Employers should start thinking about how they can integrate robots into their companies, says Suffolk-based robotics investor

Founder of Britbots Dominic Keen. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Founder of Britbots Dominic Keen. Picture: GREGG BROWN

It it widely predicted that over the coming decades we will see more robots enter the workplace, as developments in areas such as artificial intelligence and automation make these technologies increasingly commonplace.

Dominic Keen founder of Britbots. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Dominic Keen founder of Britbots. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Someone at the bleeding edge of this burgeoning trend is Dominic Keen, founder of Suffolk-based Britbots, a business that aims to help robotic start-up companies in the UK maximise their potential.

A successful entrepreneur with a background in engineering, Dominic was previously founder of a software business that he went on to float on the London Stock Exchange.

He says he has always been interested in robotics but several years ago felt the time was right to launch a new business in the robotics sector.

“PCs and mobiles phones have transformed the way we live and work over the last 20 years, but so far computer technology has been all about the screen,” he said.

“Over the next 20 to 30 years we will see computers start doing more work in the real world.”

Seed fund

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At the core of Britbots’ offering is the British Robotics Seed Fund, which Dominic says is the only investment fund specialising in UK-based robotics start-ups.

ZOA prototype

ZOA prototype - Credit: Archant

The venture has pulled together a group of investors with the aim of backing around six UK robotic start-ups each year to help them get access to the capital they need to fully develop their products and launch their commercial products to the market.

The business, which is located on Adastral Park as part of the Innovation Martlesham tech cluster, has also developed a crowdfunding platform called Britbots Crowd which allows smaller investors to support robotic companies.

There is also a mentoring part to the business, which aims to help the start-ups develop commercially by, for example, introducing them to possible customers.

The fund has recently put money into its first group of start up companies. These include Elistair, a maker of tethered drones; ZOA, which is developing robots that can travel into hard to reach areas; and Botskill, which is involved in the area of automated customer service.

Field tests

Dominic says he encourages the companies he works with to carry out a comprehensive programme of field tests before launching their products on the market.

Typically, these field tests are carried out with a small number of “early adopter” users, which allows the inventors to see how the product behaves in the real world and to refine their models.

“If they launch too early they won’t live up to users’ expectations,” says Dominic, who admits not all the companies Britbots works with are expected to succeed.

He added: “We work very actively in the businesses, spending three or four days a month with the companies, so we’re expecting a good number of them to get money back plus to the investors.

“There’s likely to be one or two real stars in the portfolio who could deliver significant returns, so we need to balance that all out. We’re looking at a return of at least three times plus on an initial investment in the portfolio.

“By having a portfolio approach an investor gets their investment spread across a range of different types of companies in different sectors.”

Robots set to take jobs?

Dominic, who lives in Saxmundham, says basing his business at Adastral Park has advantages beyond geographical proximity, as it means he regularly comes into contact with other professionals working in technology innovation.

“Everyday there are new ideas of how robotics might feed into another new technology or be taken in a certain direction,” he said.

And while not all these ideas are practical, a key part of Dominic’s role is differentiating between innovations that will work in the commercial world and those that won’t.

There have been many column inches dedicated to the world of robots of late - much of it with a dystopian twist. One example is a recent report from the Royal Society of Arts, which suggests up to four million jobs in the British private sector could be replaced by robots in the next decade.

It’s a vision of the near future that Dominic does not share.

“The sort of robots I see at the moment are relatively simple, so I don’t see over the next decade or so we’ll see a complete cliff edge where all manual labour will dry up,” he said.

“But I think we will see the gradual introduction of more robotic devices into the workplace and organisations will need to get more familiar with them.

“Over the longer term I do believe robotics will change the nature of work quite dramatically but I think that trend will take 20 to 30 years to really kick in.”

He continued: “Some of the press reports I have read have been quite pessimistic about what robots might mean for employment figures but actually I think they will also spawn opportunities all kinds of work, which we can’t really imagine at the moment.”

New Anglia LEP

With the future of robotics a hot topic Domimic has also recently joined the board of the New Anglia LEP where he hopes his expertise may come in useful.

He added; “It can be difficult for a traditional East Anglian business, which is doing well and has always done what they have always done, to think about robotics.

“But they must think about the technologies that are coming and how they can make a positive transition. How do you create an environment where you can introduce automation into the infrastructure and improve productivity. These are some of the areas where I can share ideas.”