Personal Robots Are the Next Internet (And This VC Wants to Cash In)

"People feel the same about robots now that they felt about the internet in 2000."

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Mar 12 2014, 4:20pm
I hung out with the telepresence robot rolling around the SXSW trade floor this week.
 

If you could time-travel back to the ‘90s knowing what you know now, what would you do? If you're smart, you'd either invest in a web company, or build one. At that time, the World Wide Web was about to spread through consumer homes and flip society on its head. Dmitry Grishim, the pioneer VC of robotics, is convinced that personal robots are now at that same tipping point, and he's looking for the break-out company that’ll bring the machines to the masses.

Grishim is the Russian tech mogul who co-founded Mail.ru, the “Yahoo of Russia,”​ a decade ago, and played a big role in expanding the country’s web presence. Two years ago he put his clout and money into founding Grishim Robotics, the first-ever venture capitalist firm focused specifically on consumer robots. He came to Austin to preach his vision for the future at SXSW: a world where smart machines are ubiquitous—in the home, in the office, in the classroom, helping humans with day-to-day life.

I caught up with Grishim on the phone after he got back to Moscow. He told me he believes now is the moment for the robotics revolution to take off, because cheaper component prices and rapid prototyping with 3D printers are making the high-tech machines finally affordable for the average Joe.

But beyond the financial factor, there's also a cultural hang-up about so-called robots that's slowing their widespread adoption. A lot of people still tend to associate the word “robot” with job-stealing, mankind-killing humanoids from the dystopian future films that paint a dangerous portrait of our mechanical brethren.

"Part of my job is try to change this perception," Grishim said.

This fear of the unknown happens with every new technological advancement, he went on, pointing out that folks were worried that personal computers and the web would negatively impact society, too, and hell, his grandfather’s generation was afraid of the radio. But he did offer a warning—a nugget of wisdom after watching the web evolve over the last 25 years: ”Same with PCs and internet, anybody that uses robots should be very careful about privacy and security.”

Grishim broadly defines “robot" as an internet-enabled intelligent machine that can do something or knows something useful for humans. Think: an autonomous vacuum cleaner, not the Terminator.

"To me, robotics is where you bring internet to real life.”

That’s reflected in the companies his firm invests in. The portfolio includes seven robotics startups and incubators: Double Robotics makes telepresence machines; Bolt is a robot accelerator; Nano Satisfi offers affordable rent-a-satellites to consumers; Petnet is basically the Internet of Things for cats and dogs, and RobotLAB sells a classroom kit to make teaching STEM subjects more interesting for kids.

The way Grishim sees it, this is the kind of stuff that’s going to pique the interest of consumers. Futuristic mechanical soldiers or lizard bots crawling along spaceships are cool and all, but until a smart machine can shave an hour of work off someone's busy day, most people aren't going to care all that much.

Next to consumer cost and popular perception, there's a third hurdle that needs clearing before robots can escape the fringe, and that's convincing investors to fund their development. The VC crowd tends to be pretty conservative, Grishim said, not eager to pour money into emerging trends until there's enough proven success—the catch-22 of innovation.

The tide is now turning, as evidenced by Google's recent eye-catching purchase of the robot firm Boston Dynamics, or Amazon's drones. Grishim said he's glad the Silicon Valley heavyweights are taking a serious interest in robots, which have been a passion of his ever since growing up on a missile base in the Soviet Union reading sci-fi novels and dreaming of machines.

Now he believes the general public is ready to get on board.

“People feel the same about robots now that they felt about the internet in 2000,” he said. "We felt that something was coming."