Auckland start-up raises millions for its tech that gives robots a sense of touch

“PowerOn’s technology will revolutionise the way society uses robots, shifting from hard machinery in cages to friendly, lifelike companions that work alongside us day-to-day,” says chief executive Markus Henke.

“These changes will have an impact like the invention of semiconductors in the 1950s that led to the IT revolution.”

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That’s all in the far future for the start-up – a spinout from research conducted at Auckland University.

But its immediate project, giving robots the equivalent of a sense of touch, is still intriguing – if still some distance from an android being your best bud on smoko.

And to help make that happen, the company has just raised $3.1 million in an oversubscribed seed round.

The raise saw new investors including the Crown-backed NZ Growth Capital Partners (via its Aspire Fund for early-stage companies), Pacific Channel, Angel Investors Marlborough and Sir Stephen Tindall’s ubiquitous K1W1 come on board.

Existing backers also participated including Auckland University’s Inventors’ Fund and Matū Fund (a venture capital outfit whose partners include Auckland University research fellow Andrew Chen – best-known recently for raising issues around the pandemic and contact-tracing. Chen told the Herald that relative newcomer Matū is an open fund that has so far raised $6m and is seeking another $10m).

PowerOn has also secured co-founding for product samples from Crown agency Callaghan Innovation, and assistance from Auckland Unlimited (the Auckland Council economic development unit formerly known as Ateed).

Henke works from an office in Dresden – and Germany is also where a number of early pilot customers are based, along with a key commercial partner, Wacker Chemie AG, a global company that produces specialty material products.

But other crew reflect the NZ-registered PowerOn’s local roots, including chief technology officer Katie Wilson (an Auckland University bioengineering PhD who has also worked for an intellectual property-specialist law firm) and chief science officer Prof Iain Anderson, group leader for the Biomimetics Laboratory of Auckland University’s Bioengineering Institute. PowerOn draws on research carried out by the Institute.

Wilson tells the Herald the new funds will be used, in part, for new hires as the young company moves beyond its brainiac roots and broadens to include areas like sales and marketing as it gears up to launch its first commercial products in 2022.

“We are at the start of our commercialisation journey. We began selling samples in 2019 and working with targeted customers, mostly in Germany,” Wilson says.

“The investment funds that just came in are enabling us to deliver to strong customer interest. In particular, we are looking forward to adding team members over the next few months, including a chief commercial officer who will greatly support customer engagement.”

Long-term, “robotics industries are going to see a change from conventional robotics that are typically clunky, noisy and often dangerous to adaptive and human-friendly systems,” Wilson says.

“PowerOn’s smart elastic technology is enabling new capabilities for robotics to evolve into smart, safe companions. This has great potential impact over the long term, but focus is important right now. First we are introducing TouchDetect to give grippers a sense of touch.”

In hardcore science terms, ielectric elastomers can be used as soft actuators, or so-called artificial muscles. They generate large strains and are mechanically compliant. They are driven by electrical charge and can power manifold applications.

In everyday language, PowerOn’s technology is a stretchy, multifunctional material.

“You can imagine putting it on a robotic gripper, for example. Now the gripper has an idea of what it’s gripping, how much pressure is on the object, and that’s something robotics can’t do today.” Wilson says.

“We’ve been working with potential customers over the past couple of years and are building on several years’ research and internationally granted patents coming out of the [Auckland University] Biomimetics Lab.”

Exact applications and the names of prospective early adopters are still under wraps.

“We are working closely with potential customers, and we are very excited to be hearing from them that we are providing solutions with our smart elastic technology,” Wilson says.

“Most of our customers are major global companies and see PowerOn as giving them a competitive advantage. I’m not able to give names right now, but I can say that we also have great partners in Wacker Chemie AG, a global company that produces speciality material products, and we’re proud to be a partner of the 6G-life group.” (Another Germany company, which promises to “drive cutting-edge research for 6G communication networks with a focus on human-machine collaboration.”)

Human-machine collaboration all lies ahead.

For now, says Wilson, “we are very pleased with the confidence that the venture capital community has shown in our team and vision. The Government support we’ve had, in New Zealand and Germany, has been substantial over the past two years especially.

“It’s now up to us to deliver for our customers and investors.”

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