Dot-Com Bastion Sets Sights on Patentable Technologies

By CHRISTOPHER KEOUGH
Staff Reporter

Idealab, badly battered after the Internet crash, is now setting its sights on what some consider a similarly challenging sector: robotics.

Evolution Robotics Inc. is among ten firms with low risk and high payoff potential that Idealab officials said they now have in the troubled incubator's stable.

With $3 million in startup capital from Compaq founder Ben Rosen and Idealab, officials at Evolution claim to have created the future standard for programming personal robots.

The company will make its money, Evolution President Bernard Louvat said, by selling its hardware and software packages, providing professional services to customers and licensing technology to robot manufacturers. Another $8 million in outside financing will be sought later this year, Louvat said.

Evolution software allows developers to create customized personal robots for such gee-whiz tasks as mowing the lawn or vacuuming the living room. The target audience is mainly original equipment manufacturers, but also software engineers, roboticists, programmers and enthusiasts.

For two decades, the road to living room robotics has been frustrating and, up to now, generally unsuccessful. Pradeep Khosla, professor of engineering and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said several attempts to create a robotics standard have failed to take hold. From the beginning of robotics software in the 1970s, he said, companies such as IBM Corp. and even the U.S. Department of Defense have developed standards that were not universally adopted.

"When that happens, people will not waste their time programming their robots just like you don't want to program your VCR," Khosla said.

Evolution, which boasts roboticists and software engineers from the California Institute of Technology and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, had its coming out party this month at a technology gathering in Phoenix. Among the products being displayed were programming functions for robotic vision, personality, speech, behavior, obstacle avoidance and target following. The company's hardware includes batteries, motors, wheel sensors, microphones, speakers and cameras.

"I think Evolution is a good word choice for the name of the company because the product does not appear to be a revolution," said Greg Chirikjian, professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Chris Shipley, research coordinator for International Data Group, a Boston-based technology media, research and event company, said Evolution could be the right company eventually. "I don't think we're anywhere close to the Jetsons," she said. "This technology is one that captures the imagination and as it becomes useful and price points come down it will get a whole lot more interesting."

Meanwhile, Idealab will follow Evolution in the next couple of months with another company launch, according to Theresa Bridwell, an Idealab spokeswoman. In all, she said, Idealab is developing 10 new companies, most of which will be introduced this year. These firms have patentable technologies, she said, along with the potential for high profit margins.

The rollout pattern of those ventures will not be anything like the frenzy of the Internet boom. "We're not jumping to launch companies prematurely," Bridwell said. "We're making sure they have a seasoned management team in place."

The birthplace of CarsDirect, eToys and GoTo.com now known as Overture Services Inc. Pasadena-based Idealab has been battered since the Internet bust that left founder Bill Gross and his company with a roster full of failed or struggling ventures. A coalition of Idealab investors is suing the company, trying to get a judge to order Gross to liquidate and pay back whatever's left of the once-hot incubator.

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