Entrepreneurs launch ingenious plans with flexible robotics.

Mark Menting and Heico Sandee: co-founders of Smart Robotics

In a refurbished research building 12 on High Tech Campus Eindhoven, the first of a new team of startups is unpacking their removal boxes. They are already showing curious visitors what they’re up to. We meet up with Heico Sandee, Managing Director of Smart Robotics to find out more about why now is the moment for them to scale-up. Although the company is just a couple of months old, the team have a wealth of experience. For it’s now time to scale some extensive planning into a global business.

“In fact, we're doing two things,” says Heico. “We're developing software for flexible automation using robots, and we're marketing the software to put these robots into the market. Imagine a freelance agency for robots.”

Robots Need to Adapt to Change

“Robots have been used to assemble or package products for decades. They are ideal for repetitive work, being designed and manufactured to do the same job for several years in a row. But as we see the life cycle of products shortening, the variances are getting bigger and bigger, so it is difficult and prohibitively expensive to make an automation for one specific product.”

“So people would like to configure the robot rather than program it. What you see at the moment is that people buy the hardware, which is already rather expensive. But there is also a lot of programming effort needed before you have your application. That can be 50-80% of the total price you pay for a robot. We're working on one software package which is able to control various types of robots. A customer can purchase a robot and our package, configure it to do a job for weeks or months, in the same way, that companies use freelance talent now. In this phase, we're focussed on inorganic products which have the same dimensions, although organic products like fruit are not far off.”

“Because our robots are sensitive to their surroundings, they can operate without safety fences around them. They can easily co-operate with humans working close by. So I envision a world where robots and humans are both involved in rebuilding our economy.”

Why this a business and not just an idea

“Although our company only started in May 2015, both my co-founder Mark Menting and I have extensive experience in the robotics business. We have long connections with Eindhoven University of Technology. And we set up the robotics division within Alten, a leading service provider in the field of technical consultancy and engineering. It’s about 600 people working in software and mechatronics, of which around 30 people are working on robotics. While at Alten we heard a lot of requests from customers who were asking us to make these robots more generic. You cannot do all the software development for one specific customer. It couldn't scale. Alten, being a contract development company, wasn't the best partner to develop generic software and sell it to its customers. So we decided to form a separate company to address the specific needs of these customers”.

When selecting a space for scaling up always consider the location!

“The building we’re now in has a fascinating heritage. It used to house a cyclotron, a type of particle accelerator, which Philips used to study subatomic structures. It has now been transformed into a building open to late-stage startup companies like ourselves. In fact, we're the first team to move in, but more have just signed up as from July 1st. We have several reasons for wanting to be here on the campus. There's a good match because we're surrounded by companies here who are all doing high tech development. For instance, I've been trying to solve a specific challenge involving cameras. I know Philips research has a unit specialised in cameras, and it took one phone call and a three-minute walk to talk with the right developer to hear how they would approach the problem. We're also delighted with help we've been getting from the High Tech Campus Management team. They are brilliant informal connectors – so when you can define what you're trying to solve, then can connect you with others on campus who may be able to help. And because there's a constant stream of international visitors, if delegations have an interest in robotics, they make sure we're part of their guided tour. We're getting a constant stream of visitors and several have turned out to be excellent leads.”

Ensure your surroundings inspire

“We also considered other locations in the area. But as we looked at offices on industrial parks, we realised that it is difficult to operate in splendid isolation. At all these places, I was asking myself, is this the right environment for my team? You don't get much inspiration if your neighbours are running a dry-cleaning business! When our team has a lunch break in the afternoon, they only have each other because they're working in an extremely specialised field. Having lunch on the Strip (the restaurant area of the High Tech Campus) amongst a few thousand technical geeks is something else.”

“This building dates from the sixties. We did give our offices a fresh coat of paint, but we definitely want to keep a few bits of the heritage of the past, like some early power sockets. A lot of interesting discoveries were made here, so we want to continue the tradition.”

“Robotics is very broad area – anything from flying robots, self-driving cars. But we're focussed on robotic arms and the software to steer them. It turns out that writing that software takes a very high degree of skill in dealing with a vast amount of complex sensor information. We're different because we're making the robot aware of its surroundings. So it can correct its own faults. So if it trying to grasp a large bolt, for instance, and for some reason the bolt isn't there, it will know that and start searching for it. Other systems would simply carry on as if the bolt were there, leading to a "misplacement" and a faulty product.”

“Our approach is to work with 3D cameras, which gives us a lot of information on the environment which we have to make sense of it all. In the end, we're able to ensure the robot does smarter things. We have built and tested a lot of our technology in the academic research setting. Now we're taking that knowledge and software to the next level so that it becomes a reliable, robust industrial application which can run 24/7 in a factory.” 

“We started our physical activity on May 1st, but we've been planning the company since the summer of 2014. We developed our business model canvas and raised a first round of funding to give us a runway for the next 18 months. But we're quite advanced in the discussions with investors for the funds we still need. In early July we announced an investment from the regional development agency here, the BOM.”

Global Vision from Day One

“What we're doing in robotics is really new. The market still has to establish itself. That's difficult for some investors to grasp the complexity and therefore authenticate the risk. But since our company was born out of customer requests, and we still get more requests daily, we're sure we've validated our technology. It's an example of "market pull" rather than "technology push". 

“Our company vision has been global from day one. We know we can scale quickly now. And we notice that's important in discussions with manufacturers, most of whom have production facilities in several locations worldwide.”

Robots that understand their surroundings

“We're telling the world that we're developing a new type of employment agency, but using robots rather than humans. About a year ago there was a lot of debate in the Netherlands, especially as both regional and national government is trying to revitalise local manufacturing. We think manufacturing can return, but successful companies will operate in new and different ways.”

“For decades we have outsourced manufacturing to low-wage countries. Now people are realising that if we can use robots to make production viable in the Netherlands, then it will create a number of highly skilled jobs. Robots are good at doing routine serial tasks. But the human brain is much better at thinking about complex tasks in parallel, doing things that robots cannot do.”

Fun fact to remember us

“You may like to know that a few years back we formed a robotics band on campus called TeamDARE, performing here in the Netherlands but also at the Maker Faire in Rome. Now it shows what’s possible with robotics in a completely different context – I'm particularly proud of what we've been able to do with robotic pan-pipes!”