Clash of human-piloted robots took more than meets the eye
By ELIZABETH DINAN
Oct. 23, 2017
RYE, N.H. (AP) — Entrepreneur Josh Adler was brainstorming with other tech professionals several years ago, about the possible uses for giant robots, when someone asked, "What if we just make them fight?"
"I thought, 'Of course,'" Adler recalled. "Who wouldn't want to see giant robots battle?"
That solution in search of a problem was the conception of MegaBots, "giant piloted fighting robots" that shoot 3-pound paint balls 110 mph, hurl washing machines 80 feet into the air, toss cars and wield 6-foot chainsaws. Human pilots sit in cockpits 17-feet high inside the bots that Adler said "look like they're straight out of a comic book."
Millions of viewers have watched video of a MegaBot battle that first streamed on Tuesday, Oct. 17. Plans now call for big-bot battles to be a national sport, but before a single MegaBot was built, it was Adler who wrote the first check to start MegaBots Incorporated.
He said his angel investment was enough to build one third of the first MegaBot and produce a Hollywood-quality video to promote the concept of fighting giant robots. "A lot" of money and one international MegaBot battle later, Adler hopes Business Insider was right when it said, "The next billion dollar sports league could be giant robots that fight to the death."
A Rye resident, Adler got to giant robots by way of other ventures. He launched his first startup in high school when he and a classmate founded a matchmaking site called amour.com. He said they continued to grow the company while they were students at Yale "before the internet was a big deal" and about the same time he got an offer from a venture capitalist to start a medical device company. Amour.com was sold to a French company that wanted the domain name and Adler began developing wireless miniature devices for tracking vital signs. He said he worked on that for six years, got it through the FDA and "raised a lot of money," before the dotcom crash of 2001.
The crash meant funding dried up, so Adler accepted a job as the chief speechwriter for the U.S. Treasury Department, he said. After two years of speech writing he worked in real estate, then in 2012 was granted a Sloan Research Fellowship to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with a focus on energy ventures. That led to his founding the company Sourcewater, an online marketplace for water and water services, which remains his primary business focus.
Also at MIT, Adler said, he connected with mechanical engineers interested in robotics when he "saw an opportunity to invest in startups." A college roommate's friend, whose wife's had a former roommate, whose husband was friends with Gui Cavalcant, introduced the two. Cavalcant had a background in military robots and they met for lunches when they thought about using giant robots for construction applications, before deciding to make them fight.
After Adler wrote a "low six-figure" check to start the MegaBots company, they launched a Kickstarter campaign with a $2 million fundraising goal that "flopped," he said. In hindsight, Adler said, the $2 million goal was too high, "a strategic error."
By 2015, a break came when the CEO of Autodesk said if the MegaBots operation moved to California's Bay Area, Autodesk would be a corporate sponsor and cover equipment costs.
"It was that or nothing," Adler said.
They developed and build the first MegaBot, the Mark II, and debuted it at Maker Faire in 2015 where it got "a lot of press," he said. The same year, the development team released a video promoting their MegaBot and challenging a similar bot in Japan to a battle, he said. Adler's wife Shannan, a television producer and journalism professor, got them international press.
"There was a global viral meltdown," Adler recalled, explaining that the MegaBot video challenge was covered by news agencies in 60 countries. After the challenge was accepted by a Japanese team, they launched a second Kickstarter campaign and raised more than a half-million dollars from 8,000 donors.
With that under their belts, Silicon Valley investors paid attention and "real money" started coming in, he said.
"The battle with Japan took two years to pull off," Adler said. "No one had ever done this before. You're creating a sport like Nascar, while at the same time inventing the car."
Tuesday night's battle pit the American MegaBot Eagle Prime against Japanese Megabot Kuratas, with Adler's team winning. It was held in an abandoned acres-large Japanese steel mill, with drone and hand-held cameras used to create "Hollywood-grade" filming of the fight, he said.
Crates of tools and spare parts had to be shipped to Japan as backup and the two opposing teams had to work together after developing their warriors independently. Adler said it cost "a lot" to bring the MegaBots battle to fruition, "real engineering expertise to build this stuff and different skills to make it fun to watch."
While views of the fight on Twitch continue to climb, Adler said there are a number of questions to answer while going forward with plans to turn MagaBots battles into an international sport.
He said the development team wonders if future MegaBot fights should be more scripted, family-oriented entertainment, or real battles. They wonder where future fights will be held, how to keep audiences safe and if a movie will follow. They also wonder what the rules should be and who'll pay for damage to an opponent's MegaBot.
Adler said a built-in audience is "half the population that's ever been a 12-year-old boy." The potential audience is also global and the most logical place to do battles is in arenas, he said.
But now, said Adler, who serves on the MegaBots board with Cavalcanti and Matt Oehrlein, it's time to raise more money.
Information from: Portsmouth Herald, http://www.seacoastonline.com