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General Catalyst invests in CyPhy Works, new venture from iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner

Posted by Scott Kirsner  February 4, 2010 08:35 PM

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News surfaced yesterday in an SEC filing that Helen Greiner's new robotics company, CyPhy Works (formerly The Droid Works), had raised its first round of venture capital funding: $1.75 million from Cambridge's General Catalyst.

Greiner's company had previously won government grants from the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Science Foundation to develop nimble, remotely-piloted flying machines that can operate indoors and out. Possible uses: as a tool for emergency response teams when it may not be safe to enter a building, or for inspecting the underside of bridges and other hard-to-reach infrastructure.

Managing director John Simon of General Catalyst is joining the board of Framingham-based CyPhy; he's also on the board of iWalk, another start-up founded by an MIT-trained roboticist, Hugh Herr.

I caught up with Simon this afternoon to ask him about the two investments in areas where VCs usually fear to tread: robotics built primarily for state and government customers (CyPhy), and prosthetic devices for amputees (iWalk).

Simon said that GC's outright purchase of BBN Technologies, the famed Cambridge R&D shop that GC sold last year to Raytheon, helped increase GC's comfort level with the world of government contracting, which was BBN's bread-and-butter. "That investment built relationships and knowledge in the firm that made us more excited about going forward with Helen, and more capable of helping, I think," Simon said.

While Greiner's previous company, iRobot, has built businesses selling robots to the military and consumers, "I think CyPhy will be military and commercial," Simon says. 

Talking both about CyPhy and iWalk (which I initially covered in 2008), he said, "They both definitely have the market size we like the potential to build a business that generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year. These are technically disruptive technologies, in UAVs and in prosthetics and orthotics." iWalk is bringing the PowerFoot to market, "a completely self-contained robotic system" that helps amputees walk with a "near-normal gait and lower energy expenditure." GC was the main investor in the company's $21 million B round last summer, along with Harvard Business School professor Bill Sahlman and several other angels.

Simon added that a key question when the firm puts its money to work is "do we get inspired by an entrepreneur? Can they pain a vision that we get excited about, that this could be something big and game changing?"

Neither CyPhy or iWalk yet appears on General Catalyst's portfolio page, which may need a new category for "Robo-tech." 

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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