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Engineering the "Swiss-army knife of robots"

The Cohen Translational Engineering Fund is helping promising startups like READY Robotics bring their innovative technologies to market as quickly as possible
Posted June 7, 2017
Kelleher Guerin (l) and Neil Cohen (r) at READY Robotics Kelleher Guerin (l) and Neil Cohen (r) at READY Robotics

As a doctoral student at Hopkins, Kelleher Guerin, PhD, MS (Engr '15, '12) met a small local manufacturer who specialized in producing metal parts. He learned about the standard process of modern manufacturing: buy a robot, pay someone to program the machine, make your product, then reprogram the machine to complete another task. It takes time, and often it's just too expensive to keep small manufacturers in business.

Guerin knew there had to be a better way.

"The Cohen funding allowed us to see how our product would solve problems in real-time, and how it could provide value, rather than just existing in the lab as a research toy."
Kelleher Guerin

With support from the Whiting School of Engineering's Cohen Translational Engineering Fund, he's found an answer through his startup, READY Robotics Corporation.

Fellow alumnus Neil Cohen, Engr '83 — a member of the Advisory Board at the Whiting School — and his wife Sherry established the eponymous fund in 2014 with a $400,000 gift. Their motivation in making the initial investment was to provide immediate support to Whiting School faculty and students in order to help bring new innovative technologies to market faster.

After seeing the success of Hopkins startups like READY Robotics — one of the first projects to receive seed grants from the Cohen Fund — the Cohens recently made an additional $1 million gift to the fund to support more Johns Hopkins engineers.

"One of the most important things we can do, as the Whiting School and across the university is to get the phenomenal and innovative engineering we're producing in our labs out into the world," says Cohen, who studied mathematical sciences as an undergraduate at Hopkins.

It can take a decade or more to bring faculty research into practice. Through startups and funding like that from the Cohens, it can take as little as three.

"Research needs to mature to the point where those at the venture-capital level will be interested in investing, and that's the purpose of the fund: to help technologies move across that continuum and mature," Cohen says.

T.E. "Ed" Schlesinger, the Benjamin T. Rome Dean of the Whiting School, agrees.

"Moving ideas from the research realm to the commercial space is difficult because so little funding exists to bridge that gap. The Cohens' support has been, and will be, invaluable in ensuring more of our innovative ideas make it to market."

Administered by Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, the university's initiative to promote the commercialization of faculty and student innovations into accessible technologies, products, and services, the Cohen Fund provides grants of $20,000 to $40,000 to applicants on a rolling basis. READY Robotics and five other groups — including the health care company LifeSprout — have received support from the Cohen fund.

"The Cohen funding allowed us to see how our product would solve problems in real-time, and how it could provide value, rather than just existing in the lab as a research toy," Guerin says.

Now READY Robotics' president and chief technical officer, Guerin calls the startup's product, TaskMate, the "Swiss-army knife of robots."

The company installs its software in a pre-made robot, making the machine easy to program and adjust — similar to how Microsoft made personal computing accessible to non-programmers with software like DOS and Windows. Once trained in the system, users can switch the tasks their robot performs in minutes or hours instead of days or weeks and cut out the cost of an outside programmer.

After using the Cohen grant to build and test a READY Robotics prototype, the technology earned a $100,000 Maryland Innovation Initiative grant from TEDCO — the Maryland Technology Development Corporation — and then raised $3.75 million in seed funding. Since opening for business officially June 2016, READY Robotics has grown to house 12 employees in its South Baltimore office, and Guerin and his team have kept busy testing prototypes with manufacturers and attracting more investors and customers.

"It's the right time for a product like ours," Guerin says. "There are 700 small manufacturers within 100 miles of here — a huge density of potential customers. If we can unlock even one percent of that market, it'll be huge for us."

Watch a READY Robotics machine literally cut the ribbon on its headquarters building, the new Under Armour Lighthouse facility.

Read INC Magazine's feature about READY Robotics.

To learn more about the Cohen Translational Engineering Fund or support Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, please contact Daniel Goetzel, director of innovation initiatives and corporate relations.