Robotics

Dmitry Grishin on the robots of the future

November 25, 2013: 10:42 AM ET

"It would be cool if you could apply the entire Internet revolution to the real world, to all of the things that are happening offline."

By Clay Dillow

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FORTUNE -- As co-founder and CEO of Mail.Ru, Russia's largest Internet company, Dmitry Grishin has the tech industry chops most 34-year-olds can only dream about. As a young programmer in the late 1990s, Grishin founded Molotok.Ru, a Russian language equivalent of eBay, then kept it and various other Internet concerns afloat when the Internet bubble burst by scavenging cheap hardware from failed U.S. companies. "2001 to 2003 was really, really difficult," Grishin says. "But then some companies started to believe in the Internet again, the advertising came, and we started to grow."

Now one of the most visible names in the Russian technology sector is turning his focus toward a new segment of the technology economy he absolutely believes in: robotics. Staked with $25 million out of his own pocket, Grishin has launched a venture fund focused solely on "personal robotics" aimed at a general consumer marketplace. "Right now I think robotics is a trillion dollar industry," Grishin recently told a panel at the Open Innovation Forum in Moscow. "They won't look like humanoids, but robots will be everywhere -- in our homes, in our work -- everywhere." All the industry really needs is for consumers to grow comfortable with robots -- to believe in the robotics renaissance -- and Grishin Robotics' singular purpose is to make sure that they see the light. Grishin spoke with Fortune earlier this month.

Q: You established yourself on the Web via software platforms like Mail.Ru. What made you decide to shift toward hardware?

A: I'm not making a switch, I'm exploring a new opportunity. I remember in the year 2000 nobody in Russia was on the Internet, and if you'd told somebody that millions of people would be using email and other Internet technologies in Russia, they would've laughed. Nobody believed in it, right? Now I see a brilliant, absolutely new market that was established in 10 years.

It's really cool that you can communicate with people and search this huge amount of information. But even though we've had this huge innovation in computer technology and the Internet here [pointing to the author's laptop], if you look outside of the Internet and computers you don't see any kind of really cool innovation. My feeling is that it would be cool if you could apply the entire Internet revolution to the real world, to all of the things that are happening offline.

And I think the time is right, because a lot of things have happened that have changed the situation. The price of components has dropped thousands of times. Let's say this chair costs $200. You can now put a sensor inside of this chair for one dollar. So you can not change the cost of this chair, but now you have a sensor and now you have dat a-- is someone sitting in this chair, is it empty. This change in cost has created a lot of opportunities.

But being inexpensive doesn't necessarily translate to demand. Where do you see the demand for robotics coming from? What are the biggest untapped applications?

Computers were once very expensive, and you got very inexpensive computers but people still didn't know what to do with them. Programmers understood but most people didn't really know what to do with this strange box. Then people invented really good applications, like gaming, and people brought computers into the home and into the business. That's what robotics needs to do -- there are particular markets where you can apply existing technology.

Look at what iRobot did. They didn't invent a special technology for the Roomba. They just realized they could take technology that was already there, and they found the market. The Nike Fuelband: This could've been invented years ago, the technology was there. Nike (NKE) just found a new product category. The Facebook (FB) News Feed isn't a special technology. It's an idea. That's what's needed in the robotics market.

I believe there are a lot of interesting markets which could be huge for robotics. Agriculture -- it's a very structured environment where a lot of things can be automated. Home security, home automation, kitchen automation -- right now we're in a very early stage, it's a much larger market.

Why personal robotics then? Right now governments and industry are by far the biggest customers for companies building unmanned systems. Why is the time right for consumer robotics?

I have a theory, and maybe I'm wrong but I believe in it: If people don't see a technology they won't believe in it. So if you want to bring the robotics market to a new level you have to make it accessible to millions of people, you have to invest in consumer robotics because that will completely change the mindset of people. Once we see robotics around us people will start to believe in it, journalists will write about it, children will play with robots and become inspired, and that's what brings money and passion to the market. That's one reason I'm excited about iRobot, because this particular company brings much more attention to robotics than pretty much all other industrial robotics companies in the last 30 years.

You've talked a lot about robotics being an extension of the Internet into the world beyond computers -- similar to what other people have termed the "Internet of things." What are the connected things that are going to drive the future of the robotics industry?

For me, I think the "Internet of things" and robotics are doing the same jobs. Long-term, all robots will be connected to the Internet. We sometimes call this "Cloud Robotics," and it's basically the "Internet of things."

By the way, I think one of the biggest mistakes made by iRobot is that the Roomba isn't connected to the Internet. I would bet that will happen very soon. But imagine if one Roomba can teach other Roombas; once you can connect the Roomba to the Internet they can constantly improve how they work.

My vision is that the first phase of this will be sensors, you'll have a lot of sensors everywhere, and from the sensors you'll see new kinds of applications. Look at Nest -- one smart sensor can improve a lot of stuff. The next category that will come sometime later will be sensors plus actuators, where you can not only sense data but can affect that actual physical world. Maybe that's just opening the door remotely, but there are enormous possibilities once you can affect the physical space.

One thing I absolutely don't believe in is humanoid robots in the near future. They're expensive and they don't solve a particular problem. They cost thousands of dollars that nobody is willing to pay. I find that if you want to make and sell a lot of robots, the price point should be no more than your Macbook. If your robot costs $10,000, it's already the price of a car.

So with Grishin Robotics you want to help robotics startups apply their existing and developing technologies to real-world problems -- to turn what's cool in the lab into useful consumer products that will drive the market.

There's another reason I'm doing this: There's something broken with venture capital all over the world and in the United States in particular. For me, venture capital is where you make some venture, you make some really new bets. But if you look at venture capital right now, most people are making bets in categories that are very, very well-established. It's monkey business -- everyone is repeating what the other person is doing.

When I began looking into this I was surprised to find that pretty much no one was investing in hardware. Since founding Grishin Robotics the situation has changed, I see venture capital funds in the U.S. looking at hardware companies more seriously. People are seeing the connection between the "Internet of things" and robotics. That's cool, and I hope more people will follow.

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