When ABB needed to add perception to their autonomous mining robots, they turned to Univrses, a startup they had met at one of Ignite Sweden’s popular startup and corporate matchmaking events. Together they developed a product that could transform the mining industry.
With some of the most advanced robotics operating in industrial environments in the world, ABB needed to make sure its robots could not only operate precisely and safely but also autonomously in a mining environment. In order to achieve this result, the industrial automation leader needed to add perception to its robots so that they would not only understand which actions to take but which position they had in relation to the mining environment and the actions to be taken. The challenge was to find the right technology and the right partner to add autonomy to the robots.
Ignite Sweden matched ABB with Univrses, a pioneering startup in the field of 3D computer vision and machine learning technology, and both companies soon embarked on their first collaboration project. Following this initial successful project, Univrses were introduced to ABB’s mining department and started a second project, working hand-in-hand with ABB to integrate Univrses’ vision and machine-learning technology in ABB’s mining robots in order to increase their perception capabilities and make them autonomous.
“ABB had the robot expertise, and they did know which actions to perform. But the robot lacked the information about the positioning, i.e. where the mine was relative to itself to be able to go and do the actions it needed to. We were able to tell them (ABB) which sensors to put on the robot and then process the data from those sensors so you could tell what was around the robot and then it would know how to function in the mine,” said Jonathan Selbie, CEO at Univrses.
“It was a very quick move and it was exactly what we wanted. We had the same thoughts about what we wanted to do and even though Univrses had not really been working with anything related to mining before, we are now using their technology in a completely new area,” said Roger Agren, project manager, Mining within Process Automation at ABB.
Timing, a Commitment to Collaboration, and a Touch of Serendipity
ABB and Univrses first met during a startup-corporate matchmaking event organized by Ignite Sweden in Linköping in late 2018. Getting a foot in the right door was a good start. But it takes both grit and patience for a startup, and open-mindedness and a champion willing to stick their neck out for a corporate, to go from successful matchmaking to successful collaboration. There are potentially big rewards for both parties in terms of product development, innovation, business scaling, once challenges on the way have been overcome. Corporates must, for instance, learn to adapt to a faster, more agile way of working, while complying with established and sometimes cumbersome processes. Startups must for their part learn to pace themselves, adopt or develop processes, and secure widespread buy-in within the larger organization. ABB founded SynerLeap, a corporate startup accelerator, in 2016 to facilitate these types of collaborations, and became a close partner to Ignite, which was established about the same time.
“We met ABB through Ignite, then became part of the SynerLeap program, their accelerator, where there are lots of startups. The purpose is to introduce startups to the wider ABB, so there are always events going on. We initially met the corporate research department, which had a particular challenge. We did an initial project there and then, through that work, we met another part of ABB focused on mining,” said Jonathan Selbie, CEO at Univrses in Stockholm.
Besides some level of serendipity, making sure you meet the right people, understand the right needs, and come across the right requirements, are all decisive factors. Timing was crucial in Univrses’ second project within ABB. The company’s mining automation team was facing a challenge with their vision technology, for which Univrses had a potentially perfect technological solution.
“ABB had already embarked on a project with a particular client of theirs. So they already had a particular view of what was going to happen, but they reached a point when they had a particular challenge they could not solve. And through SynerLeap, they met us, and thought maybe we could help them with that,” said Jonathan Selbie.
Success is also a question of correctly identifying a match early between a specific need and a technological solution. Roger Agren explains that Martin Olausson made that connection after listening both to Roger’s teams’ solution needs and getting familiar with Univrses’ technology and team.
“Martin could already see this perfect match in the beginning while it was too early for us to see it […] It is kind of a chain of people who make this happen. You need to have people who are open-minded to working with startups and, in this case, startup and new technology,” said Roger Agren.
After an initial meeting followed by a more in-depth meeting, Univrses submitted a proposal addressing ABB’s needs, to which ABB responded: “Let’s go for it,” said Jonathan Selbie.
Orchestrating Collaboration Through SynerLeap at ABB
Through its startup incubator and accelerator SynerLeap in Västerås, ABB does not only scout interesting startups eager to work with a large, technically savvy corporation, it also scouts internal champions willing to work with startups. And the strategy has paid off, Martin Olausson, Head of Business Development at SynerLeap, explained. SynerLeap has to date facilitated 125 successful collaborations in 16 countries, and has now 95 members in 17 different countries. Powered by ABB, SynerLeap is also financed by the province of Västmanland and Sweden’s Innovation Agency Vinnova, and aims therefore to benefit more than ABB itself, he added: “Our mission is “What’s in it for all of us?” We want Sweden to accelerate, not only ABB,” he said.
Joining SynerLeap also means entering a framework agreement with ABB. This is beneficial for the company and for enrolled startups, as it allows SynerLeap to accelerate internal innovation cycles by making it easier for startups to work with various business units. Startups being endorsed for collaboration at the highest level makes the decision-making at business unit level much faster. Corporate and startup cultures are also quite different, and a key aspect of Martin Olausson’s job at SynerLeap is to help them navigate corporate organization and culture.
“Whenever we onboard a startup, we teach them about the ABB organization and large corporate culture, as it is quite different to the startups. We try to help them navigate them through the organization in order to meet the right people, to look at the right products, to enter the right domain, and even meet the right end-customers. It means if we get a startup on board that is really eager, then that is much easier for us. If they are not eager, then we can’t really help them,” said Martin Olausson.
In this case, Univrses was awarded financing for a USD 30,000 project by a global jury from ABB management. The project result, a computer vision system for a robotics mobile platform, impressed ABB, and is now used at a hospital installation in Houston.
Martin Olausson then introduced Univrses to Roger Agren, who works with Process Automation in the ABB Mining domain. When Univrses also exceeded expectations in that delivery, Roger then became an strong promoter of Univrses – as an internal ABB champion.
“We build trust with the startup and Univrses is a perfect example: we love Jonathan, we love the team, they are trustworthy, they believe in us, they trust us, no-one tries to cheat each other so, why shouldn’t we work with them in other areas as well?” stated Martin Olausson.
An internal champion can also help alleviate misconceptions about working with a startup that can exist within a large corporate.
“I often get questions from within ABB and even other companies about working with a startup. There are often concerns about things like hourly rates or a fear that a startup cannot deliver a product to the same standard but this was not a problem in this project. Univrses delivered on their promises in terms of technology, application and delivery time,” said Roger Agren.
Univrses agrees that they were most successful when they met an internal champion, someone who thought that their idea was compelling, and that the technology was exciting.
“And really that is the goal; to find that champion. Because we cannot do this from the outside, we need to find someone on the inside who can then work with us, said Univrses,” states Jonathan Selbie.
A New Autonomous Mining Robot
ABB’s goal with the collaboration was to develop a new updated product to use robotics in mining, while Univrses wanted to continue to build up its track-record with a first-class company. They united to get the result they both aimed for with their pilot project: taking the proof of concept (POC) to its next step of productization. The collaboration as a whole, and pilot project in particular, enabled both companies to achieve their respective goals as ABB is now preparing to commercialize its first autonomous mining robot using Univrses vision technology. While Univrses has already worked on four different product development projects with ABB and has been able to integrate its technology at scale. It is also a further step for Univrses to scale through an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) component approach.
Partnering on Product Development for the Long-haul
To the question “Did the collaboration and pilot meet your expectations”, both companies answer unequivocally “yes!” And both intend to continue working on the ongoing autonomous mining robot product development and new projects together, as well as with other partners within the Ignite Sweden program.
The collaboration’s goal of bringing a fully functional autonomous robot to the market, has soon reached fruition as mining operator Boliden, one of ABB’s major customers in mining, will soon start testing the product.
“They would like to buy equipment from ABB to help them run their mine and in providing that machinery to their customer, ABB would then buy a component from us. We are like an OEM supplier to one of ABB’s clients,” said Jonathan Selbie.
“Without SynerLeap, we could not have been able to solve this, not in this timeframe at least, and that was the big benefit for me as a project manager just taking away my concerns around this project,” said Roger Agren, and added: “It was a perfect match. I got the technology I wanted, and it was easily obtained within the project. Going from initial discussions in November 2018 and having a good outcome half a year later, with quite advanced technology, that is very quick I would say.
“Now what they delivered gave us a good platform for future development and at the end of 2020 we introduced a new camera in our vision system. Overall, it has been a very easy transformation thanks to the platform from Univrses,” said Roger Agren.
United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) addressed by the collaboration project
The collaboration works towards United Nations’ Sustainable Development goals 8, 9, and 17 (Decent work and economic growth, Industry, innovation, and infrastructure, and Partnerships for the goals).
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