Why an Octopus?

A Cambridge startup Soft Robotics was born after its founder, George Whitesides, a chemist and inventor from Harvard, watched footage of an octopus squeezing its body through a tiny opening.

It may sound like a strange bit of tech, but to date, this manufacturer of octopus-inspired robotic grippers has already received $3 million from investors and is expecting $2 million more soon. The company stated that the funds will be used to double the staff in its employ in order to better meet the demands of its customers.

“It’s been a whirlwind ride,” chief executive Carl Vause said in the release. “We’ve really hit on this unmet need of, how do we enable robots to handle things that vary in size and shape and weight? There’s pent-up demand.”

The startup was founded in 2013. Initially funded by the Defense Department, the company soon began to create robots that could take on a variety of the tasks that assembly line-type machines previously couldn’t handle, like manipulating fruit, for example. In most traditional robots, the handling of fruits leads to damaged products. This may seem like a minor issue, but it is a major catastrophe if you get your livelihood from the agricultural industry.

The gripper robots have silicone fingers and move by using compressed air.

“There’s a reason the squid, the octopus, and the human hand work so well,” Vause said. “They’re fantastic structures.”

Image credit: Justin Saglio for The Boston Globe
What's Next

Soft Robotics currently has clients doing product testing of the company’s gripper systems in their manufacturing and production lines. One of the new investors is also affiliated with one of the country’s largest vegetable suppliers: Taylor Ventures, the investment arm of Taylor Farms of Salinas, California. Soft Robotics works closely with the food processing industry, a commitment made more apparent by this recent partnership.

“They are a driving force in agriculture technology,” Vause said. “To have them come aboard as an investor is an unbelievable vote of confidence that we’re doing the right things and we’re solving the right problems.”

Material Impact Fund, an early stage venture firm, and Beijing-based Haiyin Capital are also investors.

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