Accelerators / Pittsburgh / Robotics / Startups

Robotics Factory interim head Kevin Dowling thinks these 6 startups can solve big problems

Dowling, who took on the managing director role in June, says the Build Back Better-funded program will keep scaling and growing young robotics companies under his tenure.

Kevin Dowling. (Courtesy photo)
Meet Kevin Dowling — though you probably already know him.

Innovation Works’ Robotics Factory has a new interim managing director following the departure of Mike Formica in early June. But Dowling has already spent years in the Pittsburgh tech community, from serving as a founding board member of the Pittsburgh Robotics Network to working as a scientist and senior engineer for Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute to executive roles in several companies. Now, he plans to use that experience to ensure the Robotics Factory’s programs succeed.

The Robotics Factory was born in 2022, when it received a portion of the $63 million Build Back Better Regional Challenge funding. Its mission is creating, accelerating and scaling robotics startups in the Pittsburgh region.

“The Robotics Factory represents a major step forward in the growth and prominence of Pittsburgh’s robotics ecosystem,” Dowling said in a statement when his role was announced earlier this month. “Drawing from my experiences from both academia and industry, I’m eager to contribute to our mission to create, accelerate, and scale robotics startups in the region, securing Pittsburgh’s position as a global robotics leader.”

He told the Robotics Factory fulfills an important role in Pittsburgh: Sometimes robotics company leader have great ideas, but lack the resources to see them through. The Robotics Factory aims to provide space and guidance for startups to live up to their full potential.

“The general idea for the Robotics Factory is to both create new opportunities for companies by solving big problems that aren’t being addressed today,” Dowling said.

Included in the projects you can expect to see from the Robotics Factory is an accelerator for existing small companies in their infancy. The Accelerate program, formally launched in February, connects pre-seed robotics startups to mentorship, resources and up to $100,000. Similar to Innovation Works’ AlphaLab accelerators, Accelerate give the startups seven months of space, manufacturing resources and business coaching tailored to a company’s individual needs.

These six robotics companies will participate in the inaugural Accelerate program, as described by Innovation Works:

  • Aquatonomy provides underwater visual intelligence to submerged complex structures in challenging, unstructured environments through autonomous robotics and AI-grounded analytical tools, resulting in safer, cheaper, and faster operations and increased confidence
  • Cell X Technologies is industrializing the development and manufacturing of regenerative medicines by automating manual processes and decision-making. Their software, robotics, and machine learning/AI platform deepens scientific understanding, improves reproducibility, and identifies product quality metrics needed to commercialize these lifesaving therapies. The company’s platform reacts to the biology of the cells to produce a robust, automated process.
  • Grasp Robotics creates general-purpose robots to complete the tasks that people don’t want and shouldn’t have to do. The company is developing humanoid robots, beginning with a robotic hand to solve one of the simplest and most tedious tasks: picking up and moving an object.
  • Leaficient gives farmers control of light in the same way that irrigation techniques allowed farmers to control water in the early days of agriculture. Through intelligent “light irrigation”, farmers can extend their growing season, control quality and freshness, and expand food production to areas that previously lacked the necessary growing conditions. Their team leverages its extensive experience in adaptive optics, machine learning and robotics to develop a solution that allows growers to manipulate every aspect of the light environment applied to their crops.
  • Velo AI is reinventing how to think about intelligent, connected mobility, with a strong focus on developing diverse transportation networks that are safer, smarter, and more efficient. Velo is born out of insights and discoveries at leading autonomous vehicle companies, but with a focus on delivering immediate impact through already realizable product categories; in particular, focused on improving the experience of vulnerable road users, such as bicyclists and pedestrians.
  • Voaige is building DeepSpace, a foundational AI model for physical intelligence. DeepSpace allows robotic & automation experts to build end-to-end solutions for challenging physical tasks across food, grocery, consumer product brands and retail industries. It is the first vision system capable of handling items across industries without any training needed.

Dowling said his new position is a sort of full-circle moment that ties together all the different things he’s worked on in the robotics sector.

“Innovation Works has sort of been a common thread through some of these activities that I’ve done in the robotics area, and trying to grow not only our company,” he said, “but capabilities [and] opportunities here in the region.”

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 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) / Carnegie Mellon University

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