AI STORIES – Ep. 3 #Ireland

 

Where is the best sandbox for your AI product?

 

Interview with Conor McGinn, Co-founder & CEO of AKARA ROBOTICS

 

Hi Conor, it’s great to have you (for the second time!) at France is AI! Can you tell the French community something about yourself and Akara Robotics? 

My name is Conor McGinn, I am the CEO and one of the co-founders of Akara Robotics. We are a spinout of Trinity College Dublin that develops robotics and AI-enabled technologies to support frontline workers in the healthcare industry. Our main product is a robot called Violet which we designed to decontaminate spaces like radiology and operating rooms in a faster and more effective way.

 

The TIME magazine chose your social robot Stevie as one the Best Inventions in 2019. Why are you now building cleaning robots instead?

When the Covid pandemic struck, we lost access to the nursing homes and retirement communities where Stevie was supposed to be deployed. So we had to reinvent ourselves. We immediately saw decontamination as a great opportunity: it allowed us to help healthcare professionals while also disrupting an industry that has not been innovating for the past 100 years. If you think of it, most hospitals today are still being cleaned the same way they were during the 1918 Spanish flu- the equivalent of farmers chopping corn with a sickle. Entrusting the cleaning to a robot not only reduces costs and time, but it also prevents workers from being exposed to contamination. This shift is just a matter of time- we’ll soon not have enough staff to do the cleaning for a low pay. If we don’t develop and adopt European technology, we’ll soon become dependent on Chinese and American hardware. 

 

How did your team and investors react to this U-turn?

The team immediately supported the idea. Everyone realized how serious Covid was, plus, we had already started the research on cleaning methods. Our mentors also felt it was a good move. They anticipated that if we kept on the previous trajectory, we would have struggled to show traction. But when it comes to fundraising, it was a different matter. VCs were hesitant to invest in a startup like ours, partly because our target customers were hospitals, which usually take a long time to adopt innovations. Luckily for us, we got to talk to very senior officials in the Irish national health service very early on, and they gave us the opportunity to spend 40-50 hours a week in hospitals. We worked closely with front-line staff on user interfaces and on the definition of KPIs, while also collecting data that we could share with stakeholders. This enabled us to build and validate our first prototype in a couple of weeks. We now have a robot that is very close to market and clinically validated. 

 

How come hospitals allowed you to test your robot in such a short time?

On the one hand, the urgency of the crisis sped up administrative procedures. On the other hand, Irish people and institutions are very open to testing early-stage innovations. This was particularly important during the hardest times of the pandemic. With travel restrictions in place, we built a local network of experts and clinical sites that enabled us to make a lot of progress with relatively little funding. Another Irish startup, Manna Drone Delivery, for example, partnered with a town on Ireland’s west coast to deploy their proof of concept. I see Ireland as a “sandbox” for deeptech companies, because it gives them the chance to quickly iterate and refine their technology to ensure product market fit. We hope this will contribute to making Ireland an attractive place for entrepreneurs. 

 

What are the other strengths of the Irish ecosystem? 

Aside from the openness of the community to piloting innovations, Ireland has a critical mass of  potential entrepreneurs, encouraged by local success stories like Stripe and trained in the Big Tech companies based in the capital. As Dublin remains a small city, there also are plenty of opportunities for funders to come together and share ideas. So the challenge is not finding founders, but raising capital, especially if you are in an unconventional field like us. For software and fintech entrepreneurs, Dublin is probably one of the best places in Europe today. For hardware, time will tell. If we manage to be successful, other hardware companies will certainly follow in our footsteps, but for the moment, our sector remains uncertain. 

 

Why is it so difficult for a hardware startup to raise funds?

Investors, especially in Europe, usually want to see revenue before investing in a company. This is unrealistic for businesses in very disruptive fields like robotics at the seed stage. Another problem is that we don’t easily fit in investment categories. We are often told that we are out of the scope of medtech because what we are building isn’t a medical device, but we are also out of the scope of software/AI investors because our product is more than just a piece of software. The third and most fundamental problem, however, is that VCs automatically associate hardware with high risk. They only remember failures, and hardware failures are spectacular. But they overlook the fact that the highest value companies today (Apple, Tesla etc.) are first and foremost hardware companies. 

 

Can you give us three reasons why investors should put their money into robotics? 

First, because if they don’t, Europe will be missing (yet another) historical opportunity. Robotics is still in its infancy, but it will be one of the key technologies in the next 20 years. Second, because we run the risk of lagging behind our international competitors: the US and China are already funding the industry much more than we are. And third, if we don’t take action now, we will soon be faced with a brain drain. Many teams are already leaving for the US, either to raise funds or to take up jobs. The robotics industry in Europe is shrinking. But there is still hope: a few companies are showing that assistive robotics can work and that ventures in this industry can do well in Europe. In Barcelona, for example, there’s Pal Robotics, while in Denmark you find Universal Robotics. I think the EU should position itself in this industry, especially as it increasingly advocates for trustworthy AI.

Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Conor. We can’t wait to see you at the France is AI conference in Paris on November 8th!