By Eugene Demaitre, Robotics Business Review
This week, a group of 10 robotics companies from Massachusetts is visiting five cities in China. Increasing international Chinese robot business ties seems like a no-brainer, but several attendees at an event last week addressed concerns about competitiveness, capital, and market access.
Last Thursday, InTeahouse hosted a U.S.-China Robotics Summit Reception at the Massachusetts State House in downtown Boston. Investors, business leaders, and government representatives politely sized up one another as they continued to seek profitable partnerships.
InTeahouse, which organized the trip, is a global network of innovators and entrepreneurs. The summit included a formal tea ceremony conducted by a woman from China.
Speakers at the reception included Nam Pham, assistant secretary of business development and international trade at the Massachusetts Office of International Trade & Investment. He cited the fact that Massachusetts has a “sister state” relationship with Guangdong Province in China.
“Part of our future is robotics,” Pham said. “Massachusetts has more robotics companies than any other state in the U.S., and we can learn from each other.”
“I personally have a limited knowledge of robotics,” acknowledged Xing Jijun, science and technology counselor at the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in New York. “But I know that it’s a big market, with lots of companies.”
“Sales in China have risen from 37,000 units per year to more than 66,000 units per year,” Jijun said. “China wants to be the No. 1 world market by 2020, with a robot density of 150 [units per 100,000 employees, up from 36 in 2014]. That’s very ambitious.”
He also noted that China’s former policy of one child per family has resulted in an aging population, which presents an opportunity for service robotics.
“Healthcare will be a very challenging focus, and service robotics is a solution,” Jijun said. “The Chinese robot market is very attractive for entrepreneurs and business people.”
For decades, China and the West have both benefited from their contact, accelerating industrialization, he added. It’s not just foreign investment, but also bilateral movement of ideas and business, Jijun said.
The Massachusetts delegation will visit the cities of Beijing, Foshan, Guangzhou, Shaoxing, and Shenzhen.
In return for access to the Chinese robot market, money, and manufacturers, robotics companies in New England (including more than 150 in Massachusetts alone) offer innovative talent coming out of institutions such as MIT.
The trade delegation to China includes established companies such as iRobot and Vecna, as well as startups, said Tom Ryden, executive director of MassRobotics.
MassRobotics is a nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging innovation and collaboration in the commonwealth, and it has been working on creating a shared space for testing and startups.
Ryden noted that China has a large user base, but the percentage of robotics adopters is still relatively low but growing in manufacturing, elder care, and agriculture.
“This is a huge first step in our mutual relationship,” he said of the trip.
Silicon Valley is less risk-averse than other regions when it comes to investment, but it already has its own venture capital funds and technology startups, noted one attendee. By contrast, Guangdong and Massachusetts can offer each other capabilities that they lack.
The companies traveling to China are Artaic, Ascend Robotics, GreenSight Agronomics, Insightfil, iRobot, Locus Robotics, Movia Robotics, NextDroid Robotics, R-Storm Technology, Soft Robotics, and Vecna Technologies.
“We build on the achievements of those who came before us,” said Daniel Theobald, chief innovation officer at Vecna Technologies. “We must come together for ‘pre-competitive’ collaboration and to allow innovation to solve humanity’s problems.”
Vecna is looking for the best partners to rapidly become an international robotics supplier, Theobald told Robotics Business Review. The Cambridge, Mass.-based company is looking for investors to help scale up production, sales, marketing, and distribution of mobile robots that are now ready for the healthcare, consumer, supply chain, and military markets, he said.
“Timing is everything,” Theobald said. “We’ve been cautious. … but now there’s a convergence of technology and a general awareness of the public toward robotics. The world economic situation has also improved over the decade.”
“There used to be a strong sense that robots would take our jobs, especially in U.S. popular culture compared with that in Japan or China,” he said. “Now, thanks to dependence on mobile technology, a new generation has less hostility.”
Theobald quoted science fiction author Isaac Asimov: “It is change, continuing change, inevitable change that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account, not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”
In addition, Theobald urged his fellow roboticists to work together on standards and sharing ideas and best practices because the accelerating “rate of technological change is so fast, that it’s difficult for society to adapt.”
“The pace of change is not just decades — it’s years,” he said. International cooperation is more important than political or economic rivalries, according to Theobald and other speakers.
“Scientists, engineers, business men and women must take responsibility,” Theobald said. “What we do impacts humanity.”
He mentioned the Luddites, textile workers who revolted during the Industrial Revolution in England 200 years ago. Automation will displace some jobs, Theobald said, “but robotics can be the great equalizer.”