CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (TheStreet) -- Microsoft's (MSFT) - Get Report New England Research and Development (NERD) Center this week hosted a gathering of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, who said startups looking to get rich with robots may have better luck with the military than with consumers.
"There's incredible headroom and growth in the military market," said Michael Greeley, a general partner at
Flybridge Capital Partners
, a venture firm that invests in companies including
, a startup that makes wound-care robots.
The robotics industry slumped last year, with shipments down by half from 113,000 units in 2008, according to the International Federation of Robotics. Still, the industry has seen widespread support for robots that perform missions that are life-threatening, said Rod Brooks, co-founder of
, which is best-known for its Roomba robot vacuum cleaners.
IRobot also makes the
, which disposes of bombs and performs surveillance missions. "The soldiers who operate these robots are 19-year-old kids," said Brooks, who also co-founded the startup
The field has caught the attention of manufacturing giants. Farm-equipment maker
sells the R-Gator, an unmanned ground vehicle designed to transport payloads.
Outside the military, the robotics industry faces concerns that robots will replace humans. So startups in search of funding need to be mindful of more than just a useful application.
"It's also a matter of whether this is an application
companies want to delegate to a robot," said Nina Saberi, managing general partner at
, a Watham, Mass., venture firm that invests in the stealth-mode robotics startup
North End Technologies
Marketing-wise, it makes sense to portray robots as machines that serve people, rather than displace them.
"We're building robots to do the work of
a person," said Charles Grinnell, CEO of
, a robotics startup in Billerica, Mass., which is still in stealth mode, although the company has divulged that its robots deal with "materials handling."
On the consumer side, robot developers face the unreasonable expectations of a public that grew up watching Rosie, the robot maid on
; C-3PO, the diplomat robot on
; or KITT, the talking car on
"Everybody expects a certain level of performance," said Tom Ryden, a founder and chief operating officer at North End Technologies. "People almost expect that you're going to develop a humanoid that walks and talks and folds your laundry and does everything else. In fact, we're years from that."
Only recently have ordinary people been able to interact with robots, Brooks said.
"Fifteen years ago, the
Newton, which was a PDA, was a tremendous failure, but there have been some industry successes since then."
That would include Apple's new iPad, the tablet computer whose demand is outstripping supply.
-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston.