From IEEE Spectrum:
Nearly four years ago, Dmitry Grishin launched a US $25 million fund to invest exclusively in consumer robots. Grishin, the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Mail.ru, the Russian Internet giant, believed that robotics was going to be one of the next big technology revolutions, and he was willing to put his money where his mouth was.
Now the Russian investor is ready to double down on his vision. Or actually double double down. Grishin Robotics has recently announced a second fund four times as large as the original one. The new $100 million fund will seek Series A and B deals and expand its focus to include startups in markets like connected devices, collaborative and material-handling robots, AI and data analytics, and industrial Internet of Things.
Grishin’s previous investments include many different companies. There’s Sphero, maker of the BB-8 droid toy [pictured above], and Double Robotics, which sells telepresence robots. He’s also invested in a company called Spire that develops micro satellites, and in Petnet, which builds robots for feeding pets (Amazon recently became an investor as well). More recently, he backed Ring, which offers smart doorbells—the first investment out of the new fund.
Though none of his startups seem to be on the verge of a billion dollar or greater exit, Grishin still believes that robotics is going to be a massive market. “It’s still very early days,” he says. “We need more funding and more entrepreneurs and more products, and then we’ll see this market take off.”
IEEE Spectrum spoke with Grishin by phone last week to find out more about his plans for the new fund and views on today’s robotics industry.
IEEE Spectrum: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from your initial robotics investments?
Dmitry Grishin: Something that became very clear to me over the last three years is that entrepreneurs need to focus on robots that solve one particular problem. Because robots are very complicated devices and even when you’re trying to solve one specific thing, like cleaning your house or feeding your pet, it’s very difficult and there will be a lot of surprises and challenges.
So don’t try to build a product that does too much. I believe that as the market evolves, you’ll have big, standalone verticals like home automation and telepresence, where robots solve particular problems. And then, as robotics technology improves and the market becomes really big, we’ll move towards more universal solutions. Look at smartphones. We didn’t get smartphones on day one. Before smartphones we had 10 years of just mobile phones. And we also had cameras, MP3 players, calculators, and other devices, each with their own markets, before the smartphone integrated everything. I think that robotics will repeat the same pattern.
Last time we spoke you said something that was a bit controversial. You said that “robotics has too many dreamers and needs more practical people.” Do you still think that’s true?
The situation is much better, but we still need to improve this area. We have excellent technical people who are great at dreaming up new technologies but, like I said earlier, many still don’t focus clearly on a particular problem or application. Problem number two is that people create very exciting products but don’t have experience building hardware and end up having lots of issues with manufacturing, quality, and customer support. Some people have a software background, and usually in software you can ship a product and if you have an error or bug, you can fix it quickly with an update. With hardware, fixing things is much more complicated. If your product is not working, people will just send it back to you....MUCH MORE