Thursday, December 10, 2009

Universal Robotics sets VC round, plants flag in N'ville

By Milt Capps Last updated 3:42 p.m. Dec. 8, 2009 Posted: Monday, December 7, 2009 2:45 pm Universal Robotics is launching a third round of venture capital-raising and has created a research facility in Davidson County The eight-year-old company is propelled by robotics and artificial-intelligence technologies it uses under exclusive license from Vanderbilt University. Those technologies were developed by Alan Peters, Ph.D., a co-founder and chief technology officer of Universal Robotics. He is currently on leave from Vanderbilt's School of Engineering, in order to accelerate Universal's product development and market entry. Associate Prof. Peters is a member of the VUSE Center for Intelligent Systems, where, among other roles, he directs research for a humanoid robot. He is also a member of a NASA research team supporting the Robonaut robot, which has long employed and adapted technology that has been key to Universal's product development. On Friday, Universal President David Peters, Alan's brother, told VNC he was not yet certain how much money the company would attempt to raise. In two previous rounds, UR has raised approximately $2.5 million total. The promise of Universal's technology is that it represents a new generation of artificial intelligence, one that enables moving machines to learn from their environment, by interpreting enormous numbers of sensory inputs, detecting patterns, recognizing objects and, basically, interacting with the world around it, at some level, much as do humans. Universal believes that by providing the world the "first-ever reactive industrial robot," it can improve the efficiency of operations, lower costs, and reduce risks of injury to humans, among other benefits still unfolding. As its Neocortex intelligent-systems and 3-D vision technologies approach the market, Universal Robotics management clearly believes company's prospects are virtually boundless. In November, Metro Council approved rezoning for 2.29 acres of property that Universal has occupied at 2518 Old Smith Springs Road, in the Una community. The Council's action allows Universal to create about 7,600 sq. ft. of office space on the site, which currently features a residence and garage. Councilmember Vivian Wilhoite (at left, Dist. 29) sponsored the zoning change and told VNC today, in part, "This is an awesome's like having a miniature Silicon Valley," and it signals, she said, that businesses relocating to Nashville can find good locations in this city's outskirts, as well as downtown. Wilhoite said Universal has an option to purchase the property from its current owner, Benno Von Hopffgarten, who was the founder of the local Pool & Spa Depot and whom VNC has been unable to reach for this story. The Metro rezoning action provides that the property could be resold as a bed and breakfast or similar facility, and need not revert to single-family. David Peters told VNC the company now employs nine persons, and indicated that under some scenarios the complement could grow to 25 by 2013. He said that while the company is not actively hiring, they're always scouting for talent. Universal is now testing its system's ability to pick and place parcels on conveyor belts, within an undisclosed retailer's warehousing operation. Future development and tests will involve forklifts, then perhaps mining equipment and products for other sectors that employ moving machines with actuators. UR Marketing Director Hob Wubbena (at left) told VNC during the same Friday interview that, as a practical matter, Universal has no immediate competitors close to industry-ready, adding that some groups that may have focused on the same market opportunity are "still in labs trying-on some ideas." He added, "There isn't anyone treading the ground that we're treading." Sharpening the point, Wubbena said, "we know we have state-of-the-art, paradigm-shifting capabilities, so we're really just focused on getting in the market," and the company is "very locked and loaded." UR says it enjoys exclusive access to Vanderbilt-licensed technology currently protected by a single patent with 19 claims. Universal recently announced a partnership with Japanese-owned Motoman, which is owned by Yaskawa Corporation, which claims it is the "world's leading robot manufacturer with an installed base of more than 200,000 robots." Through the agreement, the companies will integrate Universal's Spatial Vision 3-D vision software within Motoman robots, beginning in 2010. Prior to his deep involvement in Universal's marketing and fund-raising, 50-ish David Peters (below right) spent most of his time as a Santa Monica, Calif.-based film producer and executive producer, and has apparently been associated with at least 14 films over a 17-year period. During his interview with VNC Friday, he refused to discuss that business or his ongoing involvement in it, if any. A third Peters brother, Jon Peters, is a founder and director of information technology for Universal. Wubbena, 51, took up duties as Universal's marketing director about three months ago. Independent of Universal, Wubbena is managing partner of TechLife Marketing, an 8-month-old high-technology marketing consultancy and network, based in Ft. Collins, Colo. Prior to forming TechLife, Wubbena served a total 26 years in engineering, product development and senior marketing roles with Agilent Technologies and Hewlett Packard. ♦

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