The potential of robots to assist and even replace humans in a variety of work areas was already appreciated long before the advent of COVID-19. But now, in the context of that global health crisis, the notion of a device that can work tirelessly in environments where humans are at risk has boosted interest in the sector. Claus Risager of Blue Ocean Robotics tells us more about this fascinating industry.
Hello, Mr Risager. Thank you for sparing us a little of your time. It’s a great pleasure to have the opportunity of talking to you. To begin with, is there such a thing as a typical workday for you and what might it look like?
In the early morning, I exercise on a cross-trainer while I watch the latest business news. After that, I check the emails that arrived during the night. Until lunchtime, I mainly spend time on larger projects of strategic importance. After lunch, I normally have internal meetings with various managers in the company or we have team meetings related to our individual robots. Here, I also give interviews to journalists and take part in various networking meetings. The last meetings with our US peers typically end by 6 or 7 p.m. After that, I normally spend time on emails from during the day or I check out my social media and share and like what I find most interesting.
It’s hard to imagine a more futuristic-sounding area of business than robots. Could you give us some background on how Blue Ocean Robotics came to be set up?
I have been working with robots since 1988. In 2012, I decided to start up Blue Ocean Robotics and founded the company together with two colleagues; we were up and running by 1 February 2013. The overall purpose of the company is to make robots that give people better lives by making them more productive in their work, by enabling them to create better quality, to improve the health situation in their jobs, and so on. We also wanted to focus on making autonomous mobile robots and products for the professional service robot industry. We focused on segments with very low productivity increase, such as healthcare, hospitality, construction and agriculture, which are segments where robots can really make a big difference for the people that work in them. This is also why we included “for humans” in our logo.
The company has an interesting business model in which each robot brand is set up as a subsidiary. Could you tell us a little about why you chose that model, rather than simply having a range of products within the parent company itself?
We wanted to provide very clear communication to our customers, such that each brand name and logo is directly associated with a particular robot that brings a unique value to the customers. If we had set up all robots to have the Blue Ocean Robotics logo and brand name, it would have been more confusing for customers to understand. Furthermore, we also see Blue Ocean Robotics as a robot venture factory. As a consequence, once we have proved the business of a particular robot, we believe another company will be better at scaling up the business to even higher levels, and at that time we will search for such a company and sell our robot business to it. We have structured our business such that each individual robot is prepared for this, and therefore it also has its own unique brand name.
How does the company approach R&D? Do you tend to wait to be approached for a solution in a particular problem area, or do you perhaps more proactively identify applications for robotics with commercial potential?
It’s really a combination. Often, we are approached by customers or other parties from the market with ideas or problems to be solved. And often we get an idea ourselves based on a deep understanding of the capabilities of our robot technologies and problems that are yet to be solved on a global market. We have a very structured way of analysing and sorting these ideas, as well as a process of taking various steps from idea through design, development and commercialisation all the way to a final exit one day. Internally, we have named this whole framework as our “RoBi-X” model.
In the current situation of pandemic, the focus is very much on healthcare applications for robots, not least because of their imperviousness to biological viruses. The company’s UVD robots are currently enjoying huge success, for example, in China. Could you tell us a little about the history of the product?
UVD Robots is a result of a collaboration between Blue Ocean Robotics and a group of Danish hospitals that started in 2014. Together we set the goal of solving the problem of patients getting infections during hospitalisation. In Denmark alone, the problem with hospital-acquired infections is so big that every year 50,000 patients get a hospital acquired infection, and over 1,000 people lose their lives as a direct consequence of this. UVD Robots created its first generation of the robot in 2015 and started scaling its commercial sales activities in 2018. Today, we are in more than 60 countries and the company is the world leader in autonomous mobile robots that do UV-C disinfection, with more than 75 percent of the world market. The UVD robots are used in general to prevent infections of all kinds of bacteria and viruses and, naturally, also COVID-19.
Do you see robots moving into other areas of healthcare in the future?
Yes, for sure. There are many applications within the healthcare segment where we will see many more robots. At Blue Ocean Robotics, we have two more robots coming into the healthcare market just now. GoBe Robots is a telepresence robot enabling physicians and other healthcare professionals to connect to a robot in order to talk to patients and colleagues, so as to diagnose and treat patients. PTR Robots is a robot for safe patient-handling and rehabilitation combined, and is of particular use for patients with stroke and similar kinds of paralysis, where rehabilitation of patients in order to train lost gait functions is essential, while also at the same time being able to move the patients around in a super-flexible way.
Can you tell us a little about the other ranges of robots that the company has developed? And are there any other sectors of industry that you have set your sights on as potential application areas for robots?
I’ve already mentioned GoBe Robots and PTR Robots. In addition, GoBe Robots is a very CO2-friendly robot, because it basically encourages and enables people to travel less, while still being able to be physically present and interact with other people. This leads to enormous amounts of CO2 saved, as just one flight from Copenhagen to Singapore for one person is 3.1 tonnes of CO2.
There is currently a lot of speculation about the nature of the post-pandemic world. Do you see the pandemic as a game-changer for the application of robotics?
In some types of applications, it is clearly a game-changer for robots. We have already talked about disinfection, but also reduced travelling. Other applications are related to logistics, where robots can take goods from A to B and again reduce the degree of physical contact between people.
Sustainability is a high-profile issue in business in our times. How do you see the robotics industry’s role in this regard? Can it make a contribution to improved sustainability?
Yes, indeed. Again, our GoBe Robots is the world’s most environmentally friendly and CO2-saving robot. The sustainability goals are at the top of our mind and this seems to also spread out to many more robot companies now.
The introduction of advanced-technology solutions, such as robotics, AI and drones, will obviously have implications for society in the future, for example in terms of privacy, ethics and employment. Should business leaders get involved in considering such issues, or are they a matter for other platforms of discussion?
Certainly, business leaders should get involved in discussing such issues and, first and foremost, business leaders must make up their minds about how their businesses and products are going to contribute to making the world a better place for all of us.
The robotics industry has experienced difficult times in recent years and some companies have been unable to continue. What would you say are the qualities that have enabled Blue Ocean Robotics to thrive while others have failed?
I agree that there has been some hype about the robotics industry for some years, but it seems to have cooled off a bit and that is good for the entire industry. The hype was caused by the clear realisation of the future potential of the robotics industry, where it became obvious that robots are going to play a major role in our future. In this century, the industry will play a role which is even bigger than the role the automotive industry played in the previous century. This is a statement made by the Economic Forum of the UN. And making robots successful is so much more difficult than just developing software and apps and similar, because robots are real things interacting with the physical world and the people in it. This is challenging across a range of parameters and many robot companies have not been fully prepared for it.
At Blue Ocean Robotics, we have overcome these challenges by establishing ourselves as a robot venture factory. We have basically industrialised the various phases and processes that it takes to go from idea, through design, development and commercialisation to a fully scaled and successful business. Such an industrialisation means that we have built up best practices in all relevant aspects and we can leverage this every time we make a new robot in our portfolio. In this way, we can make new robots better, faster and more cheaply than anyone else and we also have a higher quality, higher hit rate and a more streamlined way of doing it. And this makes a big difference. Most robot companies are able to develop a robot, but many struggle with achieving success in the market for various reasons. Either they have not involved the customers deeply enough in the development, or they struggle with a cost-efficient and qualitatively good production setup, or they are not prepared for how to sell to and support customers all over the world, or many other things that were unforeseen and ended up closing down the new robotics company. At Blue Ocean Robotics, we have successfully established our robot venture factory and, with it, the capability to create one successful robot after another, like pearls on a string.
What aspects of your work to date have given you the most satisfaction? And what are some of the goals that remain?
Clearly, our ability to help all over the world in fighting the spread of COVID-19 has been really satisfying for all our employees, as well as management and investors. We were the first to get our robots on the ground in Wuhan, China to help prevent the further spread of the virus, and we were also heavily deployed in Italy, helping solve the immense problems that came with COVID-19. Furthermore, the fact that we save hundreds of tons of CO2 every day with our GoBe Robots being applied all over the world is very comforting for all of us and shows that there are ways to tackle the major climate challenges we are facing.
Do you subscribe to the perspective of a “work-life balance” and, if so, could you define what it means for you?
Yes, we are indeed focused on ensuring there is a good work-life balance for all our employees. We have a variety of approaches we use in a combined way to ensure this. For example, we appreciate that all people are different, so we really embrace giving our employees the freedom to organise their own work as much as possible. We have coaches that support our employees with tackling professional and private challenges, helping them to become successful in their lives. We have plenty of social activities, we invite the spouses to dinners and social get-togethers, and much more.
What constitutes success for you, personally?
Customers clearly stating that our robots give value to them, like the UVD Robots saving lives every day, the GoBe Robots saving CO2 every day, etc. As an example, in Italy recently, a leading physician said that they had had five staff infected, but then they installed UVD robots and subsequently had no cases of infected people.
Claus Risager is the CEO of Blue Ocean Robotics. He has a PhD degree in Robotics & Artificial Intelligence, with 30-plus years of experience with professional service robots and expertise in development, innovation and entrepreneurship. He has given more than 250 talks about robotics worldwide, and has received numerous awards, such as the euRobotics Technology Transfer Award 2020, IERA Awards 2019, and many more.