The legacy of Willow Garage…The “PARC” for robotics

The robotic industries have been one of the hottest topics worldwide since there has been progressing from the traditional manufacturing applications to the non-manufacturing applications such as service industry. Like other industries, startups in US Bay Area cover the whole area of the San Francisco-Silicon Valley has led the innovation. You have heard Savioke developing a butler robot for the hotel industry, Fetch Robotics developing a picking and transport robot for logistics that is also well known as Softbank has invested, and Suitable Technologies which has created a telepresence market.

In such robotics community in Bay Area, a group which has been recognized and respected is Willow Garage. There is a common point that all founders of companies mentioned above used to work for Willow Garage. Today, we are going to have a close look at Willow Garage, which is said: “Willow Garage in robotics industry is something like Bell Labs and Xerox Parc in the personal computer industry.”

hi_wg01 Butler robot by Savioke

Willow Garage’s impact on the robotics industry

The Willow Garage is a robotics research development and incubation company founded by Mr. Scott Hassan in 2006. It develops open source robotics software ROS (Robot Operating System), standard robots PR2 and TurtleBot for the purpose of research and development. Willow Garage contributed to the development of the robotics industry until they shuttled down the business in 2014.

ROS is widely used as a standard software in not only the research and development field but also US robotics start-ups or robot-related new business of major companies. It have been adapted for Rescue robots used in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, Baxter from Rethink Robotics known as collaboration type robot, and the development of autonomous vehicles by BMW and Robert Bosch. You remember that you heard recently Softbank Pepper is supported by ROS.

In the background of the current robotic boom, both hardware and software reached the level that the robotics meets business needs with its performance and cost. In terms of hardware, developing human interaction robots was not realistic due to performance and high costs of the sensor and processor until the first half of the 2000s.

Misrecognition or response delays could have caused the technology to harm people in everyday environments where humans around. It was in the late 2000s that the foundation was prepared mostly to develop robots that can withstand an everyday environment by the computing ability of processors mounted on robots reached enough to the real-time data processing and low-cost sensor become available such as Microsoft’s three-dimensional sensor Kinect.

Perceiving these changes in the hardware side, Willow Garage developed ROS an open-source software for reduction of the software development process that was a major hurdle of the software side, and for re-use promotion Software that has been already developed, (To be precise, they promoted the project originally started at STAIR of Stanford University [Stanford AI Robot] or PR [Personal Robot] program). As a result, the efficiency of software development was dramatically improved. Even a small start-up developed complex robot applications in a short period of time.

Mirza Shah, the CTO of Simbe Robotics that manufactures a display shelf inventory management robot Tally explained that they succeeded to build the robot in 18 months with ROS, which was originally estimated to take 22 years. You can see how the impact Willow Garage gave on the rise of the robotic startups was great. By the way, Mirza Shah was also involved in the software development in Willow Garage before he started Simbe Robotics.

How did Willow Garage manage to produce the products to be a source of innovation involved in the robotics like ROS and a large number of entrepreneurs? Let’s look into the history from the beginning.


Billionaire founder foresees a world of personal robots

Willow Garage founder Scott Hassan was once enrolled in Stanford University lab with Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Hassan was involved in the development of the Google prototype search engine there and invested $ 800 in Google only after 12 days of its establishment. Also, Hassan himself launched the e-mail service called eGroups and sold to Yahoo for $432 million in 2000.

After this success, Hassan founded Willow Garage to realize the development of a personal robot – the big picture he had held in his mind for a long time. When Willow Garage was established in 2006, the only robots that people had a chance to see in everyday life was largely Roomba of iRobot. However, the future was visible to Hassan that a general-purpose automatic robot will be moving around the house to help the daily life for the people.

Why did Hassan want to develop a personal robot? What led him to the idea that the software he developed for it to open for anyone? He said the three reasons in his speech at PR2 Beta Program launch party in May 2010.

First, he felt “with the productivity of a robot, I felt it should be able to improve the daily life of the people.” He said that he was impressed when he visited a Toyota factory with the production line capable of making more than one car per one worker per one day and the robots used there, and it would be possible to change the world if this is utilized outside the factory.

Next, he mentioned, “high-level degree of professionalism and network of connection is necessary because the development of a robot needs to gather talented engineers in each field of hardware, electric, software and collaborate.” At the time of 2006, the market for non-manufacturing purpose robotics was small, and there was no person who was willing to invest the funds. Besides, since he could not find anyone except him who combined expertise, the network of connection and the financial ability, he reached the conclusion “I should do this.”

And finally, his mother was a big fan of robots. He wanted to realize a household robot during his life. For that purpose, it would not be in time if his company had been developing alone. He thought that it is necessary to involve with a variety of people to work together. He chose the stance to publish what he developed.

I would say that not every robot fan has the same way of thinking as Hassan. The idea of Colin Angle of iRobot is opposite. Collin is well known as a successful Robot entrepreneur in the United States. He criticized the activities of Willow Garage as he has the strong opinion that open-source robotics software would allow other countries to piggyback off potentially blockbuster intellectual property.

However, it is no doubt that foundation of the current robotic boom has been made by the great entrepreneur who drew a grand vision and gave priority to the realization of vision than profit.

First, change the world, then worry about returns

Willow Garage, which just gave the cry, welcomed Steve Cousins to their CEO as a leader to team up a variety of members. Hassan had an employment relationship since he was hired as an intern by Cousins when he was a student at the University of Washington. The two men hired world leading researchers or robotics engineers under the financial plan that was able to cover 60 researchers per year and proceeded the business with the policy “Impact first and return on capital second.” The work environment for the researchers was like a playground because they were able to work on a project such as to make a robot fold the laundry while enjoying the free food and drink based on ample funds.

When it was established, some directions were indicated such as involvement with DARPA project. However, it was gradually shifted towards the final goal that was the research and development of personal robots. It was focusing on the development of the standard robot PR2 and the software ROS to support PR2.

The beginning was the encounter of Hassan and Cousins with graduate students of Stanford University. They got along with two graduate students Keenan Wyrobek and Eric Berger, who were making the PR2 prototype robot  — made with wood at that time — at Stanford University lab. After that, Willow Garage poured the in-house resources to the development of PR2 and ROS. Also, the majority of employees were involved in PR2 and ROS projects. When they were not involved in those projects, computer vision or tactile feedback research were proceeded.

PR2, which was developed over four years by the release on 2010, were very welcomed because of the effort for joint research with the partner universities and positive acceptance of external researchers and intern students. And, ex-employees of Willow Garage began to have the strong influence as people whispered “Willow Mafia” in the robotics industry. Brady Forrest Highway 1, which is hardware accelerator in San Francisco, tweeted “Willow Garage is the technical equivalent of the PayPal mafia for robotics.”

From playground…to closure

After the success of ROS and PR2, Willow Garage changed the direction to the commercialization of their research results and transformed from “playground for the robot researchers” to “robotics entrepreneur group.” Hassan started to establish a separate company and invest when a new idea was brought up. “Eventually, the floodgates opened, and a lot of people got the startup bug,” Cousins recalled those days. Willow Garage spun out the eight companies. In 2013, two companies of those were acquired by Google.

Among the spin-out companies, the one which made Hassan excited the most was Suitable Technologies that pioneered a new market called telepresence. Hassan took about ten employees from Willow Garage and started to devote himself to the development of a mobile robot and the remote control system. The robot is called Beam which has a display to show the face of the operator on top of a body with wheels.

Willow Garage at the time lost $ 20 million annually. Hassan realized that the arrival of the world a robot will move around inside the house to support daily life would be still much further ahead. He decided to stop the investment in the second half of 2013 and to concentrate on the management of Suitable Technologies. The reason he determined that the time was still premature was not because of software limitations. It was because of hardware limitation which had huge costs, even to implement a simple function.

After that, Willow Garage continued sales and support for such as TurtleBot for a while. Currently, it leaves the business for such as Clearpath Robotics, and it is no longer seen substantially activities. For the ROS, it was spun out as a non-profit organization to continue the developer community-led development.

The largest robot entrepreneur group arose

Triggered by the spin out, many excellent employees left Willow Garage. After a temporary sentimental mood, even remaining people began to think what they were able to do with the technology they developed in Willow Garage. Cousins also decided to leave Willow Garage and founded Savioke mentioned at the beginning. “It isn’t your typical Silicon Valley success story. But we wanted to seed an industry and have an impact on the robotics world, and I think we did that,” he said.

Thus, the largest robotics entrepreneur group in the Bay Area was born. They include Computer Vision, in order to achieve human-robot interaction; Path Planning, a software startup based on elemental technologies such as manipulation; another startup to develop a service robot to perform specific tasks, and so on.

In addition to startups, I can see many of my friends who used to work for Willow Garage succeed in many places in the robotics industry such as a developer of various industrial robots in Alphabet robot-related team, a self-driving car developer, a UAV development leader, a leader of Project Tango to achieve a 3D scan with smartphones, a self-driving car developer in Robert Bosch, etc. They continue to commit for ROS development with holding their wish to realize a personal robot one day while they make every effort for the startups to survive. Lively discussion still exchanged among the developers beyond their company settings.

Although Willow Garage might not have been able to get a success as a fruit like Google and Facebook, the soil has been ready, and many seeds have been sown by a billionaire with time and monetary commitment who has expert knowledge, network of connection, experience as an entrepreneur and the passion.


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