Esben Østergaard
Esben Østergaard

Inventor: Collaborative Robots

Esben created his first LEGO robot at age four to pull cables through pipes for his dad’s engineering site making a water supply for Cebu city in the Philippines. Since then, he’s built countless machines and robots; when he purchased a Commodore 64 in 1983, he quickly became proficient in Basic and assembler programming.

As a university student of physics and computer science, Esben specialized in robotics, while working part-time for LEGO on the Mindstorms concept. In 1998, as part of Team Static, Esben won the Khepera Robot Soccer World Championship in Paris. After achieving his Masters degree from Aarhus University in Denmark, he accepted a position at the University of Southern California, where he did research for DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Programs Agency) on multi-robot coordination and cooperation, together with Brian Gerkey who later wrote ROS.

While working toward his PhD in Odense, Denmark, he and his research team began work on transformer robots – that is, robot parts that would self-assemble and self-reconfigure. The research was a combination of various AI techniques, embodied intelligence and robotics, and was focused on self-organization of cellular structures to achieve self-repair and autonomous adaptation of the relationship between the body and the mind. The project involved world-class levels of technology in both simulation, AI and robotics. However, no practical applications were found.

The same research group was also working for the Danish Government to get more robots into the food industry, and this work made it clear to the team a need existed for more flexible automation solutions than those present on the market at the time. The team tried creating a robot for a small food company providing baked goods. The half-ton machine the team created was overkill for placing strawberries on a cake, and did not provide the needed flexibility for adjusting production or making new product.

From this experience, the team saw a great deal of value in making a new kind of robot that was more like a tool rather than a big machine behind a fence that eliminated jobs. The team realized they needed a lightweight robot that could be easily programmed by the people on the factory floor.

Thus was born the idea of collaborative robots: machines that work safely with humans – freeing them up from repetitive, boring tasks and allowing them to focus on more high-value creative tasks.

Entrepreneur: Universal Robots

Esben co-founded Universal Robots in 2005 with two members of his research team, Kristian Kassow and Kasper Støy. Using prototypes made from LEGOs, $20,000 of their own money, $200,000 in investment funding, and a bank loan of $150,000, Esben and Kassow left their jobs to work full-time at the new company.

The new company’s mission was to create a single joint robot controlled by a PC. After six months, the team had a 5-degree-of-freedom robot. After two years, the team had a prototype that could do work in a greenhouse.

By 2008, the team had sold five robots and delivered two of them – but had also run out of money. It was at this time Esben and his team brought in investors.

Using a $2 million VC investment, Esben and the Universal Robots team went from a working prototype to a profitable company within seven years – selling over 4,000 robots into manufacturing companies all over the globe and becoming a $100 million dollar rapid growth company.

Universal Robots was purchased by Teradyne Corporation in May 2015 for a total of $350 million. Part of this money was reinvested into Mobile Industrial Robots, which was sold to Teradyne for $272 million three years later. Esben remained with Universal Robots as Chief Technology Officer until March 2019, when he stepped down to follow other pursuits, including REInvest Robotics.

Industry Recognition and Achievements

Recipient, Joseph F. Engelberger Award, 2018

Named after Joseph F. Engelberger, known throughout the world as the founding force behind industrial robotics, the Engelberger Robotics Award is the world’s most prestigious robotics honor. It was granted to Esben for spearheading the development of Universal Robots’ collaborative arms – now considered one of the most significant technology breakthroughs coming out of the robotics community in decades.

Recipient, Visionary Leadership Award, Frost & Sullivan

The Manufacturing Leadership Award is granted to candidates who have transformed their companies and made important contributions to their industries by challenging assumptions, achieving results and empowering others.

Esben has several patents and scientific publications. He received his PhD in AI and Robotics from the University of Southern Denmark in 2004, and a Masters degree in Computer Science in 2000, with additional courses in Physics and Multimedia Science.