Dusty Robotics built an autonomous printer on wheels for construction sites. The company is now worth $250 million.
When Tessa Lau was remodeling her home, she watched her contractor get down on his hands and knees with hand-held tools to do the work. She saw small mistakes (shower heads installed in the wrong bathrooms necessitating extra work) and a brush with what could have been a far-larger one during the extensive kitchen renovation. “Our contractor was about to build the island in the wrong place,” she recalls. “I discovered it by checking with a measuring tape and realizing they had made a mistake.”
A roboticist who had once worked at the famed Willow Garage research lab, Lau figured there had to be a better way. So she did what any roboticist and serial entrepreneur would do: She started a new company.
Today, that four-year-old firm, Dusty Robotics said that it had had raised $45 million led by Scale Venture Partners to ramp up manufacturing and expand its business. The new funding brings total investment to $69 million and puts Dusty’s valuation at $250 million.
Lau, 48, who holds a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Washington, is among the most prominent women in robotics. After spending more than a decade at IBM Research, she joined Willow Garage, the robotics lab founded by Scott Hassan, as a research scientist, leading an effort to develop simple user interfaces for personal robots. Willow Garage shut down in 2013, but many of its researchers went on to found companies.
“We call ourselves the Willow Garage Mafia,” Lau says. “I joined the mafia for about a year at the tail end before it shut down. I learned everything I could about robotics and what it takes to get them out into the world.”
Lau cofounded Savioke, which developed robots for hotels and apartment complexes. As chief technology officer, she orchestrated the deployment of more than 75 delivery robots. She says she became frustrated with the pace of the company’s growth. “I felt it wasn’t really taking off as fast as it could have so I decided to start my own company and try again in a different space,” she says.
“We call ourselves the Willow Garage Mafia.”
She founded Mountain View, California-based Dusty in 2018 with Philipp Herget, who had been a robotics hardware lead at Savioke. Lau is the company’s CEO; Herget is chief technology officer. The name of the company came from an early idea to build vacuum robots (“like a Roomba for a construction site,” she says) that could help contractors deal with all the dust on job sites. But while pushing brooms at construction sites for market research, Lau and Herget soon saw the markings on the ground that represented the layouts for the projects. Vacuuming went by the wayside.
The firm’s first robot, called the Field Printer, is basically an autonomous printer on wheels. It moves around the construction site and prints out plans on the floor that are similar to Ikea instructions. That saves time and money over the old way of mapping out those plans with chalk or marker. Lau says that the company has dozens of contractors across the United States that use the robots, including DRP Construction, Turner Construction and Performance Contracting, with several dozen robots in the field under lease arrangements. The company is still early stage, with annual revenue in the $5 million range.
Lau sees fast growth ahead given the costs of the skilled labor that her robots can replace. “The work that our robot helps with is done by some of the highest paid people on the job site,” she says, noting that a union foreman in San Francisco would make $125 an hour. Then, too, she says, the robots can work without error, saving contractors from having to fix any expensive mistakes, a major source of lost time and cost overruns on large projects. With Dusty’s bot, the workers who previously chalked out plans by hand can oversee more projects with help from the machine.
Alex Niehenke, a partner at Scale Venture Partners, who led the latest investment, says that the company’s fast-growing customer base — and the size of the contracts it has with them — was a draw, as was the sheer size of the construction market. “They’ve sold to a surprising list of customers,” he says. “There’s stunning ARR growth.”
Lau’s goal: to get Dusty’s robots on every construction site in the next three to five years, helped by the new funding. Is that really doable? “Elon Musk says a lot of things that may or may not be true,” she says. “As a vision that is what I want to be true. I know there is demand for it, and so far we have been limited by not being able to build as fast as they want us to.”