One of Anki's robots. Photo courtesy Anki

Building robots is hard, but building a robotics company seems nearly impossible.

The latest in a spate of robotics companies to fold is Anki, the 9-year-old company that built cute robot companions and AI-powered toy race cars. It had raised more than $200 million in venture capital from top Silicon Valley firms and said last year it was nearing $100 million in revenue.

Things were looking good for Anki back in 2013 when it launched its first product, a nearly $200 toy race car and video game, onstage at an Apple keynote — an enormous platform.

  • After the racers, its next wave of products were friendly companion bots: little bulldozer-looking things with expressive eyes that make cute noises.
  • But this week, after losing out on what Anki spokesperson Peter Nguyen called a "significant financial deal at a late stage," the company is laying off its entire workforce, Nguyen said in a statement.
  • The news was first reported by Recode.

This trajectory is familiar to robotics companies — especially those making social robots. In the past year, several firms that made them, like Jibo and Mayfield Robotics, closed their doors.

At a robotics summit hosted by TechCrunch earlier this month, several speakers discussed why building a robotics company is so hard.

  • "The hardest problem starting out is finding the right problem to solve and making sure that people want you to solve it," said Melonee Wise, CEO of Fetch Robotics.
  • "Groups that do warehouse automation have often been successful because the market is there," said Manish Kothari, president of SRI Ventures, which invests in robotics companies.
  • "We know people pick apples; we know how much they charge for picking apples," Kothari said. "It's a daunting technical challenge" — but someone will probably want an apple-picking bot if you can create it and beat the cost of human pickers.

There's not yet a clear signal that people want robots in their homes.

  • For now, smart speakers like Amazon Echo are the closest thing to must-have home hardware — and they're still a far cry from any sort of robot.
  • The biggest market for bots at home is still for vacuums like Roomba, which have been around for nearly two decades.

Go deeper: Why is so hard to build profitable robot companies? (IEEE Spectrum)

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