November 2nd, 2012

Robots: Grishin Robotics - Transcript

In today’s episode we speak with Dmitry Grishin about Grishin Robotics, his global investment company dedicated to helping robotics startups distribute already working products to the mass market.

Dmitry Grishin
Dmitry Grishin is co-founder and chairman of the Mail.Ru Group, the largest Internet company in the Russian-speaking world and one of the biggest in Europe. He joined the company in 2001 after graduating from the Faculty of Robotics and Complex Automation at Moscow State Technical University.

This background led him to believe that personal robotics, with a market potential estimated to be over $18 billion in 2015 (ABI Research), is ready to become mainstream and poised for massive growth, similar to the internet industry in the past decade. To help drive mass-market penetration of new robotics products, Grishin founded Grishin Robotics in 2012 with an initial personal investment of $25 million. His firm, located in New York, funds start-up companies that are ready to ramp-up production of already proven robotic prototypes. Grishin recently announced their first investment in Double Robotics, a company that makes telepresence robots.

Grishin tells us about the changes that are need in the robotics culture to start developing successful startups, including building simple robots that are need-driven rather than technology-driven and emphasize user experience.


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ROBOTS (Per): Welcome to the podcast, today I am here with Dmitry Grishin from Grishin Robotics. Thank you for being part of the podcast.

 Dmitry Grishin: Yes, thank you.

ROBOTS: Could you introduce yourself a bit to our listeners? Who are you and what do you do generally?

Dmitry Grishin: For the last 12 years I have been doing a lot of stuff related to the Internet, and right now I am running the biggest Russian tele-company, called Mail.Ru. So the Internet was always one of my biggest interest in life, but also during my time in the university, before I started with Mail.Ru, I was really excited about engineering, robotics, this kind of stuff, and I studied in Moscow State Technical University, in the robotics faculty and computer-aided design, specifically. So, during my time in the university, I really was very excited about robotics, and now I have decided that it is good time to start a robotics investment company, to invest money in this field. Why? Because, looking at Internet history, I  have found that people create a lot of interesting ideas and vision, and sometimes they are wrong in terms of the time. [For example], in the year 2000 we all have Internet crisis, right, the Internet bubble? A lot of Internet-related ideas were invented at that time, and you know, at that time, in year 2000, they looked like stupid ideas, but after ten years almost all of them are working and profitable businesses, so it is saying that the ideas were right, the time was not right. It was not prepared in terms of  infrastructure, Internet connectivity, this kind of stuff. My feeling is that approximately the same happened in robotics, a lot of ideas was invented in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, people all waiting for robots to be everywhere, but I think one of the key problems was the time and the market were not ready, and one of the key factors for this was costs. To run a robotics company, or to start a business, you really need millions of dollars – to create factory to produce robots, to do a lot of research, [et cetera]. And I think, because of the big innovation in the smart phone industry, and because of the invention of 3D printers, we now have an absolutely different situation. The cost of a robotics company has become really cheap. And, you know, look at the smartphone, right, you have batteries became cheaper, processors, sensors…

ROBOTS: Sensors especially.

Sensors are super cheap, right? To have an accelerometer could cost you less than $1, or like a Microsoft video camera you can do for two $2. You cannot imagine this 20 years ago and this is a good quality camera, it is a HD camera, right?

ROBOTS: Yeah, both quality and reliability is really high.

Dmitry Grishin: Absolutely, and, another side of costs in robotics, it is very important to have prototypes of your device before you test it for users, and with 3D printers you can do it much quicker and much easier. So I think that now the market is ready for robotics evolution, and the only one problem we have is in the heads of engineers. Because, you know, in software and in the Internet world, pretty much everybody knows that you can start a software or Internet company. You can have two or three friends and start these startups. You have a lot of success, a lot of examples, so it is pretty much very well known, right? But for hardware engineer, this is usually not the case. People think, okay, they almost all come to work in big companies. But now you really can start robotics startup having three-to-five engineers. So this is my idea, and this is what Grishin Robotics wants to do; we want to help with money and [by making] our knowledge [available] to these startups, because I believe that the domination of big hardware companies in this field should be changed, and we can get real progress, once startups start to invent more and more stuff. So it is very important to create startup system in the robotics field and the connecting device field, and explain to the people ‘Guys, right now you can create a company in hardware and robotics field, and this is much cheaper and much easier than it was 10 or 20 years ago.’ And, of course, it is important that we see the [investment] community start to understand and invest money, so I try to show the example and I hope some people will follow the same direction.

ROBOTS: Yeah, it is a fantastic example and I know it has made a huge difference already. You talked about that we are ready for a robotic revolution, where do you think we are on that timeline, if you compare it to one of the older… Are we before Lotus one, two, three or…

Dmitry Grishin: Of course making any prediction is tough story, and if you can look [at] all predictions about robotics it was a little not accurate, let us say this, but I think several important things have happened, first we already see some examples of mass production of robots, for example iRobot; it is already selling millions of devices. We also see more and more, how to say, connected device examples, where you have smart hardware, sensors plus software. I think interesting example is Nike Wrist Band. It just [makes] the person a sensor and it just connects all your movements to the Internet. So we already definitely have several examples that robotics is moving into our home, and, if you make analogy, I think we in robotics [are in] the same period like the beginning of the 80’s in the  PC revolution. So I like analogy. In robotics you have huge progress in industrial robotics, in military robotics, but nobody sees it. The same has happened with PC; you have mainframe companies and then people said  ‘let us try to bring it to home and to real life’ and I think in robotics you have the same. Pretty much a lot of stuff already happened in industrial, military, and we are starting to see it in our real daily lives. So why I like the term personal robotics, it is some analogy of personal PC and personal computer, and I think it is the beginning of it. So it already started to happen and definitely Roomba is one of the good showcases, but it is only the beginning.

ROBOTS: I think that the robotic lawnmowers is a fantastic example of this. I have one that I bought antique, and it is from 1968 and I just heard now my friends and my family and the people I talk to [commenting] ‘the lawns that this guy has that has one of these robotic lawnmowers are so beautiful, that is why I want one.’ It is not that you do not have to mow; and that it looks beautiful and gets into people’s minds.

Dmitry Grishin: And you know an interesting idea is – I talk with robotics people all over the world and I have found an interesting phenomenon – we usually use the term ‘robots’ and ‘robotics’, but once robots start to solve some specific problem, people stop calling it a robot, they start to call it a coffee machine or car, or a vacuum cleaner, so usually people use the word ‘robot’ when they do not know exactly what it is solving. So a lot of stuff which you now see around us 20 years ago, 30 years ago, people will call ‘robot’. I sometimes joke that if you look at a smartphone, it is robot 90%, it has sensors, it only does not have moving parts, but has sensors, processors, battery, it can talk with the people, it can transfer data, video signals, so I definitely believe that if you could put like 30 years ago a lot of people would recognize it as robotics technology. So it is interesting because that – my feeling is that – a lot of stuff which we now describe as robots people will not call robot after a certain period of time.

ROBOTS: No, actually the word ‘smartphone’ is nearly going out of fashion – that is my phone; that is my iPhone; that is my Android phone – because the ‘smart’ [prefix], we seem to not remember those stupid phones anymore.

Dmitry Grishin: Definitely, I think it will happen everywhere, so even if you have a robotics car, or for example part of the time our aeroplanes are driven by a robots, by autopilots, people just say aeroplanes, they don’t say ‘I am sitting in the robot’, right? So, this is interesting to think [about], and this is a good example for me, so the more people see accurate applications, and this is by the way what I really strongly recommend for robotics entrepreneurs. Try to focus on what exactly real problem you want to solve. Because if you say I create a cool humanoid robot [which will] do anything for everybody, I think this is not the right direction. The right direction is to find exactly the solution and really what you can solve for real people, what they can get advantage because this is…

ROBOTS: Like the vacuum cleaner or your…

Dmitry Grishin: Yeah, vacuum cleaner, anything like this. You should be focused on this particular stuff and this is, I think, where you see the most robotic areas in development.

ROBOTS: There is not a huge amount of investments going on, how has your deal-flow been? Are you pitched a lot? If you were in the Internet field you would have hundreds of pitches a day, I guess; as long as you could stay awake you’d have somebody pitching.

Dmitry Grishin: I have already made one investment, in the company called Double Robotics. It is a company from [incubator Y Combinator] who are doing telepresence robots. And we now have several deals in process, nothing which we can disclose right now, at the current stage. We get a lot of applications from all over the world, and it is very interesting, and I see a lot of interesting and cool ideas, but still – I want to repeat it but I think it is very, very important – you should be very focused on the area which is what problem you solve, because I see sometimes [people say] ‘oh I have some cool stuff’. Okay, let us do something. I remember the same we have in Internet, in the early time when you have cool technology, not knowing what exactly to do with, and I think real big jump happened that you found right application. Okay, some people say I have some search program which can search my [score card?] at school, but what can you do with it? But once you say ‘okay, I can search text or Internet’, and they can find good application, let us do it, right? Or, for example, a person can say ‘okay, I can quickly transfer a message from point A to point B, and back’. Okay, but once you create e-mail or instant messaging solutions, which solve a real problem you can have a business, right, and this is very important for robotics entrepreneur. So my feeling is that the technology is already there. You have in software big improvements and in hardware also, and, what is important – you know, in software world, we can use a lot of components, you use like database, we can use web servers, we can use a lot of components from which you can build this stuff – right now the same you can have in [robotic] hardware, sometimes in hardware what you need only to do an integration; you need to take [?] model, battery, Arduino device, and just put it altogether.

ROBOTS: And they are black boxes for the ones developing, you do not have to be an experts on CPUs to use it.

Dmitry Grishin: Yeah, it gives you speed and it gives you much bigger opportunity because you do not need to go deeper and understand how Bluetooth model works exactly, you can just create it as an integration, as has happened in the software world, and this minimizes time and this minimizes cost, so I definitely believe that it is very important for people to know what kind of hardware blocks you have available on the market, to not reinvent the wheel, right, to use those components and to…

ROBOTS: And to 3D-print a shell and then you are done?

Dmitry Grishin: Yes, absolutely, absolutely.

ROBOTS: The quality of the deals you get in, are you impressed with what the robot entrepreneurs out there want to start, are they bold enough?

Dmitry Grishin: Give me the whole…what is application?

ROBOTS: The ones you see in your job or just in the world generally?

Dmitry Grishin: I can say that definitely I see more and more people are starting to think about starting robotics companies, and I like the ideas they have, but definitely still what they need to do more is to be thinking about problem solving, because I have a lot of applications which are just into technology where people do not know what to do with us, and it is very important to facilitate and to focus on real problems and this kind of stuff. And I see a lot of exciting ideas, telepresence, agriculture, medical device, education, entertainment, so big variety of fields and [utility?]. But, as I said, we need to bring more culture; I like the term we need to bring more ‘Internet culture’ to robotics. You need to look at user thinking, and of course by the way other important stuff. It is important to think about design, because, in any case, robots are consumer devices, and you should look on them as computer device. Robots should look good, feel good, and people should like it. It is very important to focus on this area, because, as compared with Internet, all early sites were very ugly, such that definitely we would see that programmers were designing this site.

ROBOTS: Which isn not correct; they are programmers not designers.

Dmitry Grishin: Yeah, and then we have big culture of bringing designers to the table, sitting together with programmers to create beautiful sides, beautiful applications.

ROBOTS: As well as working applications. Google is really careful that. They should not look beautiful; they should be beautiful to use.

Dmitry Grishin: Absolutely, and you see this culture already on the Internet, so people understand this and focus a lot about user behavior, about user experience, and we also need to bring this robotics. We should say to people ‘Guys, this is very important, please focus on this. If your robot looks ugly you have no chance in the consumer market. You should be focused on this. Your thinking about it should be simple.’ This is very important.

ROBOTS: Rodney Brooks also talked about the fact that it is important that your robot looks as good or is true visually to what it can do. You should not do a robot that looks more competent than it is, because then you get a dichotomy between the user things. A copy of Einstein…[?]…and then it can hardly speak.

Dmitry Grishin: [This is] why I am a little skeptical about this kind of droid/humanoid robots who can solve everything, talk with everybody. I think that we are not here yet. It is much better to find, as I said, specific task, seek how you solve it, design robot for what exactly you want to solve, and try to be focused on this. And then, if you see the good implementation of the product, try to expand.

ROBOTS: Intel I think they started delivering, the first CPUs they delivered were for traffic lights, and that is not an advanced communication considering what they do now. Find a niche that you are good at, and do that, and then build on that. Are there any software or hardware components that you see out weak right now? Is there something we need to add hardware or software-wise that would allow us to expand?

Dmitry Grishin: I think from business perspective, it is very important for any robotics and hardware entrepreneur to think how you can protect your market. If you get a lot of Chinese cheap devices, which is pretty much the same, how you can keep this market? So definitely it is very important not only create hardware but also create good software which can stick users with you. So you can upload data to the Internet, have a lot of knowledge and recreate a lot of additional experience for people to work with your device, otherwise you will be in the very tough electronic market where pretty much everything can be easily [copied].

ROBOTS: You race to the bottom and that is not any nice place to be.

Dmitry Grishin: Yes, so I think software, and connectivity to Internet, and finding the right application is a really, really important example and an important area. I will give you an example of this Nike Wrist Band. They create a social network of people who measure how much you move, you can compare it with other people so this creates additional value because otherwise it is just simple device.

ROBOTS: The community around the product is also important?

Dmitry Grishin: Yeah, so I think that this is super-critical important to understand, the whole solution which you bring not only hardware part.

ROBOTS: There is a lot of robotics research that has been done, but I feel that there is a gap between robotics research, that is very nice and high quality research, but it is not ready for investment and startup yet. How are we best going to bridge this? Is there a gap in your mind and how do we bridge that gap?

Dmitry Grishin: I think that definitely the bridge in our minds, and I think one of the key foci which you should have is the technology is almost there. As I said, I think the biggest value we now have [comes from] integrating all parts that you have and finding the right applications. Sometimes researchers – do not take me wrong – they can tend to be an over-complicated situation, ‘Let us do something really, really complicated.’ It is nice, and it is very important for research. but I think what we need to do, we need to create culture thinking very pragmatic stuff, what problem you solve. And I think Internet is good example of it. In Internet almost all [aspects] are focusing on real problems. Still you have universities which do interesting research, but people understand and entrepreneurs understand you need to focus on solutions which you solve.

ROBOTS: Yeah, and the customer uses and will eventually then pay for it somewhere.

Dmitry Grishin: And I think one of the biggest issues which I see sometimes in robotics startups and hardware startups is that people spend 5 years to research, then 5 years to do prototype, and only then test how users reacting. In Internet culture we do nice and quick – simplify product, bring to the market, get feedback, understand something wrong, change it. Otherwise, if you do not get user feedback, you will lose a lot of time and you sometimes go in wrong direction. So I think we need to improve this kind of cycle, when you have some product, production, test      ing with the users, and feedback. This is very important and I think this is do able, this is not something special.

ROBOTS: With the 3D printers. It does not have to be a perfect finished product as long as the user can test it a bit?

Dmitry Grishin: It should be a good product but what sometimes is important, let us assume your prototype has 25 functions; all 25 are very complicated, but it could be that 23 of them are not needed by the consumer. What you can do you can spend 5 years to create [all these] functions working acceptably, and then test our product, or you can think and say which functions of my prototype are most interesting to the consumer? Let us focus only on these two or three features, and bring it to the consumer. If it is works, then extend. This is, I think, important to understand, and this is what I see we can try to do.

ROBOTS: When is an entrepreneur ready to come to you, what should they have done? They have done the research part and then they have focused on a couple of ideas and they may be tested among their friends, where in this, how much would they need to do for you to be interested?

Dmitry Grishin: I think that our focus is on the companies and startups which already have a product and a prototype, maybe already started to sell it, and maybe they built several examples to test, and they need money to scale. This is the area where we focus, because at this level we believe the entrepreneur already has some product, and they need money to do production, marketing, and this kind of stuff.

ROBOTS: So we are talking late end [?] of something?

Dmitry Grishin: It is a rough definition maybe this is like some [?] level. It is maybe like early A round, but the key idea for me is that team of entrepreneurs are, the people who formed the startup, have already created a product and some kind of prototype and tested it. This is a very important step because before this it is only idea and not like final product.

ROBOTS: Is there anything that you see that entrepreneurs have done that they could have saved the time and money on that when they come to you they have done this and that that maybe was not necessary? Is there anything there that you thought about?

Dmitry Grishin: It is difficult to say in general, but as I said I see usually two examples where the situation should change. One, people have cool technology; they really focus on technology but not too much focus on the product and problems they solved. They say ‘Oh, we have cool stuff and maybe we can do this’, and usually for the stuff they assume that everybody will use it everywhere. Like I have a super robot who can talk with everybody when you ask applications you get like almost every market. This is first I think should be changed, second thing is as I said people sometimes try to be overcomplicated, so they try to create much more sophisticated product, and losing the time, and [it is] not like losing the time will [help] bring their product to the market, so over-complication is also one of the things which we usually recommend to people, please, if you have twenty functions, focus on the key ones, test that your products will have a market, and then extend/increase, otherwise you can spend a lot of time on a product which potentially nobody will use at all.

ROBOTS: And of course also spending their time on that might be a bad idea, if you could focus and then get to market and then you could roll much faster, and then you can come back to those other features later on.

Dmitry Grishin: I do not want to say that robotics is a simple area, it is definitely an area for very smart and intelligent people, but it is very important to be focused on key features and not overcomplicate the product at the beginning.

ROBOTS: Is this different? This is basically the same thing between Internet and the whole other… Yeah, robotics is not different in this.

Dmitry Grishin: Robotics is different because right now we are not there. I think Internet spent ten years, from the year 2000 to right now to create this culture, the culture where people are focusing on product, on design, and the end-users.

ROBOTS: Ship, ship, ship…

Dmitry Grishin: Yeah, test, test, test… Test iterate, check, get feedback, change it. I hope that robotics will move this [?], but it is very important to do it, and right now I see that a lot of stuff is done before it happened and I think that one of the important things we need to teach entrepreneurs, and explain to them, and show them good examples.

ROBOTS: Most of the people listening to the podcast are probably robotics researchers and robotic entrepreneurs, so I would like to talk a bit about the investment phase. Say that they approach you and after a while you get interested in doing an investment together. So we are looking into what is the most common investment vehicle? Is this regular stock, convertible debt, or something else?

Dmitry Grishin: If you go into legal and financial stuff, pretty much it can be all just stocks in the company, or a popular [approach] in Silicon Valley is convertible debt.

ROBOTS: Do you see any differences, any advantages, what do you prefer?

Dmitry Grishin: I think this is big discussion right now in Silicon Valley investment community. Is collectable debt is good or bad, and for whom. I think for me it is more important what kind of products people create. if I see it like entrepreneurs who really create good products, I think their legal structure and this kind of stuff is very secondary. We are ready to do both. It also depends how much money [the entrepreneurs] want to raise and what stage they are. But I want to repeat that if you have a good product and [the proper] focus, it is much easy to find investor, and it is much easier to explain what you are doing. This is very, very important thing to do.

ROBOTS: Because robotics is a bit different from Internet here because a robotics company would usually need more money earlier than an Internet company because hardware is simply much more expensive than server time.

Dmitry Grishin: You are right, but I like that the situation has changed and you [no longer] need 10 or 20 million dollars even to try to test the product.

ROBOTS: Because we have the 3D printers and stuff…

Dmitry Grishin: You now have like no too much money, you have five engineers. And one other important thing is that I think Kickstarter is doing a good job to focus people, because you can easily get feedback, [whether] your product is too complicated, and so forth. It has really helped people to understand. And so my definitely big recommendation is for entrepreneurs to try to test their product on Kickstarter, to get a feeling how it is ready and…

ROBOTS: It gets you market traction. Is there a customer out there?

Dmitry Grishin: This is a very helpful tool, for people to better understand and for the people who want to [measure how ready the product is for market], and this kind of stuff.

ROBOTS: Your first investment in the robotics, that we know, was in the US. I guess you invest worldwide, do you see that there is a difference between the European Union and Japan and America?

Dmitry Grishin: Yeah, you know, that is an interesting question. We get applications from all over the world. We see applications from Europe, from Europe I think we saw from Spain, France, and Germany. We also see applications from South Korea, Japan, and definitely US has the biggest share. And I think one of the big, I do not say difference, but at current stage what we see is that in US people more understand business terms and focus on the business, how making money. So this is definitely a very, very easy scene, and I recommend especially for all the European entrepreneurs and people who want to start a company to just think about business opportunity, product, market, this is very important, and I hope that this situation will be improved, but right now I can say that the US is leading, in terms of thinking of business prospective of the product.

ROBOTS: Do you see that standards will play well in this? The Internet has had their HTTP, and many different standards – there are both efficient standards and inefficient standards – for all these dispersed small components to work together.

Dmitry Grishin: I definitely believe that standards have helped our industry, and maybe sometimes not even standards but like, as I said earlier, like building blocks. If you create something like a robotic separation system [?] people use. If you have some sensors, blocks, manipulators which can help people using their products, it will definitely increase the variety of products and the ease with which they come to the market. So, definitely I believe it is very, very important for industry to have all standards, or like building blocks and building tools…

ROBOTS: Public APIs…

Dmitry Grishin: Yes, this will definitely be very helpful.

ROBOTS: Thank you very much for being part of the podcast we were honored to have you, and thank you very much.

Dmitry Grishin: Thank You.


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