Mr. Roboto

Russian Web Tycoon Launches $25 M. NYC Investment Fund for Personal Robots

A robot in every pot?
photo 2 Russian Web Tycoon Launches $25 M. NYC Investment Fund for Personal Robots

Mr. Grishin, holding court at Dean & Deluca

Last week, Betabeat met 33-year-old Dmitry Grishin, the so-called “Russian Mark Zuckerberg,” to talk about robots. Or more specifically, to talk about the $25 million investment Mr. Grishin just made to launch Grishin Robotics, a global investment firm–based in New York City!–with the goal of bringing personal robots into every household in the world.

Mr. Grishin is the CEO of Mail.ru, one of the largest Internet companies in Russia, offering services like email, instant messaging, and social networking. After going public on the London Stock Exchange in 2010, Mail.ru currently has a market cap of $7 billion. Mail.ru also happens to have sold a hefty chunk of its Facebook stock in the company’s recent IPO, which might explain why Mr. Grishin decided the time was right to pursue his dream. “I have personal passion for robotics,” Mr. Grishin, a graduate of Moscow State Technical University’s Robotics and Complex Automation program. “I really believe this is a cool, cool area.”

As it happens, talking to Mr. Grishin was not our first conversation about the impending robot revolution in recent weeks.

Between Nick Paumgarten’s opus about the rise of drones in The New Yorker and The Economist‘s cover story about the ethics of our metal overlords, which Mr. Grishin yanked out of his briefcase, the discussion about robots in everyday life has taken a sharp turn, of late, from science fiction into the domestic sphere. Just as SpaceX founder Elon Musk decided not to wait around for NASA, it looks like this burgeoning field might be led by private investors who made their fortune in the Internet boom and now want to think bigger.

The robotics industry has been around for 40 years, said Mr. Grishin, but recently a number of technological innovations have significantly reduced the cost of production. It used to cost anywhere from hundreds of thousands to a $1 million to manufacture your average robot, he said. But progress in smartphones and even electric cars has driven down the price of wireless technology, cameras, processors, memory, and batteries. “Do you know Microsoft Kinect device?” asked Mr. Grishin. “It’s a very cheap scanner and this is very useful in robotics and now it costs only $150.”

So what do we mean when we talk about personal robots? Anything from robotic cars to telepresence robots that can, say, help a CEO monitor her employees from every angle. “If you just put camera in one direction, one person will show a lot of activities, but the others will be drinking or doing nothing,” Mr. Grishin speculated, adding, “I personally believe [in] anything related to drones.” He described flying quadcopters with attached cameras. “It’s just my idea,” he said, but drones could used to help negotiate traffic or parking–flying ahead of the user to show potential traffic jams or hovering behind to help you figure out how much space you had before you hit the curb.

Mr. Grishin said he launched Grishin Robotics in New York City because of its proximity to robotics hubs in Boston (MIT) and Pittsburgh (Carnegie Mellon) as well as its connections to capital markets. “There is no clear leader in robotics right now,” he said, pointing to innovation hubs in Europe as well as South Korea, where corporations like Samsung and government funding in robotics could give it an early edge. “You know Roomba?” he asked us. “It’s from [an American] company called iRobot, but there’s a lot of South Korean companies who want to replicate the idea.” Soon, we might see 1o to 20 robotic vacuum cleaning devices on the market.

The biggest issue the industry faces is lack of capital, said Mr. Grishin. “Most of the VCs are focused on mobile applications, but you really need risk capital to improve this area. I want to focus fully on mass market robotics. And I definitely believe this is next huge big industry,” he said. In contrast, the Internet startups don’t actually require that much capital to get to market. “It looks like California,” he said, making the gesture of panning for gold. “I’m not saying this is [a] bubble, I’m just saying everybody’s there.”

Thus for decades, innovation has been limited to software, Internet, and PCs, he said. “Nothing happened in terms of space, in terms of airplanes, cars, nothing really. I believe you need to bring this kind of innovation to the offline world.”

That means lending robotics the same emphasis on user-experience, customers, and iteration. “Small teams. Quick, quick time to the market,” said Mr. Grishin. “Because now you have five to 10 years to develop the technology and then five to 10 years to go to the market, which will never work.”

In terms of taking care of aging populations in Europe and Japan or saving lives in combat, he said, robots could be a huge help. “I don’t know about New York, but in Moscow, it’s very difficult to find people to clean the street,” said Mr. Grishin. “And you can get robotics to do this and lot of other stuff.”

What about the inherent dangers of unmanned cars or military drones? The same fears attended innovation in air travel or even the Internet, argued Mr. Grishin. “It’s an interesting topic. For example, robotic cars, they’re already allowed in Nevada,” he said. “Any innovation brings a lot of good stuff and sometimes bad stuff. You need to count on regulators.” Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, should be focused on the right implementations of the technology.

Grishin Robotics already has an office on 34th Street and small staff. Mr. Grishin wasn’t yet ready to divulge names, but he did say he had two American employees and one Russian staff member. His main focus will still be on Mail.ru. “I will just give my money and passion and review investments.”

If Mail.ru sounds familiar to American audiences, perhaps it’s because that’s where Russian billionaire Yuri Milner started his career. The Mail.ru Group was affiliated with Digital Sky Technologies, Mr. Milner’s global investment firm with stakes in Facebook, Zynga, and Groupon. In fact, Mr. Grishin was once Mr. Milner’s CTO.

Mr. Grishin, who described Mr. Milner as a friend, added that he has several offers from people want to invest in Grishin Robotics, but for now he’s limiting investment to his personal funds. He also eschewed the term “venture capital,” preferring “investment firm” instead. “[VCs] have a limited time of investment and this is very bad for robotics and new generations. You need to be committed for [the] long-term,” he said.

Grishin Robotics will invest its “initial” $25 million in 10 to 20 early stage or mid-stage companies that already have a prototype and need money to get to the mass market, Mr. Grishin explained.

Despite our repeated attempts to get Mr. Grishin’s take on the Terminator franchise or Battlestar Galatica, his vision remained firmly planted in the real world. “I like movies,” he said. “I believe that dreams are very good, very motivating. But now you can make dreams come true and it’s very important to find good applications for robotics. The technology is already ready.”

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