Are universities doing enough to foster robotics startups?

A few years ago, I got in the habit of asking researchers the titular question: Are universities doing enough to foster robotics startups? To a one, the answer was invariably, “no.” It was a massive blindspot for some of the world’s leading research institutes, both in commercializing their own work and giving their best and brightest a clearer path into the world of early-stage startups.

The disconnect is, perhaps, understandable. Academic researchers should, ultimately, be focused on the greater good of advancing science and technology. But the fact of the matter is that in our society, commercializing this work can often be the fastest way to move it from the laboratory to the real world.

That process is an often overlooked aspect of deep tech startups. Coverage (and I’ll certainly fess up to this, too) largely focuses on the lab or the startup, but little of what comes between. For this reason, the subject has been a bit of a running theme through many panels at TC Sessions: Robotics 2022.

It was something I was excited to unpack a bit during my discussion with MIT CSAIL Director Daniela Rus and director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, Matthew Johnson-Roberson.

“I think it’s an ongoing challenge,” admits Johnson-Roberson, who also co-founded and serves as CTO of last-mile robotic delivery service Refraction AI. “Universities want to facilitate students persuing whatever their dreams may be. I think one of the things that is happening more is that more students are aware of the startup ecosystem. They’re more aware that that’s a possible path for them. Practically, we’re catching up at the same time the rest of the community is catching up. I don’t think venture was there, I don’t think lots of the supporting infrastructure that you would need was there. In some ways, I think we’re all going to get there at the same time.”

For her part, Rus cites a number of MIT’s existing incubator and accelerator programs aimed at helping students take their first steps into the startup space. “But I would say that there is still a significant gap. The gap is between developing the research prototype — something that is good enough to present in the scientific community that shows the possibility for a new type of machine or capability — and turning it into a minimal viable product. It takes time, takes resources, takes energy. What I think is needed more in this area is providing bridge funding for the students who are interested in taking their thesis work and making it relevant.”

The consensus around the topic is that things are certainly heading in the right direction when it comes to moving from laboratory to startup space, but the ecosystem is improving at many of the top research institutions. Students and schools simply have too much to lose by not bridging the gap between research and entrepreneurship.