Keith Cline, Founder, VentureFizz
For many formerly labor-intensive jobs, automation is slowly becoming the norm. One such company that is spearheading this is the Cambridge-based Vecna Robotics, and they are working in the distribution and warehouse spaces.
Daniel Theobald, Vecna’s Founder and CIO, connected with us to share the history behind the company, including his lifelong fascination with robotics, and how their robots operate. Theobald also talked about what technologies the company works on and what’s next on the horizon for him and his team.
Tell me the story of Vecna Robotics. What were you doing leading up to the founding of Vecna Robotics and what sparked you to start the company?
Vecna Robotics received it’s the first round of funding and officially incorporated in 2018, but the seeds of the company were planted over 30 years ago.
I’ve been infatuated with robots my entire life. The first robot I built was a modified “Armatron” arm controlled by my Apple 2+ computer, and it was awesome. I worked with robots throughout my formative years, eventually making my way to MIT (undergraduate and graduate); immersing myself in robotic AI in and outside the classroom. I worked on image processing, object classification, grasping, and sorting for the Rocky7 Mars Rover, and wrote my thesis on mobile manipulation.
I knew robotics would drastically change the way we lived and worked. However, at the time I’d experienced multiple robotics startups, and I saw their struggles first hand. The world just wasn’t ready to embrace the new technology.
So I pivoted and started Vecna Technologies, focusing on Healthcare IT systems. It did well and provided a place for me to continue robotic R&D, build a team, and apply for research grants. During that time I built robots for hospitals, the DOD, and the logistics industry, all while keeping a steady eye on the market waiting for the right time to expand.
In the last few years, top tier companies started buying more noticeable amounts of robots. This was a signal that industries were ready to embrace mobile robotics at scale. In 2018 Vecna Robotics officially spun off from our parent company and acquired customers like FedEx and DHL.
While our competitors spent their time convincing people to buy less compatible robots, we were identifying customer needs and investing in and building the smartest and safest technology to meet those needs.
What type of robots is Vecna making? And how have they evolved throughout the years?
In the beginning, we worked on a variety of projects including the Battlefield Extraction Assistance Robot, QCBot for hospital logistics, and VGo mobile teleconferencing tool.
As time progressed, we realized the majority of our customers were coming from the logistics industry. They were using robots to automate the transport of material goods. Any outlet that needs to move goods from point A to point B ( Distribution centers, warehouses, and manufacturing plants) is our target client.
The knowledge from our years in R&D enabled us to build self-driving Pallet Jacks, Tuggers, Conveyors, and associated software far more intelligent and capable than current market options. We saw many providers just dropping robots into customer sites and walking away. They would provide the robot but no tools to help it evolve as needs changed. It was a band-aid solution, increasing productivity temporarily.
Long-term productivity gains come from refining the entire material handling workflow – which involves humans, robots, and other AI resources.
Operators need to capitalize on the strengths of each asset and adapt their workflows based on inherent abilities and hard data. That is why we created Pivot.al. It’s the world’s first AI-based orchestration agent. It directs and redistributes work among resources based on the capabilities, location, and availability. It’s Lyft’s carpooling algorithm for material goods, but instead of cars, it is self-driving vehicles, humans, other automation systems, or a combination of all three.
What are the core problems you are solving for your customers?
Logistics is facing a massive increase in demand. All customers, whether business or consumer are buying more and insisting on higher levels of customization and faster delivery.
On top of this, material handling is facing one of the largest labor shortages in history. Our technology is keeping companies competitive as we enter, what many are calling, the Automation Age. Our autonomous solutions ensure all resources, be they human, robot, or computer, are working at their full potential, so their companies can reach their full potential.
Now here is a question you may get a lot, what does this mean for the human worker – will they be replaced?
No. Vecna believes people are the future. Our mission is to empower people through transformative technology, to make jobs more rewarding.
It’s not all about robots; it’s about that entire workflow – which is heavily dependent on humans. Humans possess abstract reasoning, emotional intelligence, and strategic creativity – traits robots simply don’t have.
What robots will do, is exactly what the assembly line and computers did before them. They will take over the repetitive tasks that are both mentally and physically damaging. They will continue the prosperity chain. In the next few years, research predicts that robots will affect 1.8 million jobs but create 2.3 million new roles.
What is some cool new technology you are working on?
We are partnering with major international retailers on Hybrid-Fulfillment solutions to drive robot-to-human, robot-to-robot, and human-to-robot picking. These are the most efficient ways to fill online orders, especially those that involve multiple products –like subscription boxes, i.e., Birch Box and Sephora.
The highlight of this solution is our self-driving Retriever. It was the robot we won the 2017 Dell DHL robotics challenge with. It navigates traditional warehouse aisles, picking and placing diverse sized boxes and totes from multiple levels of shelving.
What comes next for Vecna Robotics?
The robotics market is growing fast, and not everyone will be able to keep up. The companies that succeed will be the ones delivering long-term value from solutions that react dynamically to the market, manage the entire workflow, and continuously improve.
Vecna’s solutions currently provide this value, and we are constantly learning, innovating, and adapting them to be better. We must be doing something right, because we doubled our number of robots in the field and our headcount within the last year.
We recently moved to a new 70,000 square foot facility in Waltham to accommodate our growing team. As we grow, it’s important for us to keep the whole team under one roof. Collaboration spurs innovation, and our new space enables every team member to play an active role in our continued growth and communal successes.