Neura Robotics

"Young Elon Musk" competes against Tesla's robotics unit

In Metzingen, Baden-Württemberg, a start-up is preparing to hang out with Elon Musk with his intelligent cobots. Unlike Musk, founder David Reger already has the first robots on the market. An early Musk investor even sees him as a "young Elon.”

David Reger (35) is in a hurry. The founder of the Metzinger robot manufacturer Neura Robotics, a dynamic guy with hair steeply in height, is already at operating temperature when he drives with his white Porsche in front of the factory hall in Riederich, Swabia, a few kilometres from the headquarters.

He has just held a conference with a number of potential investors and led the group of mediaeval suit wearers through the production halls of his company. Now the trained model builder walks through the bright production halls and development sites of the robot manufacturer in a stinging step with Swabian singing. Here, a white robot with a mobile gripper arm orders by voice command to pick up a bottle, shows another with his hand where he has to put a weld. And a few halls further proudly presents part of his artificial intelligence (AI) development team: Seven young scientists who work in an open-plan office on white desks between robots, large screens, somewhat sad-looking potted plants and a basketball hoop on their computers on the software for the company's latest robots.

A few years ago, Reger set out to stand up for Elon Musk. Not with cars. But with robots. Intelligent robots, so-called cobots, which are intended to support humans in a variety of activities in the future, from cleaning up to the transport of goods to welding. And who are not forced into an assembly cage, but can move freely in cooperation with people thanks to a lot of sensors. And who - with the help of AI - can learn independently.

The 35-year-old Reger is already further than Musk, at least in one respect: Although Musk once announced that his robotics business should become more valuable than the Tesla business, he has not yet launched a single model on the market. Reger, on the other hand, is already selling his robots. This year, he wants to achieve a medium double-digit million turnover with his 170 employees. Orders worth 500 million euros, according to the company, are in the books.

An early Tesla and SpaceX investor has been on board since 2023; Stephen George from InterAlpen Partners. The former vice president of Goldman Sachs, who joined Tesla at the beginning of the 2000s and then also SpaceX with his former venture capital fund Capricorn, has high hopes in Reger. He considers it possible that Neura could be "a five billion euro company" in about five years. Neura Robotics reminds him of Tesla, Reger even of the "young Elon Musk".

However, apparently not in all areas: In America, people "always promise a lot and then deliver too little". Anders Reger: "David never promises too much. If he makes an announcement, he delivers."

Reger has not exactly set himself a few goals. His plan is roughly: to combine German precision and industrial expertise with artificial intelligence - and to make it one of the leading cobot manufacturers in the world. After all, Reger and his employees have already launched several models in the past four years: for example, the flat logistics robot MAV, which is equipped with a variety of sensors and can transport up to 500 kilograms of load capacity at a speed of 1.5 metres per second. Or the gripper robot Lara, plus the mobile, one-arm "personal assistant" Mipa and the flagship cobot Maira, which is to be launched this year. An artificially intelligent cobot who, according to Reger, can see, hear and feel his surroundings. The use should not require any programming skills.

In order to implement his plans, Reger plans to almost double the number of employees to 300. A branch in the USA is also to be established in the first quarter of 2024.

Reger is targeting a huge market that will change fundamentally in the next few years. Experts estimate that robot manufacturers have realised almost 17 billion dollars worldwide in 2022. The majority of the business has so far been made up of industrial robot manufacturers. With robots that act in cages to protect human employees, because they would otherwise become a deadly risk with their sheer mass and speed.

Cobots, the short name stands for "collaborative robots", make up only around 7.5 percent of the market so far. They work significantly slower than their caged counterparts and are equipped with a variety of cameras and sensors to permanently check their surroundings.

But the shortage of skilled workers ensures that the number of cobots is constantly growing. According to the current "World Robotics Report" of the World Federation International Federation of Robotics, the number of so-called service robots increased by 48 percent between 2021 and 2022 alone. Most common areas of application: logistics, hospitality, medicine, agriculture and cleaning services.

A boom in which Elon Musk also wants to get involved. By 2040, according to his recently announced assessment, there will be one billion humanoid robots in the world.

Optimus is the name of Tesla's Cobot, which is supposed to help people autonomously in coping with everyday tasks. At least at some point. Most recently, Optimus was still remotely controlled in a video that showed the robot folding laundry. Until the time when Tesla's robot handles such tasks independently, Reger wants to be further.

The fact that Autofan Reger ended up in robotics at all was due to chance. On the way to a job interview at a Swiss racing team, he briefly stopped by a family business that had also advertised a job. He got stuck. And built up his robot production for the entrepreneur, with whom he had talked for several hours at the first meeting.

In 2019, he wanted to try his own company. With money from an entrepreneur from Shenzhen, China, he founded the company Han's Robot Germany. He also got experienced help for sales: Because he realised that with his small crew in Metzingen, Baden-Württemberg, he could never set up worldwide sales, let alone competitive global support, he was looking for powerful partners. Among them, for example, the Japanese robot manufacturer Kawasaki, who sold Reger's robots partly under his own brand for him and was thus able to close a gap in his range of offers.

Through a clause in the social contract, Reger had ensured that the patents could not migrate to China to his investors there. In view of the global tensions with China, this IP clause proved to be a clever move, which finally led to the exit of the Chinese in 2023. And to a changed corporate strategy: In view of numerous competitors who are either supported by Chinese investors or wholly in Chinese hands, and constantly growing manufacturing capacities in China, Reger is now trying to establish himself as a European manufacturer - without spoiling himself with the Chinese partner at the same time. After all, Asia, and China in particular, is by far the largest market for robotics.

In the future, he even wants to bring the whole production to Germany. So far, especially the older models from Neura are still assembled in China. Then it goes back to Metzingen, where the software is installed and the calibration takes place.

A strategy that is not quite cheap, but for which Reger has found potent comrades-in-arms. The venture capitalists HV Capital, VSquared Ventures, Primepulse and Lingotto, the investment vehicle of the Italian Fiat founder dynasty Agnelli, as well as InterAlpen Partners, have invested around 109 million euros last year alone. However, 50 million euros of this went to the replacement of the former Chinese investor.

In the meantime, Reger has also upgraded his staff. In October, the former Vice President of Bosch and later co-CEO of the Dresden software developer Wandelbots, Bernd Heinrichs, hired as Chief Growth Officer at Metzinger. In December, also the former divisional board member of Bosch-Automobilelektronik, Jens Fabrowsky (55). Previously, the former head of the robot manufacturer Kuka, Till Reuter (55), now CEO of the Swiss locking technology specialist Dormakaba, acted as a consultant for the Metzinger.

Industrial know-how that Reger can use well. Because not only Musk has targeted the market. There are several established and partly financially well-equipped players there. Universal Robots (sales 2022: 304 million euros) from Denmark, for example, the German manufacturer Kuka (sales 2022: 3.9 billion euros), Fanuc from Japan (revenue last: 6 billion euros), Hyundai's ex-Google subsidiary Boston Dynamics (last valuation: one billion euros) acquired by Hyundai, or the German start-up Agile Robots (valuation also recently around one billion euros), which - equipped with investor money from Softbank, Foxconn and Chinese investors - recently took over the insolvent German provider Franka Emika.

Franka Emika's insolvency shows how difficult it is for small players on the market - especially in Germany. Because even though the price of cobots has fallen significantly in recent years, "the regulation is so strict, the requirements are so high that the cost of the cobot itself accounts for only a fraction of the cost," summarises a pioneer of the scene.

For example, the Cobots must meet a number of occupational health and safety standards and certification requirements. And the operators create a risk assessment for each use.

Accordingly, Europe plays only a minor role as a market. Although the automotive industry is one of the industries in which most robots are used. But with almost 70,000 robots installed, only 15 percent of international production went to Europe in 2022, according to the World Robotics Report. 73 percent or more than 400,000 robots were installed in Asia.

David Reger doesn't cheech this. He is determined to use the rapid development of AI, for example in language models, and to combine it with German engineering. First of all, with industrial cobots for which a market already exists. In the long run, he believes, robots will also establish themselves in private households beyond the industry.

Sounds almost like Musk's Playbook.