Accelerators / Manufacturing / Robotics

Robot builders in Pittsburgh get a boost from Innovation Works’ new Scale program

The Robotics Factory announced its inaugural cohort for the residency, which is funded with a grant from the EDA.

The team at KEF Robotics, one of the members of the 2024 Scale Residency Program at Robotics Works (KEF Robotics)

A few months after setting up shop in RIDC’s Tech Forge building in Lawrenceville, Innovation Works’ Robotics Factory has welcomed the first-ever cohort for its Scale Residency Program.

The residency is designed to help startups develop prototypes, as well as give them access to services that help advance their products.

What sets the program apart, Innovation Works manufacturing manager Matt Verlinich told, is that it empowers smaller startups to make their own products, which can lead to them being more likely to succeed in the business market

“We really do a deep dive, collaborating with the accelerator team to figure out what is the business need of the product,” Verlinich said. “What is the need for the current stage of the prototype? And how can we iterate on that prototype as quickly and cost-effectively as possible so that these companies can be prepared to then work efficiently with our local manufacturing network?”

The five Pittsburgh companies chosen for the cohort will get one year of access to the facility on Lawrenceville’s “Robotics Row,” along with hands-on support.

Cohort members each focus on robotics and automation in a variety of sectors, including agriculture, construction, mining, energy, warehousing and manufacturing. As described in an announcement, they are:

  • ESTAT Actuation, which builds electroadhesive clutches and brakes touted as being 10 times lighter, 10 times more compact, and 1,000 times more efficient than conventional hardware.
  • KEF Robotics, which makes software to fly pilotless aircraft, aka drones.
  • Thiopoly, which develops physical libraries of medications to ensure accurate pharmaceutical dispensing systems.
  • Thorne Baby, which makes a play yard that opens automatically, with no assembly required, and is easy to take on the go
  • Piximo, which constructs mobile minimarts operated by remote drivers, for easy in-crowd vending.

RIDC’s Tech Forge building, home to Robotics Factory (Courtesy Desmone Architects)

Funds for the program come from the $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge administered by the US Economic Development Administration. In fall 2022, the Pittsburgh region was announced as the recipient of $62.7 million of these grants. Innovation Works, the North Side-based early-stage investment org, received $12 million of that to launch the Robotics Factory.

Participating companies in this first Space Residency Program cohort are all at various stages in their development, Verlinich said. They were selected because Robotics Factory leadership felt they were each well-suited to start learning what pieces of equipment, what techniques, and what services we could provide to most effectively accelerate the growth.

“I think they all have promise in their individual value and premise,” Verlinich said. “And they all utilize different aspects of the equipment that we have in the shop, and the skills that we have on our team.”

In addition to a physical space to manufacture products, the residency offers tools and educational programming about how to scale in a feasible manner. Additionally, cohort members will be connected to manufacturers in the region, including service providers they can continue using after the program is complete — which could turn into a win for both sides, Verlinich pointed out.

“If they can provide that [support] in year one of a startup’s existence, and that startup grows … whenever they’re a $5 million company, and they’re still working successfully with that manufacturer, that $25,000 account can suddenly be hundreds of thousands of dollars and be much more meaningful to that manufacturer,” he said.

Since the program reduces the amount of capital a hardware startup would typically need to do its earliest manufacturing, Verlinich added, it allows companies to grow with the resources they already have.

In the future, he said, the Robotics Factory wants the Scale program to both set startups up for commercial success  and encourage other companies to work with local manufacturers.

“So that’s the ultimate goal of the residency,” Verlinich said. “[To] create a more robust and interconnected ecosystem here in Southwestern Pennsylvania.”

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2024 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
Companies: Innovation Works (Pittsburgh)

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