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What Came First, the Innovation or the Market? Learning From SRI's Commercialization of a Robotics Technology

Posted by Mark Bunger on Nov 23, 2015 12:44:51 PM

“We live in a world of abundance… an abundance of problems,
and therefore an abundance of opportunities to innovate.”

That was the opening line of Claude Leglise, speaking at the Lux Executive Summit in Tokyo in October 2015. Claude talked about the challenges of turning scientific inventions into valuable innovations, which is a concise description of what his company, SRI International, does. SRI is a legendary Silicon Valley innovator, known for such breakthroughs as the computer mouse and Apple’s virtual assistant Siri (the similarity in names is not a coincidence). More specifically, it is an independent, non-profit research organization that develops new technologies in materials, electronics, energy, and a variety of other fields for government, commercial, and societal/nonprofit customers – as well as being a strategic partner of Lux Research (Read: Lux Research and SRI International Announce Strategic Innovation Partnership).

Claude described SRI’s process for creating new, useful innovations – which starts with defining and refining customer needs. As obvious as that may seem, it’s still terribly common that technology companies begin with a solution and push it at customers, whose needs they understand only poorly. To illustrate how an ongoing dialogue between researchers and customers can evolve the product successfully, he told the story of Grabit, a technology company spun out of SRI and featured in Lux Research’s soft robotics coverage (Grabit Company Overview, Distributed Manufacturing: The Next Industrial Revolution? and Gripping the Truth: Advances in End-effectors for Manufacturing Robots).

Grabit started out as SRI’s response to a DARPA challenge – to build a robot that can climb walls. While other developers attempted approaches like artificial gecko feet (Stanford), mini claws (Georgia Tech), or suction cups (MIT), SRI’s Harsha Prahlad Ph.D., identified a solution based on electro-adhesion. Electro-adhesion is a means of creating positive and negative charges on a surface (of a film, for example), which creates electrostatic attraction between that surface and another object. Compared to the other approaches, it can be turned on or off quickly, has ultra-low power consumption (microwatts), and operates on many kinds of surfaces. Not only did the SRI robot win the DARPA challenge, it also showed promise in a variety of other fields. For example, Claude showed how devices using electrostatic adhesion could perform simple applications, like attaching a tablet computer to a wall, or more complex and challenging tasks, like climbing up the side of a bridge or building, to inspect for corrosion and cracking.

But where the company really found traction (pun intended) was in the field of textile manufacturing, which discussions with sportswear giant Nike helped them understand. Making clothing is a very manually-intensive process, because no robot is better than human fingers at picking up soft, pliable, irregularly shaped textile pieces and placing them on top of one another for assembly. Claude showed a video of a robot with an electro-adhesive “hand” (grabber, in robotics terms) picking up pants pockets from a stack, and placing them in exactly the right place on the back of a pair of jeans. Some other potential applications in sheet material handling include glass and carbon fiber (both of which are also often handled manually today). Yet another viable application that SRI found through customer discussions was bin picking, where various items are removed from a warehouse shelf and put in a bin for shipping.

So how did SRI go from inventing a military robot made to climb walls, to manufacturing industrial robots that could assemble pants? By asking customers at every step of the way about their unmet needs and open opportunities. Once the textile manufacturing and pick-and-place applications had been identified and vetted with potential customers, they felt it was ready to go to market. The final steps in the technology’s transition from research experiment to commercial product could only come with stronger expertise in business and sales. The company Grabit was created, and SRI hired an experienced entrepreneur named Charlie Duncheon to work with their internal team. With much of the initial technical and market risk eliminated before launch, the company was able to raise more than $20 million to develop the technology into a manufacturable product, and its first units shipped only eight months later.

Following his presentation, Claude took questions and discussed SRI’s process with the audience. One topic was how to approach opportunities where the customers themselves don’t even know their own needs, or can’t see an application of technology that’s too far away from what they are used to. In these instances, rapidly prototyping and revising ideas to help customers see the vision is one approach; another is to look at adjacent technologies that can be combined synergistically, such as a handheld phone and a handheld digital camera sharing a user interface and power supply. But even in these cases, the common theme of bringing together scientific expertise and market awareness – researching in both directions – will always be a robust strategy for technical and commercial success.


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