February 7, 2022
By Keith Shaw
Over the past two years, Blue Ocean Robotics has been very busy, meeting surging demand from customers looking to deploy disinfection robots from the company’s UVD Robots division. The Denmark company acts as a “venture factory” for its robot company divisions, which includes UVD Robots, PTR Robots (mobile patient transfer and rehabilitation), and GoBe Robots (mobile telepresence).
Blue Ocean is different from other robot companies in that it develops the technological building blocks for mobile service robots, then uses those to help create new types of robots for different tasks, such as UV-C disinfection, telepresence, etc. To help fund the new ventures, Blue Ocean recently announced raising $51 million through an investment by A.P. Møller Holding, a privately held investment firm in Denmark. In addition, Ecolab announced a partnership to expand its portfolio to offer UVD’s robots to its healthcare customers, hospitals, clinics, surgical facilities and rehabilitation centers.
Robotics World recently spoke with Claus Risager, CEO of Blue Ocean, about how the company is handling the surging demand, issues with component shortages, and whether future robots will be able to handle multiple tasks.
Robotics-World: How important is the partnership with Ecolab for UVD Robots?
Risager: For us, this is a huge thing. We have spent more than a year together with Ecolab to find out if the robots would fit into their disinfection programs that they offer to their customers worldwide. Ecolab is the largest company in the world that delivers disinfection solutions to customers – 45,000 customers in about 170 countries. This has been a big thing for us because it’s yet another sales channel for UVD Robots.
R-W: Even before COVID-19 hit the world, UVD was working on their robots to address hospital acquired infection (HAI) issues, so it feels like you were on the forefront of this market. Then COVID hit and the company saw a surge in demand from all kinds of customers. How much time do you now focus on UVD Robots as CEO of Blue Ocean? How involved are you in getting them to grow and scale, or do you let the company deal with those issues and you handle the umbrella company of Blue Ocean?
Risager: Blue Ocean Robotics is one company, and we have three robots in the portfolio. I spent about half of my time on UVD Robots. It was the first robot we finished and they got to the market, and the two others, they were ready last year for the market. So UVD is still the biggest robot in terms of volume and sales, so therefore we also spend more time on that right now.
R-W: Are you happy with how UVD has grown and been deployed around the world? Or do you get frustrated with customers not deploying them as fast as you’d like them to? Because it does feel like there are so many other companies that rushed into the disinfection robot market after COVID.
Risager: When COVID broke out in 2020, the [autonomous mobile robot (AMR)] suppliers for the manufacturing industry couldn’t sell anything. Then they could see that we had a mobile robot that could do something in healthcare and protect against COVID. We counted something like 170 competitors that came out of nowhere within two months. But we also realized that most of them were not serious. Many of them we called “Photoshop competitors.” They did a Photoshop version of our robot and then they changed it a little bit. They made a brochure and they tried to sell things.
If you have an autonomous mobile robot business, you might think it’s very simple – you just put some light on top of the robot and you have a solution. But we had already spent seven years making mainly software to address safety and ease of use. And also what we call Intelligent UV-C, which means how do you as a staff make sure that the robot is doing a proper job and destroying all the bacteria? How can you visualize that? That is something we have spent years on building. Of course, most of these competitors were not able to get into the market because they basically had no chance. So today, we say that there’s less than 10 competitors, real competitors, in this market.
R-W: How can a company delineate between the serious companies out there with good products, versus some of these Photoshop companies or brochure-ware companies, to determine what is important and real?
Risager: The first thing of course is to look at their customer base. Second, look at the technology, do they have the patents and the documentation to support them. We know from a BCG study that was made that we have more than 75% of the world market. In Europe, it’s even more than 98% of the market. In Europe, we have never seen a competitor at any hospital in Europe whatsoever. So that’s a really good validation of our products in that market. On the patent side, we have many patents, so it seems quite difficult for many of the other competitors to get into that market.
For example, on our tower we have cameras and other sensors on the top, which prevents the robots from colliding with objects in three dimensions. Most of the competitors that came out in 2020, they put the light on the top of the robot, but they were still only two-dimensional for collision safety. And they cannot put camera systems on the top because then they violate our patents.
Another thing is the testing – you need verifications with different labs and the hospitals. We are still paying a lot of money every year to have new tests being done with new types of bacteria, fungi and new circumstances. We can see that most of the competitors have none of these things. We still think that competitors may sell a robot here and there, but not in serious volume.
Also, many of these competitors have asked us if we were interested in acquiring their business, so that’s good proof, too [laughs].
R-W: For customers, how important is autonomy for these types of robots? We’ve seen lots of robots that do UV-C disinfection where you wheel it into a room and flash the light, and then you move it to the next room. How important is it for the robot to be autonomous, mobile and being able to move around on its own versus just setting it inside the middle of a room?
Risager: With autonomy, you reduce the workload by 96%. The hospital understands that they can reduce the workload with 96%, they are super-interested in an autonomous version. There are other things with autonomy that are interesting when you start digging into this area.
For example, with a stationary system, cart-like systems where you push it around, you cannot place it in the middle of the room and have it be there for a long time. You need to stop it again and then reposition, and then let it run for about two minutes. If you don’t do that, you will overexpose some of the surfaces, you will actually start destroying some of the materials, like certain types of rubber and plastic types, and so on.
This is very critical because you’re in a hospital and you have equipment there in operating theaters, and this is something the hospitals ask for, whether we can document that. We don’t destroy the materials that we are exposing to the light. I know most of the competitors – they get really challenged when they get these questions, but we have done a lot of testing with this, so we know exactly the doses that we give and know how many years it will take before certain equipment will be damaged. It’s just a ton of work that goes into these types of questions.
R-W: Are hospitals still the biggest segment interested in acquiring UV-C robots? We’ve seen that these have been deployed into school systems and other locations such as offices, public spaces, restaurants and airports. Is there still demand from these areas?
Risager: We have always seen these other segments as kind of a bubble that rose because of COVID. For example, if you take a shopping mall, customers were very nervous at some point in 2020 about being infected there, so therefore shopping malls were buying our robots, but we realized that as soon as customers were not asking for this or weren’t nervous anymore, we would not sell any more robots to them.
So the key market segments for us are hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, elderly homes with vulnerable people and places you need protection. Maybe schools to a certain extent, but that’s yet to be proven. Other market segments that will go away will be hotels, shopping malls and restaurants – places where people come, they spend a little bit of time and they leave again. If you get infected there, you basically don’t know that you got infected at the restaurant. So they will go away again.
R-W: Let’s talk about the fundraising from A.P. Møller. What does this new funding allow Blue Ocean to accomplish? Does it let you enter new arenas, does it bolster the bottom line?
Risager: A.P. Møller is a very large company. The investment they’ve done in Blue Ocean Robotics is probably the smallest investment they’ve ever done in any company at any time [laughs]. I mean, a month before they invested in our company, they just acquired another company for almost $4 billion. The tricky thing is they came to us, they wanted to invest, but we were way too small compared to what they normally do. But then they realized we are probably the largest service robot company in Europe, so how do they get into the industry? We discussed a lot of how we can structure it in a way that enables them to get into the market.
We are very proud about having them on board – they were the business partner together with the university that started the robotics cluster in Odense back in the 1990s. They wanted to get back into the business and that’s a very positive thing for everyone now. I worked there for 10 years in the ‘90s on their robots, and got my leadership education there.
R-W: Are they looking to develop any kind of specific robots for their own business?
Risager: They are interested in expanding the portfolio of companies they’ve invested in within the robotics area.
R-W: Do you think there will be a multi-robot future for companies deploying robots? For example, will they have cleaning robots deployed in one area, and then in another they have material-handling robots performing other tasks. Do you see that future happening, along with interoperability and communication issues to make sure these robots don’t bump into each other as well as human workers? Given your structure, do you develop these functions into your own robots, can they talk with each other through your software?
Risager: We have spent a lot of resources on developing a cloud-based system that facilitates all transactions and all interactions that we have between robots, users, super users, our distributors, our technical staff, and our sales people Everything is now facilitated there with fleet management. It’s a little bit like an app store. Our robots are built in such a way that they are all online, and we can do over-the-air updates. That’s good if you want to upgrade things where you have improvements, but it’s also really good when you want to sell some additional features or apps on these robots.
In that way, you can say all the robots are integrated into this environment, but in our case for example, the PTR robot for patient transfer and the UVD disinfection robot – they don’t communicate with each other. They could, but they don’t because we don’t see a reason for why the robots should interact.
For our robots, we start with the human, the person doing a job, and how we can make a robot that supports this person. We think these are just tools that staff are using in order to be more productive, have a healthier work life and also deliver better quality.
The PTR Robot assists with rehabilitation and therapy.
R-W: Do you have customers that have different robots within the same facility? Like a hospital that uses a disinfection robot from UVD but they also have a telepresence one there within the same location?
Risager: Of course, that’s also a sales strategy. We are selling a UVD robot to a customer and they are very happy about it. Our sales team that works with the GoBe robot, they will contact them and say, “You are happy about the UVD robot, but you could also use GoBe for this application in the hospital,” for example. Then they have a really good starting point for selling to these customers because they’re already happy. We do the same with PTR and so on. In this way, we use a lot of synergy in the sales process.
R-W: How well known is Blue Ocean in the U.S.? It seems like you are well-known in Europe with all of the relationships and partnerships you have, but do you feel like you need a bigger U.S. presence, either for Blue Ocean or UVD Robots?
Risager: Both. We are not as strong in the U.S. as we would like to be – I can be honest about that. Part of the investment that we got is to get deeper into the market, and the U.S. market is very, very interesting for us.
R-W: What are the big differences between the European market or mindset versus U.S. customers?
Risager: For example, if you go to a hospital operating theater in Europe, when you sell the UVD robot, the sales points are related to reducing the number of people who get sick. So it’s a cost reduction, because it’s very expensive – you have sick people staying in the hospital on average for about nine days. It’s really costly.
In the U.S., it’s much more about the turnover time in an operating theater, because if you can do it faster with the same or better quality, you can do more surgeries, and then you can earn more money.
R-W: Have you had any issues regarding the supply chain in terms of getting components and parts, and how are you addressing any shortages?
Risager: We have dual suppliers on all critical components. The problem is still the stability of supply, but a bigger problem is the quality. Because when it started becoming difficult to get the components, the quality also dropped.
So 45% of all the components we order are either delayed or of poor quality, or both – that’s a lot. We have invested into a three-layer quality control system that we run here because of problems with components where we couldn’t find the poor quality ones after they ended up in robots and ended up in the market with customers, and we had to buy it back or take it back and repair. It’s very expensive and very painful. Then you have a disappointed customer and distributor and so on. That was the single most terrifying headache we had last year.
R-W: What do you think the big theme for 2022 is going to be when you take a look at the overall robotics ecosystem?
Risager: That’s a good question. I think in the post-COVID world, how is the world going to look? Where is the appetite for new robots? I think there are a lot of things to be discovered – will the growth continue, and will we continue to sell a lot of robots for manufacturing, or will there be shifts in that market? There are some really interesting questions and not any easy answers.
Customers do change their behaviors. Almost throughout 2021, our hospital customers didn’t buy the UVD robot because of COVID – they are back into much more dangerous bugs out there, so that market has been normalized for us. The non-healthcare segments have been buying the robots because of COVID, but the hospital has been normalized.
Keith Shaw is the managing editor for Robotics-World.