By Eric Peterson | Jan 11, 2019
Snow-clearing and mowing robots
Industry: Industrial & Equipment
Products: Snow-clearing and mowing robots
A self-described "software guy by trade," Olkin worked at Oracle and Microsoft before indulging his entrepreneurial aspirations. "This is the third company I've personally founded," he says of Left Hand Robotics. After software-oriented Workday and GridCraft, Left Hand is Olkin's "first startup with a hardware component."
But it dovetails into his volunteerism: Olkin has mentored the local school district's robotics club since 2010. There, he worked with co-founder and CTO Mike Ott, who has a background in robotics and manufacturing automation.
Inspiration struck in the form of a blizzard a few years back. The plow piled snow high along the sidewalk in front of Olkin's driveway. "I couldn't get my car out because of snow," he recalls. "I said, 'Why can't robots do this?' . . . That was the genesis of the idea."
Snow removal crews typically hire seasonal shovelers, and it's harder than ever. "The real pain point was on the commercial side," he notes. "There's a severe labor shortage. It's only gotten worse since then."
Left Hand Robotics’ self-driving SnowBot eases the pain. It also "multitasks," says Olkin, by providing documentation of snow-clearing and spreading de-icer. "It works 60 minutes of every hour," says Olkin. "It doesn't get in fights. It's beyond reliable."
The R&D phase lasted through 2016. "In early 2017, we were out testing our first prototype," says OIkin. "We did a major redesign from there."
A subsequent beta launch sent eight robots to locations from the East Coast to Colorado. "We learned a lot from that," says Olkin.
Following improvements to the software and machine vision, the third version started shipping to pilot customers in late 2018. The initial target market spans hospitals, campuses, and municipalities, as well as snow-removal contractors. Olkin says the SnowBot starts at $35,995 for a "starter kit" with snow-clearing attachments and GPS device. The software is subscription-based and starts at $3,595 annually.
The SnowBot clears paths and sidewalks that are typically shoveled because plows can't get to them; parks and campuses are target-rich environments. "You don't need to get those guys with shovels anymore," says Olkin. "The whole point of the robot is to get out in front of a storm. Don't let the snow accumulate" -- and sidewalks don't turn into skating rinks.
GPS guides the robot with assists from LIDAR and RADAR sensors and software, and a cloud-based data center that helps keep track of the snow and when it was cleared. "Our IP, the secret sauce, the innovation, is really in the software we've written," says Olkin. "There's nothing particularly innovative about our machine itself. . . . As a software company, we're working to make the robot smarter and smarter."
Mowing is the next big frontier for Left Hand Robotics. "You can monetize and use the robot year-round, not just for snow," says Olkin, noting similar labor dynamics between shoveling snow and mowing grass. "They're facing the same issues."
Just swap the snow-clearing attachment for a mowing counterpart, and the robot is ready to go. "What we designed is a tractor-like platform," he explains. "We designed it that way so it could be used year-round."
A less obvious perk: "Mowing often is good for the environment," says Olkin. "The more you mow, the better it is." Well-maintained lawns require less water and are more effective carbon sinks, according to the Florida-based Lawn Institute. "We're looking at big, huge fields . . . sports complexes and things like that."
Then there are the uses yet to be determined: "It's up to the imagination what attachments you come up with," says Olkin. He thinks golf courses could use it to retrieve golf balls on driving ranges, for example; it's just about developing the right attachment.
Left Hand Robotics does all of the design and engineering in-house, and works with a network of contract manufacturers to make the SnowBot. Star Precision machines the steel parts and many components are off-the-shelf and domestic, including hydraulics and Briggs & Stratton motors. The final assembly takes place in Left Hand's shop; each SnowBot requires about six days to build. "Right now, we are lovingly handcrafting every one, like a little Ferrari," says Olkin.
That will change as volumes increase. "We're not quite there yet. We need to see where the demand is and how strong it is," says Olkin. "As a software company, we don't necessarily want to be manufacturing long-term. . . .We'd like to keep it onshore, but we also need to take economics into account." He sees a partnership with another manufacturer as "the most likely situation."
Challenges: Olkin highlights the supply chain. "For us right now, we're just trying to get these robots out for customers. They're waiting."
"Our biggest challenge has been getting parts," he says "As a software guy, I never had to deal with lead times or parts at all."
Many fabrication shops Left Hand has reached out to have backlogs, and low volumes often translate to high costs. "We were having problems just getting the attention of these shops," he says. "When you're a startup with limited cash in the bank, that can be a delicate balance."
"Hiring people is also a challenge," adds Olkin, calling the Front Range pool of technical talent "not nearly as deep” as Boston or San Francisco.
Opportunities: Commercial snow removal is a $1.8 billion industry in the U.S. Olkin says Left Hand has potential to tap into $190 million in recurring revenue on the snow-clearing side, and mowing is considerably larger: Turf grass grows on an astounding 40 million acres in the U.S., nearly 2 percent of the country. "It's a massive market," he says. "Every report says robotic mowers are going to be a big part of that."
Left Hand is nicely positioned at the intersection of these huge markets and robotics. "Everybody seems to want to get into robotics, and I think we have a very good head start and a very good team here," says Olkin.
Needs: Capital. After a $3.7 million seed round closed in July 2018, Left Hand will likely go after a Series A in spring 2019. "We're looking at raising at least $10 million," says Olkin. "That's my job: to manage the runway and manage the costs."
Talent is another ongoing need, he adds. "It's just about getting the right people on board. That's the biggest thing."