A few years ago, I got into the habit of asking researchers the titular question: Are universities doing enough to boost robotics startups? To one, the answer was invariably “no”. It has been a huge blind spot 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 may be understandable. Academic researchers should ultimately focus on the greater importance of advancing science and technology. But the fact is that in our society, commercializing this work is often the fastest way to get it from the lab to the real world.
That process is often overlooked at deep tech startups. The coverage (and I certainly will) focuses largely on the lab or startup, but little of what comes in between. For this reason, the topic has been a bit of a recurring theme in many panels at TC Sessions: Robotics 2022.
It was something I was excited about during my conversation with MIT CSAIL Director Daniela Rus and director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University Matthew Johnson-Roberson.
“I think it’s an ongoing challenge,” admits Johnson-Roberson, who was also the co-founder and CTO of the last-mile robotic delivery service Refraction AI. “Universities want to make it easier for students to pursue their dreams. I think one of the things that is happening more is that more students are aware of the startup ecosystem. They are more aware that that is a possible path for them. In practice, we are catching up while the rest of the community is catching up. I don’t think venture was there, I don’t think much of the support infrastructure you would need was there. Somehow I think we’ll all get there at the same time.”
Rus, for her part, cites a number of MIT’s existing incubator and accelerator programs that aim to help students take their first steps in the startup space. “But I would say there is still a significant gap. The gap is between developing the research prototype—something good enough to present in the scientific community that demonstrates the potential for a new type of machine or capability—and turning it into a minimally viable product. It takes time, costs resources, costs energy. What I think is needed more in this area is to provide bridging funding for the students who are interested in making their thesis work and making it relevant.”
The consensus on the subject is that things are certainly moving in the right direction when it comes to moving from lab to startup space, but the ecosystem is improving at many of the best research institutions. Students and schools simply have too much to lose by failing to bridge the gap between research and entrepreneurship.