Start-up Diaries: Aeon Robotics

18 Aug, 2021

Three PhDs, two brothers, one mission. Dr Lars Heim, Dr Sören and Dr Sönke Michalik are revolutionizing the robotics market with Aeon Robotics. They have invented a robotic hand based on a human model that can be intuitively taught using a control glove worn by humans. One of the most important lessons they have learned as founders is to move fast and with calculated risk.

The Founders

Lars: There are three of us here at Aeon Robotics. Sören and Sönke have known each other for quite a while, as they are brothers. I joined them in 2020 when it came to applying for the EXIST funding, as business knowledge is an advantage at this point and is required by the project sponsor. I did my doctorate in Corporate Management at Clausthal University of Technology. Sönke and Sören did their doctorates in Information Systems Technology at the Technical University of Braunschweig. We have a great range of skills and complement each other perfectly.

How the Idea Started

Sönke: Sören and I were already involved with robotics during our studies. At the university there was a Robocup project, where small robots play soccer. The problem was that the drives quickly overheated every game and had to be replaced. These robo-kickers are still a long way off from being able to play against real humans – perhaps by 2050. The project was just a fun use of the technology, but of course, conclusions can still be drawn from it. It became clear to us that the technology is not yet advanced enough for continuous use. We couldn’t find any reasonable drives on the market to develop a human robot. So, we thought: Why not build our own? From this, the idea of constructing industrial arms developed. That was the birth of Aeon Robotics. In our name is also our stance: Now the age of robotics is dawning, the breakthrough is on its way.

What Is Special About Aeon Robotics

Sören: We invented a robotic hand based on a human model that can be intuitively taught with a control glove worn by humans. The special feature is that no permanent programming is needed because the AI can directly transfer the human's movements to the robot. Thus, we have created an industrial robot that remains very similar to the human model. For now, we are concentrating on the industrial sector, specifically "pick-and-place" in the food packaging industry.

Lars: Of course, there are some reservations about automating processes. However, there are also bottlenecks and too few workers here. Downtime is high too; these are jobs that no one wants to do anymore.

First Milestones

Sönke: An important milestone is our first prototype. This will soon be tested in cooperation with our pilot customers in the food packaging sector. Our gripper arm will be used to fill the cardboard boxes with individual components such as recipe cards. Hundreds of thousands of boxes are filled in this way. This is exhausting and monotonous for the employees. In order to relieve them in the long run, the robot can be used, which humans teach themselves and control accordingly.

Sören: The programming method, the intuitive learning and transfer from human to robot, is one of our unique selling points.

Lars: From my point of view, there were three important milestones. First, we received EXIST funding. That gave us the necessary financial boost so that now we can really get started and concentrate fully on Aeon Robotics. Secondly, the patent application. It has been drafted and processed and now only needs to be filed by the patent attorney. And thirdly, the formation of the company and the entry in the commercial register on July 30.

Competition, Market & Role Models

Sönke: China is currently making the most headway in the field of robotics, but the USA is also very far ahead. Boston Dynamics is one of the field’s shining examples, of course. On the industrial robot scene, Franka Emika, a German start-up that offers relatively inexpensive industrial arms, is also up and coming. One of our role models in terms of programming methods is Wandelbots and their Trace Pen. They use an intuitive method to program industrial robots too.

What We Underestimated

Sönke: Definitely the time required for the ordering processes! We had worked everything out in great detail for the EXIST program. Nevertheless, we underestimated the time and effort required for procurement via the university and the formalities. It is very tedious and meticulous to prepare the documentation for this. Fortunately, all three of us already had experience with the procurement process at the university, which made it easier for us.

Lars: Nevertheless, you also have to look at the positives. After all, we have been funded by tax money. That's a privilege; without that funding, we wouldn't have been able to get the company off the ground the way we did.

Sören: One challenge we encountered throughout the Coronavirus pandemic was the shortage of chips. We had not taken that into account, but we are not alone in this. So far, however, we have found viable solutions to this issue and have found suppliers in China.

Our Aha Moment

Sönke: When we had our drive elements manufactured. We had fully tested one beforehand, but with the other three we took a risk, otherwise we wouldn't have been able to stick to the schedule. All of them worked. That was our aha moment. We learned that you can move very quickly with calculated risk. This is probably one of the most important lessons for founders.

Our Vision: Aeon Robotics In 5 Years

Sönke: Now we are planning to bring our “pick-and-place” application to market, and in the next two to three years we want to expand this to other industries.

Sören: We started in the industrial sector, but our concept can in principle be transferred to many other sectors. We have also already written subsequent applications, for example in the cleaning sector. The idea is for robots on ride-on platforms to clean entire office buildings.

Lars: I think our vision statement describes our goal quite well: 'Creating smart robots for a better life'. This shows that in the long term it's about more than just "pick-and-place" applications. We want to diversify our business model and enter different industries, maybe even the consumer sector at some point.

Our Tip for Other Founders

Sören: You should look at follow-up funding early on. It's not enough to just take it as it comes. That's why you shouldn't rest after you've completed the first funding program, but start looking for the next funding opportunities straightaway.

Lars: Keeping realistic time frames is important. From the very beginning you should sit down every year and think about: What will happen next?

Sönke: I would recommend not launching too late. Even if the idea is really good and unique - it is easier to approach financiers if you have a company structure. This applies to funding programs, but especially to investors. It builds trust.

Curaze

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