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London Tech Week

Developing e-skin for robots: Deep tech startup Touchlab bags $4.8M seed funding from Octopus Ventures

The biggest barrier to mass robot adoption is their inability to feel the world around them. A deep tech company based in Edinburgh, Touchlab is changing this by manufacturing an e-skin (electronic skin) system thinner than human skin for robots. It can be wrapped around hard or soft robots to sense pressure, location, and direction in real-time.

$4.8M funding

In a recent development, Touchlab has pocketed $4.8 million in seed funding. The investment round was led by Octopus Ventures, which is one of the largest and most active early-stage investors in Europe. The VC firm invested in London HR tech tool Sova recently. Existing investors, including Creator Fund and Techstart Ventures also participated in the round.

Touchlab will deploy the funding to further strengthen its commercial and tech teams. It plans to meet the growing demand for large-scale e-skin deployments in grasping and pick & place automation. Also, it continues to develop and commercialise its telerobot technology to enable emerging high impact robotics applications.

Dr Zaki Hussein, Founder and CEO of Touchlab, commented: “We have taken on this challenge by developing a ‘full-stack’ solution; retrofittable e-skin that gathers the data, software to make sense of it, and integration to ensure it works in demanding applications – from grocery grasping to telerobotics in extreme environments. Octopus’ expertise propel us to achieve e-skin’s full potential and create a step-change in robotics.“

Mason Sinclair, Investor at Octopus Ventures added: “Touchlab has made truly pioneering advances with its technology in tactile sensing. Electronic skin will open a world of new opportunities and applications in robotics, making it an extremely exciting time for the industry. Zaki and the Touchlab team have a huge vision for the business, and we couldn’t be more thrilled to be supporting them on this journey”.

Develops e-skin for robots

Touch is the final frontier for robot interaction and entry into physical environments – enabling true dexterity and safety, believes Touchlab. The company develops low-profile tactile sensing skin, which can be wrapped around robots.

Touchlab was born out of challenges that founder Dr Zaki Hussein encountered as part of investigating e-skin. His PhD grant alone was not enough to fund manufacturing of a real-world solution for robots, so he founded a company that could help him.

He started working with suppliers and manufacturers such as Quantum Technology Supersensors. A couple of his colleagues – Laura Garcia Caberol, who did a project on e-skin integration into wearables and Dr Vasilis Mitrakos also joined the team.

Notably, Touchlab’s e-skin is thinner than human skin, which makes it easily retrofittable without reducing the robot’s or gripper’s degrees-of-freedom. The machines fitted with this e-skin can roll pens, grasp soft objects, and even detect slip. Unlike older sensor technologies, TouchLab’s e-skin can withstand a high load and sense directions in 3D.

It can also withstand extreme environments such as acid, high and low temperatures, and even radioactive environments, thereby giving ‘superhuman’ capabilities to these robots.

Touchlab is a finalist in the global ANA Avatar XPrize competition, thereby enabling teleoperated robot Avatars. Its progress has caught the attention of several major companies including the client Sellafield Ltd, which is a major feat for a young company.

Telerobot: All you need to know

Touchlab’s e-skin performs as a platform for Tele-operated Avatar technology that the company is developing along with Prof Vijayakumar and Dr Ivan from Edinburgh Centre for Robotics and Dr Navaraj from Nottingham Trent University.

The team wants the telerobots to be truly immersible in a foreign environment, where an operator can hear, see, speak, and touch through the Avatar. This is possible with the use of sense of touch and has been demonstrated over a distance of more than 600 kilometres.

What’s more, Telerobots are seeing traction in the medical sector. Already, Touchlab has scheduled a pilot with a Finnish hospital. When using the Telerobot, a proxy will be installed between a healthcare provider and patient and it is expected to reduce the transmission of healthcare-acquired infections. The e-skin will enable the robot to be truly safe in this high-risk environment. Both the robot and its operator will feel and react to anything they touch or bump into.

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