Our Investment In Modular Robotics

by Brad Feld

We recently led a $3m financing in Modular Robotics, a Boulder-based company that is building a programmable robot construction platform. They’ve already released their first product – Cubelets – which is available for purchase now.

As kids, we played with Legos, Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, and Erector Sets. Over the years there have been efforts to integrate this primal desire to “build things” with robots, combining the physical (e.g., Legos) with the digital (software). One of the first attempts at creating a robot construction platform has evolved into Lego Mindstorms. The idea for Mindstorms came out of the MIT Media Lab and was commercialized in conjunction with Lego and is now a substantial product line for Lego. The First Robotics Competition spawned a number of kits over the years, including those from VEX, another company in this category. Many other companies have created kits around robotics, ranging from the simple to the extremely complex.

Research into what makes a compelling robotic construction kit has continued at all of the major universities that have robotics programs, especially MIT, CMU, and Stanford. These programs combined the physical and the digital, and were based around specialized programming languages like Logo and Alice, along with mainstream languages like C and Visual Basic. While these were compelling products, there were mostly designed for people who had a programming background and as a result were both complex and ultimately not destined for mainstream adoption.

Imagine our surprise when we discovered that ModRobotics, a company based on research that the founder (Eric Schweikardt) did while at CMU, was located in our own backyard in Boulder. Eric had been quietly building ModRobotics with SBIR funding, completely uninterested in raising money from VCs. He bootstrapped ModRobotics and shipped his first product, Cubelets.

Six months ago, at the urging of Nikolaus Correll, a CU Professor of Computer Science, we co-founded a new MeetUp group with Nikolaus and our friends from Orbotix named Boulder Is For Robots. Eric presented Cubelets at the first meetup and we were immediately smitten.

Cubelets are magnetic blocks that can be snapped together to make an endless variety of robots with no programming and no wires. You can build robots that drive around on a tabletop, respond to light, sound, and temperature, and have surprisingly lifelike behavior. There are currently 15 Cubelets, including Battery, Brightness, Distance, Drive, Flashlight, Inverse, Knob, Rotate, Speaker, and Temperature. By configuring them in different ways, amazing robots can be quickly created.

Each Cubelet is programmable so the behavior can be specifically changed and controlled through software. ModRobotics is developing a proprietary programming environment with a UI that offers a simple scripting language as well as a detailed programming language.

We are excited to be working with Eric and team on creating the next generation of a programmable robot construction platform.