Reporting from America’s novel coronavirus hot spot provides little comfort. Let me share with you the reality of life in the Big Apple. The City that never sleeps is quiet, very quiet. I seldom see cars driving outside my windows (but on a plus side, parking is substantially more available). Pedestrians are nervous, avoiding each other literally like the plague, carefully staking out their own personal force fields. In between moments of anxiety, there are bright spots – family time, personal reflection and Governor Cuomo’s daily briefings.
As a robot enthusiast, I have some advice for our State’s Winston Churchill – deploy robots to offset critical workers. New York City is currently calling up 40,000 formerly retired healthcare professionals to augment its current hospital staff. In other places, such as China and South Korea, administrators have utilized robots for sanitation, deliveries, and, even, patient examinations. As featured last February in The Robot Report, Blue Ocean Robotics’ shipped 2,000 units of UVD Robots ApS, a mobile ultra-violet sanitizing platform, to China to combat COVID-19. Recently, I caught up with Claus Risager, founder and Chief Executive Officer of Blue Ocean, to discuss how their business has been impacted by the global pandemic.
The Danish roboticist has been at the forefront of mechatronic innovation since the late 1980s. Founding the company in 2013 Risager set out “to develop mobile robots that are tailor-made to specific service applications in healthcare, hospitality, construction, and agriculture.” As an anecdotal, I first met the Blue Ocean team when they approached my portfolio company, Que Innovations, for autism therapy devices. Since then, I have seen the Nordic startup take a leading role in shaping robotics worldwide. In the founder’s words, “The company is a ‘robot venture factory’ in the sense that we have a portfolio of robots each marketed under its unique brand name. Today we have UVD Robots, Beam Robots and PTR Robots in our portfolio.” Risager also promotes “robotic entrepreneurship,” by cycling best practices and reusing components to commercialize new innovations. As the CEO explains, “We have been able to streamline the process of going from an idea, through design, development, and commercialization all the way to scale up and doing so in a way which is better, faster and more cost-effective than others due to the reuse of well-proven components. Thus the capital it takes, the risks and the time it takes are significantly reduced. Today our robots are sold in approximately 50 countries around the world and we are present in the Americas, Europe, and Asian-Pacific regions.”
Last August, Blue Ocean acquired the assets of telepresence leader Beam from Suitable Technologies in the United States. This game-changing deal expanded Risager’s market share in the remote office and telehealth space, especially now during the present health crisis. As of March 18th, 58% of America’s knowledge workers were utilizing online video tools and telepresence applications to maintain employee productivity. In contrast, pre-virus, in 2018 only 5.3% of Americans worked from home. Analysts predict that the current uptick will spill over to the robot telepresence market that was previously estimated (pre-pandemic) to grow to over $300 million by 2023 (based upon post-Covid adoption it could be as much as 10 times the original projections). For example, telehealth is fast becoming the first line of treatment against the novel-corona virus, accelerating the demand for Beam’s products. While sales figures are undisclosed, Research and Markets formerly estimated that medical use cases would climb to $100 billion by 2024. Risager is keeping his team focused on the long-term regardless of the SARS-CoV-2 bump: “The telepresence robots have been shown to mainly address three major value propositions: 1) infection prevention simply because people can interact but being on a physical distance; 2) social inclusion as the robots enables in a very simple and easy way for people to be together in ways they would otherwise not be able to; and 3) climate change as the robots enable people to work together on a distance and thus reduce travel and CO2 emissions.” He sums it up succinctly, “In short the telepresence robots change the way business is done and how people interact in general.”
As Personal Protection Equipment is becoming increasingly more scarce, Risager believes his fleet of disinfecting robots could be part of the solution. The inventor elaborates, “Over the last 6 years we have been working with bacteriological and virological specialists from local Danish hospitals to make a mobile robot which can assist cleaning staff with disinfecting patient rooms.” He expounds on the impact vis-a-vis Covid-19, “We introduced the UVD robots into the market in 2018 and have seen significant growth rates of 400% annually. But clearly, with the coronavirus crisis, there is a very high demand for our UVD robots and we are currently doing everything we can to produce and deliver all those that are ordered from all over the world. We are proud that our robots are directly in action in places like Wuhan, Italy, South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, the USA, and many other places as well.” The results have been promising as it reduces cleaning supplies, materials, and employees.”Various test results indicate that we are able to reduce the number of infected people with 40-50% in those hospital rooms where the UVD robots were applied,” shared Risager.
Blue Ocean sees UVD’s sales growing substantially from medical facilities to cruise ships to transportation hubs to nursing homes. In 2018, Grand View Research already reported that the market for “global antiseptics and disinfectants” was over $16 billion, however, this does not account for the post-Corona effect or the use of machines. Risager observes, “In the pre-corona period we had experienced solid growth in both telepresence and UVD robots. This shows that corona or not there is significant market potential and pull from the markets towards such types of robots. After the corona crisis and with contingency plans I believe everyone wants to have better tools at their hands to deal with such kinds of crises. Another thing we also see is that people very quickly get used to working in different ways – more digitally – and this I believe will be a major driver forward for especially the telepresence robots. For the UVD robots, the fact that the market is no longer just hospitals but also the other market verticals will mean that the need for these robots will most likely continue to be very significant.”
Sitting in America’s worst-hit metropolis, I pressed Risager for his opinion on the new normal. “First of all, I believe the post-corona period will be one where every country on earth will start working more on establishing contingency plans for pandemics. Due to SARS and MERS countries like Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea had already very fast responding and very detailed contingency plans for virus outbreaks and thus these countries do not have the exponential spreading of the virus. They have a constant number of people being infected and this completely changes the situation such that closing down the society and business is not necessary,” opines the robot executive. He remarked further how his business is responding, “The coming year seems to be very much focused on a further scale-up of our sales of telepresence- and UVD robots. More and more solutions providers/distributors are on-boarded and more and more customers start using our robots or increase their fleet of installed robots.” His biggest challenge right now is scaling up, but he is optimistic that Blue Ocean is ready, “We have also moved to a new and much larger building which enables us to produce thousands of our robots every year under the same roof and where we also have outstanding facilities for our development and testing.” Blue Ocean’s ingenuity could be a silver lining in this mess, joining a growing list of businesses altruistically teaming up to defeat an invisible enemy.