Where in the world can you find the best robotics innovation and talent? You might say Japan, Germany, or on American soil at Carnegie Mellon, MIT or USC. But did you know Denmark has been called the ‘Silicon Valley’ of robotics?
The home of Niels Bohr, Hans Christian Andersen and Carlsberg beer is also the birthplace of collaborative robot pioneer Universal Robots (UR), which was acquired by Teradyne in 2015 for $285 Million USD. This acquisition is what sparked the growth of the industry. Teradyne’s taste for Danish cobot companies continued with the acquisition of Mobile Industrial Robots (MiR) for up to $278 Million USD in 2018.
Enrico Krog Iversen, pictured here with a Universal Robot and an Onrobot gripper.
These big-money buyouts unleashed dozens of robotics entrepreneurs with big ideas and the cash to power those ideas. For example, Enrico Krog Iversen was CEO of UR at the time of the acquisition. Bilge Jacob Christiansen, a former UR engineer, developed a collaborative gripper which became the first product of On Robot. In 2018, Iversen established OnRobot A/S by merging Christiansen’s gripper company with two other end-of-arm tooling companies, Perception Robotics and Optoforce. Today, Iversen is an active investor in robotics – he expects 50x growth of OnRobot in the next five years, with acquisitions of end-of-arm tooling startups a big part of the strategy. The Danish robotics industry as a whole is estimated to grow 300% by 2025.
The industry is concentrated in Odense, Denmark, a small city with a population of 200,000. “Odense has become one of the most dynamic places in Europe to develop robotics business,” said Mikkel Christoffersen, Cluster Director at Odense Robotics. “The attendance at the event shows that we have managed to gather all the right people from companies, public authorities, investors, education and research.”
This culture of entrepreneurship, investment and collaboration runs throughout Denmark’s robotics industry, and it was on display at the Odense Investor Summit in late June this year. The event brought together the region’s many robotics startups and investors in order to speed the process of sourcing capital and help startups scale faster. Since 2015, more than 5.5 Billion DKK ($800 Million USD) has been invested into robotics businesses in Odense. The event is organized by Odense Seed and Venture, which is a program run by the municipal government. Michael Hansen is Investment Manager at the program. “This event is all about matchmaking,” he explained. “Companies need capital to grow. Then they hire people and pay tax. That’s why the municipality is involved. We need to present good investment cases, and at the same time attract really good investors. In that context, we’ve made a summit to attract the best companies and investors. So, it’s part of a branding and marketing effort for the city of Odense, but the primary goal is to make sure that our robotics companies get access to the money they need.”
Michael Tandrup is a partner in the venture capital firm Nordic Eye. This is his fourth year attending the Odense Investor Summit.
“The first time I came here, I thought maybe I’d be shaking hands with a person who’d turn out to be a robot! But everything on display was arm robots. I was actually kind of disappointed,” joked Tandrup. “But I could see that these collaborative arms were bringing robotics beyond the big automotive OEMs to something every company can afford to use. The year after, there were many more finished solutions for a specific task in a specific industry. It has matured, and city of Odense and Invest in Odense have been a really big player in achieving this.”
Lasse Kieffer (center) with the PR10 vacuum gripper before it was acquired by OnRobot. The PR10 uses a built-in pump to eliminate the need for an external vacuum source.
Lasse Kieffer epitomizes the summit: He’s a former UR engineer who, after leaving the company, launched Purple Robotics to develop a disruptive electric vacuum gripper. 364 days later, he sold the company to OnRobot. Now, he attended this year’s summit as an investor.
“It's fun seeing the same scene from both sides of the table,” said Kieffer. “I don't know yet what I'm going to do. I'm part of an investment environment, and I'm looking at companies, but I'm not sure if I have the personality of someone who's going to help others achieve their dreams and maybe be part of their board of directors. I like to do stuff myself, so I'm kind of in a process where I'm trying to find myself in this because it's also fun to be part of stuff where you're not there on a daily basis. But on the other hand, I really like to do electronics. I've been doing electronics since I was 8, I think. So, I think I have to do something where I have to do electronics again.”
According to Kieffer, one of the main benefits of the summit is that by bringing together investors and startups in one event, entrepreneurs can spend less time trying to find money and more time focusing on the engineering. “I like the fact that start-ups are coming together with investors and I think this is really, really good for everybody. It would be better if the start-ups didn't need to use a lot of time finding investors because it takes up a lot of time. You want to do your product and that was part of the reason we could do Purple Robotics in one year—it's because I was reusing some of the money I earned at Universal Robots. We didn't go to any investment meetings. We didn't do any pitches in that year. We didn't do any of that, we were concentrating on making the best product. Even though we did it in a year, it took twice as long as I expected. It always takes more time than you expect.”
The event’s structure was simple: entrepreneurs took the main stage and investors took their seats to hear pitches from 32 selected Danish and international companies. Here’s a sampling of the presentations:
This portable cutting robot uses voice recognition to allow a worker to dictate measurements for cuts in plasterboard in the construction industry. According to CEO Peter Hartvigsen, the system can increase production capacity by 20%.
Natural sausage casings are currently sized in a manual process by minimum-wage workers in China. Jan Pedersen and Jeppe Grosbol Jensen plan to disrupt this slow, costly and unsustainable process with their fully automated pig intestine sizing machine.
When ships enter international ports, regulations related to safety and environmental factors such as invasive species may require hull inspections. These must be done manually by divers or in dry dock. Creative Sight aims to disrupt these inspections with an underwater drone which can scan a ship in less than 2 hours to create a 3D model of the hull. Of course, this technology also has maintenance applications.
Denmark’s ongoing development toward the goal to become global hub of the robotics industry is a fascinating story. Stay tuned for future articles about what exactly is going on in Odense, and what other cities can learn from it.