Beam Me Up – The Story of a Robotics Startup’s Demise

Although the market is growing, making robots is hard. In Silicon Valley, venture capitalists like to say software is easy, hardware is hard, and robots are the hardest of all. This is because they require so many different disciplines to build, from mastering the complexities of hardware and movement to develop sophisticated AI. Most startups don’t have the resources or expertise to take on all of these once. Even more challenging than building the robots is building a viable business. Robotics isn’t like software. It’s a costly and difficult business to scale.

Take Beam, the telepresence robot. It looks like a giant iPad on wheels. It can scoot about an office and allow anyone to interact with it or someone else in a remote location. We had several Beam robots at our coworking space, and although they were useful on occasion, it was hard to justify the cost when compared to a $50 webcam. This is one reason Suitable Technologies, the startup that created the Beam robot, ran into trouble.

Beam originally came out of a technology research lab called Willow Garage. Scott Hassan was the charismatic founder and created a freewheeling, open atmosphere, where everyone was experimenting with the latest technologies, like computer vision, object manipulation, and autonomous control systems. It was like the next Xerox Parc but with big bots instead of tiny mice.

Hassan could afford to burn $20 million a year on his passion project because he was a billionaire. He’s credited with writing part of Google’s original code and investing in Google right after it incorporated. He also sold his email startup to Yahoo for over $400 million. Under Hassan’s guidance, Willow Garage spawned several robotics companies, one of which was Suitable Technologies. Hassan joined as founder and CEO and poured more than $90 million of his own money into the venture. For a while, the Beam robot was a hot item. Its zenith came when President Barak Obama used Beam to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Edward Snowden and Steph Curry also became Beam boosters. But this wasn’t enough to make the company profitable. The robot simply cost too much for the value it delivered.

Sadly, Hassan decided to close Willow Garage, and later wound up shuttering Suitable Technologies, winding up in bankruptcy and divorce court. Life isn’t easy when it comes to creating robots, but this failure was just a speed bump on the long road towards developing intelligent robots.

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