Do you have to reinvent the wheel every time you build a robot? Or can you reuse significant components of functionality like vision, navigation, manual dexterity, and control software?
It turns out that the answer is that you don’t have to continually reinvent the wheel. And the result of asking that question was the creation of what might be the world’s first robot venture factory. In, of course, Odense, Denmark, an island with perhaps the world’s greatest density of robotic startups and creators.
In this episode of TechFirst with John Koetsier, I chat with the CEO of Blue Ocean Robotics, Claus Risager. Scroll down for full video, transcript, audio … and to subscribe to the podcast. Or check out the Forbes story here …
Audio: world’s first robotics venture factory
Video: Blue Ocean Robotics CEO Claus Risager
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Transcript: my conversation with the CEO of the world’s first robotics venture factory
(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
John Koetsier: Maybe let’s start here: give me a quick introduction to who you are.
Claus Risager: So my name is Claus Risager. I’m the CEO at Blue Ocean Robotics, and I’ve been in the robotics industry for 33 years … so that’s very short, right?
John Koetsier: Not short at all [laughter]. That is a long — that’s a lifer in robotics. That’s impressive. That’s amazing. Where are you based?
Claus Risager: I’m based in Odense in Denmark.
John Koetsier: I have been in Denmark, actually, Copenhagen and then — is that the island where there are like literally 25 different robotics companies operating simultaneously?
Claus Risager: Yes. Yeah.
John Koetsier: Amazing.
Claus Risager: So you know where Copenhagen is on this island called Zealand, and the island just next to that is called Funen. And this is where we are around 150 robot companies, and there’s half a million people on the island. So…
John Koetsier: It’s amazing. I did a conference there once and it was incredible. I’d love to come back sometime. But let’s start here: what is a robot venture factory? You say you’re the ‘first robot venture factory on the planet.’ What is that?
Claus Risager: So, what we have really done is to focusing on how you come from an idea through design development, to market footprint and scaling up in a market. You know that actually thousands of robot companies have this dream of succeeding with the robots and many, many, many of them die.
Like there are more than 10,000 robot companies in China; less than 5% are actually doing well.
John Koetsier: Wow.
Claus Risager: So the challenge of building both a physical product and with all the software and being able to produce and deliver, and deliver something successful that the customers want to buy, that seems to be a very hard thing. We have basically industrialized this. So we have in our portfolio three robots, and we can easily add a fourth and a fifth and so on, because all the technology that we use and all of the business components that we use, these are kind of the same and they can be reused across all the robots. So this is, in our view, a very unique thing.
John Koetsier: It is unique. It is super interesting. I want to dive into what that core of technology is, and if there’s that core of software that can run 90% of what a robot does. But let’s start here: what are your most successful robots to date?
Claus Risager: Well, the most successful is the first of our robots that we started with, the UVD Robot. It was launched in the market in 2018. Development started in 2014, but it was entering into the market in 2018. And we’re basically selling this robot in more than 70 countries today, and it’s very successful. And of course, I mean, we had a lot of growth, and then the Corona pandemic came in and everyone needed a robot to kill the bacteria and virus. I mean, yeah.
John Koetsier: Yes. Yes. What does that robot do?
Claus Risager: On this robot there are some light bulbs that emit a UVC light. That is a special type of UV light with a 254 nanometer wavelength. That light penetrates into the cells of virus and bacteria and destroys it. So, by intelligently moving that light around in a hospital room, for example, or in an operating theater, we can kill all the bacteria and viruses. So in a large room, 10 minutes, 99.99% of all bacteria and viruses are gone.
John Koetsier: Wow. Wow. Well that is timing, right? I mean, you have the robot, you have the capability, the disaster strikes and you’re there.
Let’s talk about what you mentioned off the top, in terms of building a robot venture factory. There’s so much more to building a robot than identifying one task or one niche. There’s a core of software; there’s sensing software, right? Where am I? What’s around me? How do I move? How do I not bump into things? How do I engage with my environment? How much of the software stack for your robots is kind of the same, and how much is unique given the special tasks it has?
Claus Risager: I would say maybe something like 70% is generic; 30% is very specialized. That’s just a rough number. But all the software that relates to, for example, the normal type of navigation and, as you say, avoiding colliding with the environment, the human-robot interaction, motor control systems, all of that is kind of the same.
But then there needs to be special made software as well. For example, if you take the UVD Robot again, it moves into a room, you want this light to get close to different surfaces — hotspot surfaces where you know the bacteria are growing — you want to get close, but you don’t want to collide. At the same time, you want to expose that surface with the right amount of light to kill all the bacteria, but you don’t want to overexpose because then you destroy materials. So here you have kind of, you can see, you need a very intelligent system that can balance these.
It’s kind of a trade-off that you have to do: move in, right amount of light, but not too much, avoid colliding, but still getting close in order to be efficient, and then get that done throughout an entire operating theater, maybe with eight rooms, and do all of that in one row of process. That is quite a task.
John Koetsier: Absolutely. I can imagine that. What are some of the robots that you’re working on next? Do you have anything that you’re cooking up that you’re about to release?
Claus Risager: Yeah, so we have two robots. One of them was just launched a few months ago; it’s called GoBe robot. It’s a telepresence robot. It means that like you and I, we are having a dialogue here over the video link, but actually if I had the GoBe Robot with you, I could not just talk to you, but I could also move around. So if you and I were working together on a project that we were doing something in production, or if you were a doctor and you had patients and you wanted me to assist you in diagnosing and talking to the patients, I could actually move around in your environment and we could do things together.
So that robot was launched a few months ago, and it’s not just a robot that I can operate, it’s also a platform. So you can make software apps and you can upload that to the robot and the robot can then do things autonomously. So, for example, during inspections, if you want your robot to move around in your production, counting certain things or checking your certain things on the floor, or if there are people in the environment, you can just ask the robot to do that. So it’s more than telepresence. It’s the next generation of this kind of interaction together.
John Koetsier: That is really interesting. I used a telepresence robot — I live near Vancouver, Canada, and I was writing for VentureBeat probably a decade ago, and we got a telepresence robot and I could start it up in the office in San Francisco and then move around, my face was on the screen there. And it would kind of creep people out, but they got used to it and they started liking it. This is really neat because you have that aspect, but also the autonomous aspect where, hey, check out what’s going on on the floor. What inventory do we have? Very interesting.
Now, your company name is Blue Ocean Robotics. That brings to mind the book Blue Ocean Strategy, right? Red Ocean is too much competition. Blue Ocean, hey, it’s a fresh, it’s a virgin area to explore and build new solutions. What are the parts of the economy that you see need robots the most?
Claus Risager: Yeah, so you’re absolutely right that that’s why we gave it the name. That’s because of the Blue Ocean Strategy.
We wanted to make robots that go into new market areas where you don’t see robots today. So that was the mission of the company and still is. Well, we focus a lot on these large, large market verticals where you have a lot of services provided to people, so professional service industry — especially hospitals or healthcare, construction, agriculture, and hospitality. There is a reason for that. I think 30% of the population work in these areas.
So that’s a lot of volume with people there.
At the same time, these areas have a very low productivity growth, even negative productivity growth. And they’re also local; they’re basically not outsourced. You have agriculture in every country. You do construction in every country. You have healthcare in every country, even in every city. So you don’t outsource this.
And if you have low productivity growth, what happens with the workforce? Because of competition, those that own these organizations, they have to put more pressure on the people. You have to run faster, lift heavier weights, work longer time, and salary, well, we want to squeeze you on your salary every year. So basically you have people working there — it’s kind of a trap because they have a poor future for them because they cannot really have a career and earn more.
And so it’s just, it’s a spiral that goes down and it’s really bad for these people. They also have a lot of work injury, bad for your health, and a lot of people leave these jobs if they can, because they really hate it. It’s hard work, but you don’t get any real payment and it’s just really bad.
But getting the robots in there, it means a big thing for these people because now they have the robots to do the hard work and they can do the smart work of it. In combination, you can become much more productive and now this is a positive spiral. You can earn more; you can start having a career; it’s not unhealthy for you. So this is, we want to contribute to transforming these jobs in these very, very large industries that we have all over the world.
John Koetsier: I’m blown away … that’s amazing. That’s a wonderful vision. I mean, we look at robotics and we look at jobs and we think that the two are in collision, right? And to some extent that’s true and that will remain true, but to another extent, or to what you’re highlighting here is there’s a lot of jobs where people are run ragged, working too hard.
Nursing, for instance, having to move patients and you’ve got a 200 pound patient that you’ve got to move somewhere and you’ve got a 125 pound nurse that needs to move the person. I mean, really, really challenging things. And guess what? You can’t focus on the actual task of caring for people—
Claus Risager: Exactly.
John Koetsier: —because you’re doing the physical things. Amazing vision. Very, very cool. I wanted—
Claus Risager: And that’s interesting that you mentioned that. That’s actually the third robot we have. The PTR Robot is safe patient transfer and rehabilitation robot that can get people out of a bed and do rehabilitation. That robot is entering into the market after the summer.
John Koetsier: Wow.
Claus Risager: So you’re right. You’re spot on there.
John Koetsier: [Laughter] Excellent. And there’s a lot of need for that robot in old age homes as well. And even people who maybe want to stay in their homes, but need more help being independent. I wanted to ask: what’s the line between general purpose and specific task robots?
Most robots that we see so far, for really obvious reasons, are built for a specific task. Yet we have sort of this science fiction — and maybe it’s going to stay fictional, I don’t know — vision of a general purpose robot that can do so much stuff in an environment that is designed for a human body, human fingers, human locomotion, right? How do you see that evolving over time?
Claus Risager: Yeah. First of all, I completely agree with you that it’s more like a dream or a vision that at some point we will have these intelligent robots that are natural to interact with and they can do, they can cook for you, and they can go to the garden, and they can do the shopping. And I mean, that’s a dream, and I think it’s good to have this kind of long-term vision.
But you’re absolutely also right that those robots that are successful now are those that are built for a single purpose and they do that job very well, and you can produce it at a cost where it’s very affordable for people, and they love their robot because they can help them with things they don’t have to do anymore.
So I, that’s where we are, but I think the first movement towards more general purpose is something that, I mean, ordinary people don’t see it, but you see it in the industry where you can say that the technology is now moving much more into kind of a modularized, and supply chain organized collaboration between companies.
So some companies make an autonomous robot platform. Others make an arm and some make a gripper. Some make the camera system that can do the perception and understanding of the environment. And then you can kind of put it all together very easily and configure a robot to do a certain task. But it’s basically the same building blocks that you’re using, so it enables a faster and faster development of new robots for new applications.
And some of them also have this ability, for example, you know, a robot platform with an arm can take off its hand and put on another hand for a slightly different task in the environment. So those kinds of things are what we see now. And this is a sign of, you know, that we are moving towards this, but it will take decades before we start seeing robots where you and I would say, ‘Whoa, it can do a number of things for us.’ That will take a long time.
John Koetsier: Yes, I can totally see that. And I can see how your company as well, you’re expanding that envelope a little bit, because you’ve got the robot that does telepresence, but also can take inventory, and also maybe do a few more things, and add a few more tasks and a little more intelligence and other things, bit by bit by bit by bit.
Tell me what is it about your country and your island that makes it so amazing in terms of robotics? I mean, you said 150 different companies? 250? I’m not sure, on that small island … what is it that is happening there?
Claus Risager: First of all, we have been here for a long time, right? We, in the 1980s, we had a large shipyard, one of the largest in Europe that was placed on our island. And there was a very visionary CEO there and also at the local university there was a very, I would say untraditional professor who really was strong in mathematics and how to work with dynamic systems and stuff like that. But they found each other, they played golf together, and they kind of teamed up and started this dream about why don’t we make robots that can weld the ships, ’cause this is really hard work for people.
How can you actually make new generations of robots to do this? So that started 35 years ago, 35 or 33 years ago, because I was actually a part of that team at the university back then.
John Koetsier: Wow.
Claus Risager: And we were like 15 people starting up at that time. And today, I would say many of the companies are owned by us who started up back then. So over the years, we have just been able to build this, build that, get that started, work together and cross, and we’re not really competitors.
I think in the industrial area — I’m not in the industrial robotics, you know, we’re in the service robotics — but in the industrial robotics area where maybe Odense is the leading city in the world making new, modern, collaborative, industrial robots, it all started with Universal Robots.
They make this robot arm lightweight, easy to program, easy to move around, but it started with them and they became quite successful because there was this opening in the market. But suddenly there was an whole ecosystem around them that made grippers and also cognitive systems to understand the environment, and then suddenly we had an autonomous mobile robot platform for the industry that could carry the arm or without the arm carry something else.
Or, and I think we’ll have out of the 150, maybe 30 or 40 are related to this area of the new modern, collaborative, industrial robot. And so, it’s kind of everyone is thinking about how can we stand on the shoulders of all the success that we have generated already. And because you get a launch for free here, because all the resellers we have around the world are selling these robots. If you add another component, you just call all of them and they start selling your product.
So it’s kind of, it’s a snowball effect that, I mean, everyone is just pushing on the same snowball and it’s just getting bigger and bigger.
John Koetsier: It’s the Silicon Valley of robotics. Very, very interesting.
Claus Risager: It is.
John Koetsier: Let’s talk — and maybe we’ll end here — about the future of humans and robots. How do you see that progressing? And what do you see needing to change in our economies, in our societies when robots start approaching a third, a half of the workforce and they start doing more and more automation as well as robotics; more and more of the manufacturing and the servicing and delivering and other things like that? How does that change our world?
Claus Risager: So, first of all, I’ve always been a very strong believer in human-robot interaction. I mean, the best robots you can find on the planet are those where you have thought about the user, put the user in the charge so the robot works for the user and not the other way around. So start finding out what that person is good at and then make a robot that does all the dull and dangerous stuff for the user. That is very important and those robots have a great future.
Of course there are certain applications where you don’t want the user to be a part of it. I mean, cleaning up in a nuclear plant, we don’t want any user there. Going to Mars on a quite dangerous mission, you want the robot to do it by itself. So there are certain applications like that.
But in most — I, for example, in my area like the professional service robot industry, you really want the user to be at the center of everything and you want the robot to do the hard work. So as long as this kind of philosophy is followed, I think there’s a great future for those kind of robots, and the same goes for the manufacturing industry. You see the same trend that collaborative robots is a really big thing. And the workers are really happy. I mean, you have a great job. You have robots working for you; you instruct them; you do surveillance; you adjust them and you optimize; and it’s just a great job. You go walk around with your coffee cup and I mean, it’s just a great job.
John Koetsier: Excellent.
Claus Risager: If you talk about what we need to do in society, that is maybe something a little bit different.
I think, we talked about it before, when you move robots into an industry, you’re basically, you’re not replacing people like that. You’re not losing jobs. You’re actually creating more jobs, that is what happens. But the jobs are different. So it’s kind of transforming the workplace.
I mean, there are more and more jobs in the world, that increases every day. One of the reasons is technology, a robot is just a part of that. So you create more jobs, but they are different. So you need to enable people, I would say, free access or easy access to education, to learn about how to work with technologies. So access to education is really important in that aspect. And then when we progress along in let’s say a few decades from now, where robots really take up a lot of space in service industries and in the workplace, people will also have to focus much more on their creative side, and not just surveilling the robots and so on, but really focusing more on developing the company further ahead or being very creative in how can we improve our things.
And this is basically what people are best at, that is, really to think about things, see how we should do things differently. And if you can kind of support that from an educational point of view or in society in general, I think those countries or those regions are really well off.
John Koetsier: Excellent. Excellent. And I can’t end this interview without asking about the frog on the wall. I mean, what is the frog in the wall? Where’s the frog come from?
Claus Risager: What do you mean by that? Sorry for that.
John Koetsier: Look behind you.
Claus Risager: Oh the frog here.
John Koetsier: Yes.
Claus Risager: That’s from an artist in Boston.
John Koetsier: Okay. Well it looked great [crosstalk].
Claus Risager: I bought that in Boston and that’s another one.
John Koetsier: Oh, multiple frogs! One was hidden [laughter]. I love them.
Claus Risager: I was on a trip to Boston — I’ve been there many times — and there was this artist, he makes these in a small version and this large one, and I couldn’t resist it. They are so cute and I had to buy two of them. So…
John Koetsier: And they’re not robotic.
Claus Risager: They are not. They are just artwork. Yeah.
John Koetsier: Excellent. Well, Claus, thank you so much for your time. I really do appreciate it.
Claus Risager: Thank you, John. Thank you.
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