Robotic Innovations and the Valley of Death

For the past 40 years, Japan has remained a prominent force in the global robotics industry. According to the U.K. Intellectual Property Office, Japan has 31% of all robotics-related patents. However, Japanese robotic innovations are on a decline despite several attempts being made to revive leadership in the sector. The most recent endeavor is the establishment of The Robot Revolution Realization Council to craft a five-year blueprint to give a big push in Japanese robotics in order to expand the market for robots in Japan to ¥2.4 trillion ($22 billion) by 2020. According to several leading Japanese experts on robotics, Japan may have already ceded the top position in robotic innovations to the U.S. and Europe. The evolution of Japanese robotics is occurring, but it is slow, fragmented and perhaps not enough for the emerging applications and global market needs.

According to Tokyo Institute of Technology professor emeritus Shigeo Hirose, “In Japan, there is a valley of death between academic research and commercial application.”

In Korea, the robotics sector is going through ups and downs on a cyclical basis. Robotics has grown significantly in Korea during the last five years in terms of the number of robotic patent applications. However, a deeper analysis reveals that most of those patent applications will have very little significance in the near term. There has been a frequent rise and fall in the number of robotics companies in Korea. Many of them are surviving on government funds and grants. While many of these companies are trying to evolve and change the direction of their technology and business roadmaps, others are simply opening and closing their shops. Unlike Japan, where there are more stable companies working on robotics, the growth of Korean robotics is more or less dependent on small and medium enterprises, a few big corporations, government-sponsored plans, and research in the top Korean universities. Recently, with the entrance of highly successful foreign robotics companies into the Korean market, one can expect fiercer competition for the local Korean companies.

Lately there is a sense of nervousness and hesitancy that prevails among Japanese and Korean robotics industry insiders due to the strong growth of U.S. companies and European research initiatives, especially related to the quick realization of product from concepts, artificial intelligence software, and high performance computing, which is becoming a clear differentiating factor among the robotic products. No matter how many significant or insignificant innovations are happening in terms of robotic research and development, most of those are ending up in the valley of death in these two Asian nations. Some of the reasons are obvious, while others need to be more deeply examined to be fully understood. Fragmented research infrastructure and the huge advantage held by big corporations have led to uneven growth in the robotics sector. Tractica believes that implementation of government funding policy and fund management have largely been ineffective and inefficient.

There are many non-obvious reasons, as well. The most significant of them is the lack of locally available talented human resources. The failure to nourish and build potential for local talent to stay in the homeland is having a heavy impact on the knowledge and research-driven robotics industry. Moreover, the very rigid organizational structure, inefficient human resource management, conservative work policies, and non-transparent management styles are repelling the global talent. Robotic startups in Japan and Korea are not able to find the right direction and resources at the right time. While there have been many success stories in robotic startups like JIBO in the West, it is hard to find such positive examples lately in the East. Even having a number of government and private supported incubation centers and accelerator programs is not helping the cause, and these support systems need tremendous improvements. After the economic downturn and the rapid rise of other profitable technologies, the established corporate players are too cautious to invest significantly in robotics, as they believe ROI may be slow to materialize.

In the present context, it is hard to imagine that Japan and Korea will be able to gain significantly in robotics considering the challenges coming from the U.S., China, and Europe. It will be interesting to watch how the policymakers and the most important innovators and investors plan ahead and how the robotics industry in Japan and Korea will make a course correction. But one thing is for sure, the balance is shifting.

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