In robotics, the remarkable often feels at odds with the practical. The Cassie robot captured the internet’s imagination (ours included) when it debuted in 2017 through a series of Oregon State University YouTube videos. It was one of the most exciting examples of robotics engineering since Boston Dynamics first made the scene.
Commercial applications, however, are a different conversation entirely. In a world of purpose-built systems, it’s not the first thing you see when you gaze upon the skinny legs of the ostrich-inspired bipedal ‘bot. When Agility Robotics first spun out of OSU’s College of Engineering, Cassie was being produced for research facilities. It’s a worthy mission, but not exactly a cash cow.
In a recent episode of TechCrunch Live, Agility’s co-founder and CTO, Jonathan Hurst, and Playground Global’s founding partner, Bruce Leak, joined us to discuss the robotic company’s journey from the lab to the commercial sector — and the role a good VC firm can play in that journey. The conversation spanned 30 minutes and includes a look at Agility Robotics’ early pitch deck. The deck and video are embedded below.
“If you’re building a company that’s building something that is really new and different, where are you going to hire engineers with experience with highly dynamic physical interaction, in the world, with force-sensitive behavior?” asks Hurst. “It’s just not common. Having students using the robots and a whole pipeline of people not only helps us, but it helps the whole infrastructure.”
From lab to launch
Playground Global, an early-stage investment firm based in Palo Alto, discovered the robot the way most of us did – watching cool videos online.
“We were surfing the internet like any good venture capital group, and we ran across the video that Agility released,” says Leak. “We were super impressed. This product, at some level, was just an incredible pair of legs. But it could walk for hours and even run across uneven terrain in a very practical way. Seeing something like that, which we thought might not even be possible, we knew we had to meet the Agility team.”
Agility’s seed/Series A pitch deck wasn’t focused on things like addressable market, and its insights into the robots’ practical commercial applications were cursory. What it did, however, was break down the startup’s impressive technologies. Hurst points to a tone shift between the presentation’s first slide, reading “Dynamic robots for human environments,” and its penultimate, “Made for work.”