria.
It’s one of the few ways tech is being used to fights the global pandemic, which has infected more than 110,000 people and killed 3,800. XAG Robot is also deploying disinfectant-spraying robots and drones in Guangzhou province.
Following the Chinese deal struck last month, Sifted asks Risager about finding success in a nightmare startup sector…
What’s your view of the landscape today?
2018 and 2019 have been the worst years in robotics history ever. Never before have so many big robot companies gone bankrupt. Rethink Robotics, an American company, raised $150m and still ended up bankrupt. It was the same story with Anki.
A lot of money has been invested. And naturally, some will not make it.
Many that have been successful actually do it with less money. So it is not about the size of your capital, it’s about knowing your components.
2018 and 2019 have been the worst years in robotics history ever.
What makes robotics so treacherous?
In robotics, you have all the normal parameters of a startup, but with additional hardware challenges. You need production, sourcing, quality, compliance — and all the different countries have different rules.
Most robot companies, when they start off, can technically do the job. They can build the product. But there’s just so much more.
You didn’t ramp up funding until 2016, what changed?
In the beginning we were contracting with big companies. They were paying us to develop a bunch of robots and we earned a royalty on their sales and production. But we quickly learned we could not make enough money, compared to if we owned the robots ourselves.
So we got our first capital in 2016, we have been raising since, and closed our biggest round ($12m) last December. We’re now getting close to a situation where we have positive cash flow.
What’s a ‘robot venture factory’ and why build one?
Normally, robot companies want to make a robot and bring that to market. I thought it was better to build a technology platform, to build up competency in self-driving robots and look at different applications. This is what people refer to as our ‘robot venture factory’.
We make one robot after the other, spin them out into their own subsidiaries. And we use the same tools over and over again.
The secret important thing is that all our people and procedures go across all our production lines. That means when we introduce a new robot, we already know exactly how to set it up. Everything is lined up. There’s 20% adjustment on a new robot, the rest is ‘copy and paste’.
Which of Blue Ocean Robotics subsidiary has the potential for the biggest impact?
The most mature right now is UVD robots. We’ve been in the market for two years. It’s a very successful robot. It solves a big problem. We’ve seen very steep year-on-year growth of 400% in terms of robots out in the field with hundreds deployed.
But our telepresence robots are probably the most CO2 friendly robots in the world. They have applications in business, in healthcare, in care homes and schools. And, with climate change, it’s another important problem to solve.
There’s 20% adjustment on a new robot, the rest is ‘copy and paste’.
How are UVD Robots helping China fight the coronavirus outbreak?
We’re shipping out the first batches of our UVD robots this month.
Our robot uses advanced algorithms and special sensors to cover all surfaces with the right amount of light. With our data, users can see exactly which rooms have been cleared for which bacteria and viruses. It’s the ‘cobot’ collaborative features for staff that are really important.
How much do these cost?
Our typical list price is €60,000 which sounds expensive, but for every one person acquiring an infection in hospital, that typically costs around €3,000. With us, there’s a return on investment in four and a half months.
Has it been hard selling into China?
Normally, we send out our own people to help with installation. But right now if you fly to Shanghai, you have to stay there for two weeks in quarantine. Then you go ahead and again, stay for two weeks in quarantine.
In response, we’ve been forced to ship the robots, but train local people in how to use the robot doing over video streaming. That’s definitely been something new for us!
What are your top tips for startups selling into different countries?
Get help. Our strategy is to have solution providers in different countries: we provide our robot, they go to the local hospital, and work with them to install it. They also help us with all the language stuff and local regulation.
They take a cut of 25-35%, but they help us tremendously.
What do the next five years look like for Blue Ocean Robotics?
Next year, the aim is really to just get more and more and more robots out there.
In the long-term, we know we are going to sell the whole subsidiary off to a large global player. They could increase the number of deployed robots by hundred times quickly: a large player could give an induction to 5,000 sales guys and they would be out there the day after.
We also have a nice pipeline of robots under the radar. So when we sell one subsidiary off we can start up another one.
What’s the hottest sector you are considering?
The construction industry is looking very good right now…