There’s been a lot of talk about, and tremendous interest in, Genesis Robotics because of its new invention, the LiveDrive, an actuation system which could not only revolutionise industrial robotics and automation, but could also transform automotive vehicles as well as change many other machines, devices and whole sectors.
But for the people behind the technology, one especially interesting potential application for LiveDrive is exoskeletons and what the company calls “assistive robots”, which they see as being in virtually every home in the future.
In this exclusive and wide-ranging interview, Robotics and Automation News talks to Mike Hilton, CEO of Genesis Robotics, about its development of LiveDrive, its potential applications, as well as the company’s negotiations for the licensing of its technology as well as the possibility of an acquisition.
Hilton joined Genesis Robotics from Microsoft earlier this year, but speaks as though he’s been there for decades. The company itself is a relatively new startup, a spin-out from Genesis Advanced Technology, but is well funded with almost $30 million invested in it.
Hilton explains: “Genesis Robotics is a research and development company. Our history is doing contract research and development.
“However, about three years ago, we recognised in a number of projects that we undertook that there was a fundamental problem with actuation.
“There hadn’t been a lot of innovation in either gear systems or motors for a very long time.
“So we took it upon ourselves – and raised some capital – to build a better actuator, and as we worked through that process, we realised that motors was the most limiting factor.
“We then set out to build a better motor in addition to some of the work we do on gear systems.
“And, as we worked through that, we made some fundamental discoveries, which are now patented, that allow us to create a motor – an axial flux, radial flux or linear motors, since the patents cover all three categories – that can deliver enough torque that, in many cases, we can eliminate the gearbox from many actuation scenarios.
“This has been the dream of many people in robotics – the opportunity to go direct drive.
“Alternatively, where torque is a fairly high requirement, we can use a much lower ratio of gearbox, which allows you – when you’re below 15 to 1, with 10 to 1 being a sweet spot – to get all of the benefits of direct drive.
“You have effectively no backlash, you have effectively no inertia, you have backdriveability because of the low inertia in the gear system.
“So that’s really where the company came from and what was the motivation and the travel to get us to where we are are today with LiveDrive technology.”
Given that Genesis Robotics is purely a research and development company and not a manufacturing company, it has two options for monetising its invention.
One, it could agree to a takeover of Genesis Robotics, perhaps by a manufacturing company. Or, two, it could license its technology to companies which would then manufacture it and take it to market.
The company is certainly pursuing the licensing option, but is reluctant to reveal any specifics about any negotiations.
“Obviously, given where we are with some discussions, can’t go into specific details,” says Hilton. “But what I can tell you is that we’ve clearly identified a number of sectors where LiveDrive technology is appropriate.
“So, everything from where we started, which was industrial automation and robotics, where there is a direct play – no pun intended, the direct drive is something many people have been looking for, especially is high-speed robotics.
“So, SCARA, delta, any kind of industrial automation where you have lots of back-and-forth motion. The low inertia and high torque of the LiveDrive makes it very well suited for those industries.
“So we’re currently working to structure a licensing relationship with one or possibly two players within the industrial robotics space to market LiveDrive commercially.
“But as we’ve gone through that exercise, we’ve also recognised that LiveDrive has direct applicability in many other industries, like the textile industry, or the automated valve industry – that’s an industry that has struggled for years to do electric actuation but just couldn’t get enough torque and they needed such high ratio of gearboxes that they reverted to hydraulics and they would love to remove hydraulics from that sector, so a high-torque electric motor is of tremendous interest.
“The area of aircraft control systems has also been one where we’ve had a number of conversations, again dealing the same issue – wanting to look at the elimination of hydraulics.
“Power steering, especially in a world where semi-autonomous and autonomous automobiles are going to become the norm, having some kind of high bandwidth, force feedback, haptic feedback, control system that has enough torque to manage power steering, but at the same time can provide feedback to the end user in a transparent way…
“I mean, you can’t do that through a gear system – the gears mask all of the road inconsistencies and things of that nature.
“So, there’s tremendous applicability in the auto industry, particularly around power steering.
“And those are just some of the sectors that we have engaged in fairly high-level conversations in, and are working very diligently towards licensing and IP sales within those areas.”
Lucrative licensing deals
Many people know what licensing is – it’s where an inventor of a technology permits a company to use the technology in return for a fee.
Often the fee is relatively small. So, an inventor can sometimes receive less than 10 per cent of the income. But that’s not a standard – each deal is different.
What is Genesis Robotics looking for in the deals it is negotiating, and how lucrative is licensing likely to be for the company?
“Those are the kind of interesting questions that come up all the time,” says Hilton.
“There are a variety of licensing arrangements. In most cases, the licensing involves the rights to use the technology, and there are numerous examples in the software world, the pharmaceutical world, the industrial world, where people have developed technology, and instead of commercialising it themselves, they have created a licensing arrangement with one or multiple companies.
“Sometimes those licensing arrangements have exclusivity, sometimes they have co-exclusivity, and sometimes those licensing arrangements also are ring-fenced by use case.
“Just as interesting example, if you look at the way Kodak licensed its digital camera technology over time, it was to numerous parties for numerous use cases, and Kodak themselves never actually produced a digital camera, but made significant revenue off the licensing of digital camera technology.
“And there’s numerous other examples like that.
“When we look at your comment about how ‘lucrative’ it can be, I think it’s less about how lucrative it is, it’s more about the value equation between the licensee and the licensor.
“If you look at industrial automation, that sector – and this is our estimates on factory revenue, so not retail revenue – but the actuation market is anything from $1.5 billion to $3 billion annually, and all indicators seem to suggest that industry is growing.
“The industrial automation and robotics sector is growing at between 15 and 20 per cent annually, so it’s a fairly big market with a fairly high growth number.
“And historically, there have one or two players that have dominated the actuation business. So the opportunity for someone to take an equivalent market share… You can see how it would be a significant benefit for a licensee to have a unique patented technology that they could have either exclusivity or co-exclusivity within that space.
“And you would see a similar model emerge whether it would be in the power steering space, or the valve space, or any of the other industries that we’ve mentioned.”
One of the problems for inventors of new technologies is that very often their ideas are not fully understood by others.
Often, their inventions are so different that other people don’t know how they relate it to what they’re doing, how they can benefit them in their work and business.
To try and resolve this, Genesis Robotics has produced numerous prototypes and reference designs which demonstrate how to use LiveDrive, but it has no plans to put such designs into mass production itself.
As Hilton reiterates: “We are exclusively a research and development company. Genesis raised $28 million in private investment for the development of LiveDrive technology. So, specifically, this high-torque, lightweight motor that we have developed and patented.
“One of things we have recognised as we went through that process is that there were very unique characteristics of the LiveDrive technology that many people would not recognise at the outset.
“Although we designed LiveDrive as a product that could retrofit an existing actuator – so, we don’t use any exotic materials, there’s no fancy manufacturing processes, we actually focussed on making sure it was a low-cost solution – we also made that it could be controlled by any off-the-shelf motion control technology.
“There’s no proprietary motion control drive technology that we use. You could use any drive control technology to support that.
“However, there are some unique characteristics of LiveDrive that, instead of going out and replacing existing robotic and industrial automation actuators, we also wanted to give people a sense of what else you could do with Livedrive.
“And if you look at many technology manufacturers who make core technology, they’ll produce what are known as reference designs.
“Probably the most visible in the technology space is a company like Intel, who regularly will produce tablets and laptops and phones and a variety of items that you can never buy – you’ll never buy an Intel laptop – but they create that reference design to help people understand how they could use their latest microprocessor in one of their own designs, as a way of leading the industry to new design capabilities.
“So that’s what we’ve tried to do at Genesis as well. Not only are we creating innovation in motors and gear systems, we’re creating innovation in manufacturing processes to drive the cost down, but we’re also helping to guide people on new and innovative ways of using these innovative technologies.
“So, for example, you’ve probably seen our ‘wedge’ design, which is created to, first of all, eliminate the pinch point that exists in assistive and collaborative robots, so you have no 90-degree crossovers in the design.
“You use these wedges to provide the mechanical advantage, or as a type of external gearbox – for the lack of a better term. In doing all that, you can only build a wedge design robot, like we have, because of the very thin form factor of the LiveDrive, because what you’re doing is stacking multiple drives on top of each other, and that’s a unique way of providing actuation that has a number of benefits.
“So we’ve gone and done our own research into how you can build robots not only in terms of design but also in terms of engineering design as to how you would build these wedge robots in order to create reference designs for the industry.”
Invention or innovation?
Some people question whether there are any real inventions in the world, arguing that pretty much everything is actually an innovation of an earlier invention.
However, Hilton is of the view that the LiveDrive is indeed an invention, and acknowledges that it could be said that there was something of a race to develop the technology it has succeeded in producing.
He says: “It is appropriate to use the term invention as opposed to just innovation, primarily because you can’t patent innovation per se. It has to be something new that no one else would have thought of, a sort of significant creation.
“So the fact that we had actually submitted eight patents for this. We actually now have six issued patents, three patent allowances, which is the stage just before patent issuing, and then two patents pending.
“So there’s a significant amount of IP that has in fact been patented and protected that relate to the LiveDrive technology.
“It’s interesting that you say that it was a race or a drive – I think that kind of sums up the psychology of a company like Genesis in that we saw that, starting about three years ago, there had been tons of innovations in software – artificial intelligence, machine learning, computational capacity, and there’s been tons of innovations and inventions in sensors and sensor systems, and sensor arrays, and there had even been some innovation – although incremental – in gear and transmission systems.
“But there had been no innovation in electric motors. For all intents and purposes – with the exception of maybe the introduction of permanent magnets a couple of decades ago – there had been no fundamental change in how motors were designed.
“And this was what really drove the organisation to say, well, surely we haven’t got to a point where all there is to know and do in electric motors has been done.
“There has to be something else out there that can move the state of electric motors forward. And so it took a very talented team of engineers to start to investigate and ask, you know, ‘What is it about current motor design, what are the boundaries – technologically – in motor design that have limited its ability to progress?’
“And there were some decisions made, there were some experiments that were done, that led us to some very unique discoveries.
“We often talk about what we call our three foundational discoveries, which is, we found a way to amplify magnetics so that we can actually get more magnetic flux out of standard magnets or even high-powered magnets – with magnets in general.
“Typically, when you put magnets in a motor, you’re just getting some of the flux off of the magnets that are in the motor.
“We’ve designed a geometry where we can actually embed the magnets in the metal of the motor in order to use that metal as a way to amplifying the magnetic flux.
“That was a very unique discovery that we made.
“The second was, of course when you increase that magnetic force, you are faced with a lot of power, you have a lot of energy stored in that motor, and a lot of motors – especially high-torque motors – are very heavy, and the reason they’re heavy is that you have to put so much structure around them in order to contain these forces.
“So, yes, you might have a high-torque motor but it’s almost useless because it weighs so much, so you couldn’t, for example, put it on the kinematic chain of a robot arm, where you’ve got six axes of heavy, heavy motors, you get to a point where the further down the arm you go, the early motors – the motors at the base or the shoulder – can’t even lift their own weight let alone lift an object.
“But we were able to find a way to create a structure that could support these magnetic forces without adding a lot of weight to the motor.
“This obviously had a huge impact.
“And then the third discovery revolved around… by reducing the amount of copper in the motor, and by trying to go to these very thin geometries, we can efficiently extract heat from the motor – because that’s the other thing that affects motors tremendously, meaning if I push a motor very hard in order to get more torque out of it, I also generate a tremendous amount of heat, and I damage the coil, damage the magnets, and it’s not a sustainable performance.
“But by finding a way to efficiently extract heat from the motor, we can drive these motors harder, which allows us to then get more torque out of them and that makes it a sustainable design.
“So those are the three foundational developments that the team here pursued, and that’s what allowed us to achieve what many people were trying to achieve.”
Seems unimaginable now, but readers who began their careers in the 1980s or even in the 90s may have been working in offices which had no computers and no internet.
Since that time, computers have taken over the world, and software has become more and more powerful. In fact, software – especially with the emergence of artificial intelligence – has much more to offer.
Some people say, however, that hardware innovation may have peaked – optimal levels may have already been reached.
But is this really true? Will hardware remain the same going forward because it cannot be innovated any more?
“It’s a very interesting contrast,” says Hilton. “My background is predominantly in the software industry. I actually spent 10 years at Microsoft prior to joining Genesis. So I am one of the people who benefited from living through this tremendous inflection point that occurred in personal computing, where there was a time when personal computers were relegated just to the desk of the chief finance officer and maybe one or two other people in the company.
“And the idea that Microsoft originally pioneered of a computer on every desk and in every home was considered a ridiculous statement back in the 80s, because it was too expensive, they were very industrial in their nature, and we just don’t see that happening.
“And it was a combination of software innovation from companies like Microsoft and also hardware innovation from companies like Intel that produced a higher performance, lower cost, revolutionary piece of hardware that was the catalyst to an inflection point in the adoption of personal computing technology that then helped that technology land on every desk and every home.
“In fact, today, we’d say that we’ve not only passed that, we’ve exceedingly surpassed that. Now, not only do we have more than a computer on every desk, more than one computer in every home, we probably have more than one computer in every hand when you think about smartphones and watches and things of that nature.
“And we believe very strongly at Genesis that there is a similar inflection point coming in robotics, and what is missing is the combination of – yes, there’s been great innovation and invention in software, but it’s missing this innovation in hardware, it’s missing the equivalent of what the microprocessor did to the personal computer.
“We believe that actuation is that catalyst.
“It’s funny. If you went to the 80s and said, ‘I see a future where there’s a computer on every desk and in every home’, people would laugh at you.
“Today, if I made the statement, I see a future of a robot in every business and in every home, nobody would laugh at that.
“I think there’s a genuine belief that that objective is not only possible, it’s very near. But what’s missing is this catalyst to create this inflection point to adoption.”
Hilton suggests that the key to hardware innovation is to redefining robots. “I think it’s important to always understand what a robot is, in the sense that if we fixate on a standalone, bipedal, humanoid robot, we’re probably a long way away.
“But then you consider the fact that most of us today already have robots in our homes – we have fully autonomous washing machines, we have fully autonomous vacuum cleaners, we have fully autonomous wheelchairs, or chairlifts, and things of that nature – that are providing a robotic service in the home.
“The other aspect is – especially when you talking about assistance to the elderly – the elderly don’t necessarily need a bipedal robot that walks around and helps them. In fact, most people, what they‘re looking for is simply some assistance in certain key areas.
“That’s where we feel our wedge design because of its zero pinch points would enable a robot to become safe to work beside.
“A lot of robotics in the future are going to be more of this assistive nature, where in fact they may not be any intelligent motion control, it may something as simple as a counter-mounted or floor-mounted exoskeleton.
“Let‘s say, for example, I’m an elderly person and I really want to have independent living, but I lack the strength to pick up a large pot off the stove or I lack the strength to pick up the laundry basket, and what I would really like is just something that would lift the basket off the floor and onto the counter, or in the kitchen, something to help me lift that pot off the stove to dump some water in the sink and put it back on the stove.
“And after that, I’m perfectly capable of working on my own.
“That’s where we see the short-term future for robotics.
“The sensors and software are ready to provide this autonomous function, what is lacking is the mechanical systems and, more importantly, mechanical systems at a cost that makes it consumer accessible.
“That’s where we see LiveDrive playing a significant role.
“We found a way to produce a high-torque motor that is a very low-cost that would make it appropriate in both an industrial application and a consumer application, and that would allow you to produce these assistive robots or temporary exoskeletons, floor-mounted exoskeletons, rehabilitative exoskeletons for stroke recovery and things of that nature, at a cost that makes it accessible to a larger portion of the population.”
For the founders of Genesis Robotics – Michael Gibney, president, and James Klassen, CTO – the prospect of developing a device to help the elderly and infirm to live better quality lives is a priority, as Hilton notes.
“Both of the founders of Genesis have a very strong desire to ensure that LiveDrive technology makes its way into exoskeletons, primarily because we want to see people able to walk again.
“And I think the combination of improved software and sensor systems, along with a better actuation technology, not only do I see a short-term future around assistive robotics and rehabilitative robotics – and I use the term assistive robotics because to be that’s the next evolution of collaborative robotics because if you look at collaborative robots in factories today, they’re really just traditional, industrial robots that run slower with some padding.
“And what we really need is to come up with either with either floor-mounted exoskeleton or assistive robot to allow the power of the human brain to be augmented by AI and mechanical systems to create higher productivity, safer working environments, minimise the impact on workers’ bodies, and really move that forward.
“And as we do that, we’re going to see tremendous innovation in how we can help the elderly, how we can help the disabled, how we can help people to recover from strokes, recover from traumatic injury.
“So have this rehabilitative or regenerative robotics – there’s a whole field of technology there. It’s directly related to what I call restorative exoskeletons, which are effectively replacements to wheelchairs.
“These are the things that going to help us with the ageing population we have, and the ability of that population to live independently longer because they have that in-home assistance full-time from some kind of robotic device or a variety of robotic devices in their home.
“But it could also improve the quality of life for all people where it could play a role.
“And I think the combination of the work that’s gone on in sensors and artificial intelligence, and the work that companies like Genesis are doing in improving the actuation, the mechanical side of things – that will be the area of not only most significant growth, but I would suggest most important growth for robotics.”
However, as some have said and is generally accepted, while software can build virtual machines that move around perfectly within a virtual world inside a computer, it’s more difficult to develop mechanical systems which can do the equivalent in the real world.
“Especially to do it safely,” says Hilton. “You want to be able to do it safely, you want to do it efficiently, you want to be able to do it cost-effectively, and low maintenance, especially if you’re going to move into the consumer space.”
Total robotic takeover
Rather than licensing the technology, some observers might like to see Genesis Robotics develop into, or become part of, a large manufacturing or industrial company of some description.
If, as Hilton says, some components for industrial robots have not seen any significant innovation for decades, it might make the sector more dynamic and interesting.
But would Genesis really be open to an acquisition?
“That is very much part of the discussions we’re having,” says Hilton. “We are open to a variety of commercialisation strategies that would range anywhere from an acquisition of Genesis through to the licensing arrangements, or what may end up being a combination of all of those.
“You might actually have an acquisition by somebody that would then be interested in doing some of the licensing relationships that we talked about earlier. So that is very much a possibility.
“We try to be as open in our strategy as possible because we recognise that different companies have different ways in which they want to grow their business and move forward, and we‘re prepared to find the right partnerships to make sure that LiveDrive is successful.”