It has been a great privilege to be Vice-Provost (Enterprise) at UCL and inevitably as I pack my bags to make the long trip from Gordon Street to the Wellcome Trust on Euston Road, I have been reflecting on the last five years. So much has changed and so much has been achieved by UCL.
A niche for the Impossible
24 October 2012
Entrepreneurship Guest Lectures: Rich Walker
Rich Walker’s covers “one the sexiest areas” of entrepreneurship you may come across: robotics. He studied Maths at Cambridge, followed up two PhDs and five years ago became Managing Director of his company, Shadow Robot.
Rich has worked on the project for Shadow Robot since school; on and off, from fun and amateurial, his “vision of creative chaos” became his profession.
One thing is certain in the robotics business: boredom is not a common risk. Starting from the robots’ building process, the criteria are not fixed. Each robot is built especially for a purpose; it wants to be 100% useful and therefore differs from the other robots in terms of structure, technologies, functions. The technologies Rich uses are often unusual ones: for instance, built into his robots are air-muscles. These are made up of bio-structures by which the robots’ limbs are not as dangerous as those of traditional robots. From a marketing perspective, robots must be adjusted to certain needs: in particular, they need to resemble humans’ bodies. They must be bipedal; the workings in their hands must “shadow” ours. Hands are a favourite of Rich Walker: Shadow Robot released what is considered to be the most advanced robotic dextrous hand –hence, its name “Dextrous Hand”- available in the world. At present, Rich is working on robots to replace human hands in professions where injury risks are high, such as in butcher shops and scientific laboratories.
The question Rich asks himself when building a robot is ‘what is the robot going to do in the world?’ and how can he do whatever he does intelligently. The business’ competitors are not many and the requests for robots, because of the very small size of the market, end up being many. The markets which Shadow Robots looks at are mainly three: the industrial, the professional and the domestic. The first one is big in Asia, where the market for the whole “system around the original product [the robot]”, such as the software one, is enormous. The professional market wants robots for two reasons: defence and services. Amongst the “service-robots”, most popular is the robot for milking cows, which brings a radical change to the farmer’s life. Domestic robots are mainly cleaning ones. A fourth market is the academic market: universities, for research purposes or sheer interest, are a main source of robotic request.
Each new business phone call Rich Walker receives entails a problem, one which often stretches Shadow Robot to “invent at the edge of art”. Robots are beautiful because they cannot be planned for: they are created to solve difficulties. Their future? To go “beyond what’s possible”.
Written by Carolina Mostert