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$20 million more for Heartland Robotics, Cambridge company developing versatile and low-cost manufacturing bots

Posted by Scott Kirsner  November 30, 2010 12:01 AM

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heartland.jpgOne of the most promising — and quietest — robotics start-ups in town is announcing today that it has banked another $20 million in funding. Heartland Robotics, headquartered in Central Square, has now raised a total of $32 million since its 2008 founding. The latest checks come from Highland Capital Partners in Lexington and Boston-based Sigma Partners, and Highland co-founder Paul Maeder is joining Heartland's board. (Paul Flanagan at Sigma Partners was the investor there most involved in the Heartland deal, though he isn't joining the board as Sigma was a pretty minor investor in this latest round.)

Heartland hasn't said much about what it is working on, aside from developing robots that will "increase productivity and revitalize manufacturing." Neither Maeder nor Heartland executives wanted to comment yesterday about what the company is doing, aside from the boilerplate included in the press release. (The company aims to introduce robots "into places that have not been automated before [to] make manufacturers more efficient, their workers more productive, and keep jobs from migrating to low-cost regions.")

The company was founded by robotics superstar Rodney Brooks, a co-founder of iRobot Corp. who retired from MIT earlier this year, after more than a quarter-century as a professor and research lab head there, to focus exclusively on Heartland. Brooks serves as chairman and chief technology officer. Working alongside him are head of software development Paula Long (a co-founder of EqualLogic), engineering chief Miki Rosenberg (formerly of Alung Technologies), and alumni of Segway, iRobot, MKS Instruments, Bosch, Handspring, and HP Laboratories. CEO Scott Eckert had been an executive at Dell and Motion Computing before joining Heartland earlier this year. The company has about 20 employees, I'm told.

Since the company isn't talking, I spoke to three people who've visited Heartland and seen demos of its technology. All were impressed — "the road map is pretty compelling," said one — though all had questions about how long it would take the company to get its product ready for customers, and how it would market a general purpose robotic technology that isn't focused on addressing a specific pain point that one particular industry faces (like the robotic agricultural helpers being developed by Harvest Automation, another local robotics company that raised significant funding recently.) Visitors to Heartland describe a light-weight robot that looks like a human from the waist up, with a torso; either one or two arms with grippers; and a camera where you might expect the head to be. The robot is on a rolling base rather than legs; it can be moved around but it doesn't move autonomously. The robotic arm and gripper can be quickly trained to do a repetitive task just by moving them — no software code required — and I'm told the robot has a sense for when people get close, so that it doesn't pose a safety hazard for humans working alongside it. The company is apparently targeting a $5,000 price point, and has been talking with BMW and Procter & Gamble as prospective customers.

Brooks apparently likens Heartland's robot, which is intended to perform the kind of assembly and packaging tasks that low-wage factory workers do today, to Apple's iPhone. He's interested in encouraging a community of software developers to create applications that will teach the robot how to do different tasks — like using its camera to recognize a defective widget, for instance, and pull it off a conveyor belt.

If the robot truly costs $5,000, one visitor to Heartland told me, then companies that haven't previously considered deploying robots in their business would be able to purchase one, see how it contributed, and then either buy more or simply write it off as an inexpensive experiment. "We've seen robots that are expensive and require a lot of customization," said this person. "Those are like mainframes and minicomputers. Heartland believes they're developing the PC of the robotics world."

The very first investor in Heartland was Bezos Expeditions, the personal investment firm of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. Charles River Ventures of Waltham came in shortly after. I happened to run into Devdutt Yellurkar of CRV last night at Web Innovators Group — and he wasn't saying much about Heartland, either, aside from broadly touting the company's potential to keep manufacturing work happening inside the United States.

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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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