CEO and Roboticist Dave Coleman is on a mission to democratize robotics for a wide range of applications and industries.

PickNik Robotics is on the forefront of robotics innovation based on its expertise with the open-source MoveIt platform.

Earning his Ph.D at CU Boulder, Coleman was part of a team at Willow Garage that worked to develop MoveIt, an open-source application that runs on ROS (Robot Operating System).

Photos Jonathan Castner

“I got a pretty important internship for my career,” he says of his time at Willow Garage. “It was there that the Robot Operating System was started, which is now the number-one open-source platform for robotics companies.”

When Willow shut down, MoveIt “fell in my lap,” Coleman continues, and it became the subject of his thesis. “I became the last man standing, the leader of it.”

It follows that Coleman launched PickNik before completing his Ph.D in 2017. “Companies just started asking me to consult with them,” he says. “To this day, it’s still probably the most popular software in the world for this type of thing.”

He teamed with co-founders in 2017 to ramp up the operation; Google was the first customer of the new iteration of the company. Current clients include Samsung, Hyundai, and Intel. “We’ve worked with all the big tech companies,” says Coleman.

PickNik now offers MoveIt 2 for free and develops custom software and turnkey robotics systems for its clients. MoveIt is “the flagship application within this ROS ecosystem,” says Coleman. “People start using our software and they have a lot of early successes. Inevitably, they want to customize something for their application because they want it to do something special. They will come to us, hire us to help them best use it with their technology stack.”

As MoveIt is “robot-agnostic,” PickNik’s customers aren’t forced to buy a certain rigid-bodied machine. “A lot of what ROS and MoveIt is about is commoditizing robot parts and robot arms . . . and making it so they all take the same language and they’re all interoperable,” says Coleman. “What has hindered the industry is [robotics manufacturers] only support what they can do out of the box.”

The client roster includes leading manufacturers of food processing and harvesting equipment, autonomous vehicles, industrial robots, and surgical tools. “We’ve worked with 55 or so companies to date,” says Coleman. “We’ve really seen everything — it’s a cool vantage point for the robotics industry.”

One customer, Tormach, uses MoveIt for its soon-to-be-released robotic arms. “The grabbing part is the hardest thing,” says Coleman of material-handling applications. “Objects have different smoothness textures on the outside — maybe it’s in a cardboard box, maybe it’s mesh-covered, maybe it’s in a plastic bag. All of those things have different properties that are challenging to cameras.”

The company is growing rapidly, landing at No. 505 on the 2021 Inc. 5000 with a three year clip of 966 percent. “Customers come to us asking for our services, and I think our reputation precedes that,” says Coleman. “Seeing the broader impact of democratizing robotics for everyone, we are a big player in moving the robotics industry forward.”

He sees MoveIt as a good starting point for manufacturers looking to explore robotics. “It can be pretty approachable if you know how to use a command-line terminal,” says Coleman.

Challenges: The company — on track to triple its head count this year — is looking for more employees. “We just can’t hire fast enough,” he says. “We have the budget and the need to hire another 10 people.”

Opportunities: Coleman says PickNik’s big opportunity is to “broaden the areas where robotics can be applicable today.”

Manufacturing in space is one such area. “Satellite assembly, assembling space stations — that’s all happening this decade,” he notes. “It’s way too expensive to send construction workers up. Robots will be assembling most of this.”

A new product is due out for a beta release in fall 2021, and MoveIt 3 is slated for its debut in mid-2022.

Needs: Capital. After bootstrapping the company to date, Coleman says PickNik will try to raise about $3 million in late 2021.

“On the product side, we are looking for early adopter reference customers, who are interested in supervised autonomy solutions,” he adds.