From PhD to Entrepreneurs: here is the story of Hotblack Robotics.

The Hotblack Robotics’s story started in 2011 when TIM wanted to invest in Research and Development for new technological trends: Internet of Things and Cloud Robotics. Since the idea seemed to be interesting in 2012 TIM decided to strictly collaborate with top Italian universities. So they founded new laboratories inside the academic world. They were called Joint Open Lab and the idea was to have mixed team, both academics and TIM employees, working together in innovative projects. The lab where I carried out my Phd was JOL CRAB (Connected Robotics Application LaB). The vision of the laboratory was to realize a cloud robotics platform and find different markets where this idea could generate revenue. The lab had different test cases to show the potential of a cloud platform:

  • robots for energy monitoring into data centers
  • UAV management into smart cities
  • robots for education and entertainment
  • robots for agriculture

In addition one of the aims of the lab was also to create start-ups in order to speed up the go to market process. So the 23rd June 2015 me and my Phd colleague Ludovico Orlando Russo decided to found a start-up with the same vision of the lab and bring our scientific results to the market: we founded Hotblack Robotics. We decided to start from the most mature project that was a robot for energy monitoring into data centers. The result was that the shift from the scientific to the entrepreneur world was very painful and full of unexpected problems.

Fig 1. Robot for energy monitoring into data centers

Fig 1. Robot for energy monitoring into data centers

Data centers have a huge energy electrical consumption due to the fact that they need to cool down servers temperature continuously. There are many solutions for this and one of the best is to use a wireless sensor network to have a real time energy monitoring analysis. The problem of this solution is that in big data centers they need to install many different sensors so the network is very big and the maintenance very expensive. The idea was, why having many sensors into the environment while we could have only one moving around the entire area? So we realized a robot with sensors moving around autonomously and giving information in real time of the entire data center. It was working perfectly after 4 years of hard development with the state of the art algorithm to make the system working robustly. So we decided to bring it into the market since we had also some possible customers inside TIM. What was missing? It was a technology solution looking for a problem, thing that in business is very dangerous.

 

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Fortunately we apply the lean startup methodology in a very scientific way. So we interviewed 31 site manager and asked them how they were managing the infrastructure to have a better insight of the market. In particular we have learnt that it is composed as follow:

  • Housing service, is the service where customers are paying only for the physical space. They put their servers into this rented space and the service provider must guarantee that their servers stay within a certain safe temperature range.
  • Hosting service, the customer is paying only for remote data storage.
  • Cloud Service, it is very similar but the customer is paying only according to the space used day by day or hour per hour. So it is more flexible.
  • Internal data centers, are those data centers that are into a bigger company. The company doesn't want to deliver storage service to a different company so it decides to have everything internally.
  • Audit services, are those services to evaluate the energy efficiency and improve it.

Then we identified our competitive value and find the right market accordingly. Our solution was useful for physical monitoring of the servers in dynamic context and where the energy consumption is considered very big. We realized that customers that provide hosting and cloud services were not interested in our solution because they have no physical hardware to monitor.

Housing service seemed to be interesting because of its huge energy expense. Unfortunately we found out that most of them are designing new infrastructure in order to keep the efficiency always at the top. So we thought to internal data centers. Internal data centers are interesting because from the company perspective this infrastructure is always a cost. So we interview General Electrics CTO Fabio Borri. He told us that actually the energy problem is not the main reason of this cost but the infrastructure itself and all the IT team to support it. In fact they are shifting to a big centralized data center world wide that are designing with the highest possible energy efficiency. 

Only audit services was left as the latest chance. An interested potential customer was telling us that the main interesting feature was the dynamicity. So we thought that this would have been the right market. Unfortunately it ended that audit market for data center is too small for a business. In addition we needed to have audit skills for energy monitoring, thing that was not suitable to our vision as cloud robotics. We were basically out of any market with many prototypes and no people interested in using what we built!

We didn’t surrender but we took this experience as a good lesson learnt for creating something better.

So we thought about our key features. With a cloud robotics platform we can:

  1. Make robotics application development easy and accessible to everyone
  2. Through the internet we could seed a community of developers
  3. We could separate software from hardware and selling only the cloud platform itself instead of dealing with difficult services

So finally with the same strategy we found a market for makers and robotics enthusiasts! Now the cloud robotics platform is accessible at www.hotblackrobotics.com/cloud and helps everyone to use robots and write software in an easy way. It is an education and entertainment service on-line that makes everyone that want to use robots to make it working easily thanks to the power of the cloud. There are some cool functionalities such as voice recognition and face recognition that are already implemented into the platform and a growing community! And many and others things yet to come..  

Fig 2. Hotblack Robotics team: Gabriele Ermacora, CEO, and Ludovico Orlando Russo, CTO  

Fig 2. Hotblack Robotics team: Gabriele Ermacora, CEO, and Ludovico Orlando Russo, CTO