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Rethinking old name, Heartland will henceforth be known as Rethink Robotics; Boston company adds $30 million to coffers

Posted by Scott Kirsner  June 19, 2012 12:01 AM

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Heartland Robotics is announcing a big new funding round today — $30 million — and changing its name in advance of its first product launch. The Boston company will now be known as Rethink Robotics.

brooks.jpgTo go with the new name, they've revamped their web site. But it still doesn't include product images or even a vague description of what their first product will be. Founder Rodney Brooks, right, the former MIT prof who also helped get iRobot off the ground, has only said the company wants to introduce robots to manufacturing environments where they haven't been used previously, and help make American manufacturing more cost-competitive globally. Back in November 2010, I collected all the scuttlebut I could about what the company is up to. Sources back then said the company was developing an inexpensive bot that would be easily trained to do repetitive tasks, and would be safe working around humans. Brooks has apparently likened Rethink's product to Apple's iPhone, meaning it'd be intuitive to use, and that the company will try to create a community of developers who'd write software for it.

Rethink is planning to exhibit at next January's Automate trade show in Chicago, but company spokesman Mitch Rosenberg confirms that the product will be unveiled before then.

From today's press release:

Rethink Robotics...will do for manufacturing workers what the PC did for office workers—increase their productivity by giving them direct access to technological tools.

“Just as businesses had to completely rethink ways to use computers when the PC was first introduced, they will want to take advantage of opportunities created by this new class of robot,” said Rod Brooks, chairman, founder, and CTO of Rethink Robotics. “With our robots, businesses will have the opportunity to rethink manufacturing, rethink automation, and rethink outsourcing.”

The new $30 million round of funding is being led by Sigma Partners of Boston, and it includes Draper Fisher Jurvetson, a new investor in the company. Rethink has now raised $62 million in total funding, making it the best capitalized robotics startup in Boston's recent history. (iRobot raised about $38 million in venture capital before its IPO, and Kiva Systems, a developer of warehouse robots, raised $33 million before its acquisition by Amazon.)

"Rodney and [CEO] Scott [Eckert] have built a phenomenal team there," says Paul Flanagan, the partner at Sigma who first put money into Rethink in November 2010. "The progress on the technology has been really remarkable. They have a truly compelling value proposition in that robot that will deliver great value to manufacturing companies, both domestically as well as all over the world. It's a technology that is going to be great for companies, great for employees, and great for consumers."

Way back in 2002, I talked with Brooks about his career in robotics at the Harvard Faculty Club; that interview aired on C-Span's BookTV.

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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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