Touchlab

Touchlab has developed electronic skin that gives machines a human sense of touch.

We launched Creator Fund to back innovation coming out of UK universities with the potential to change the world, and founders with the ability to do so. There are few better examples than Touchlab.

“We are going to build the world’s next great robotics company by solving one of robots’ biggest limitations — and there is nowhere better to do that than Edinburgh.” Touchlab’s founder, Zaki told me over our first coffee together.

Zaki Hussein is a British/Finnish PhD in intelligent sensing and measurement. He has a unique ability to both think big (robotic devices in outer space need to be able to sense atmospheric conditions) and deliver commercially now (his skin is being used in the warehouses of one of the UK’s largest retailers).

Based out of Edinburgh’s Institute for Materials and Processes and working with the Bayes robotics lab, Zaki has spent the past two years giving robots the ability to feel like humans.

Skin is the largest organ in the human body. It is how we feel temperature, pressure, pain, and make sense of objects through touch. But machines lack this sense and it stops them from being able to take over a number of activities.

Touchlab’s skin can be wrapped around any surface, it is thinner than human skin, and Touchlab software makes sense of the information received. It allows a robotic doctor to take a pulse, a prosthetic limb to feel, and machines in factories or warehouses to decipher between different goods.

This is how and why we invested:

Making Contact : Sourcing Touchlab

Creator Fund sources university deals early through our team of student investors embedded across the country. We first discovered Touchlab over a year ago in the School of Engineering at Edinburgh. Zaki has built Touchlab with no private funding, owned 100%, and wasn’t ready for VC conversations (a long string of one-way email correspondence from me to Zaki suggests that!)

We followed Zaki’s progress over the year (winning the largest startup competition in Scotland, becoming the only Scottish finalist for next year’s $10mm Avatar X Prize, and signing commercial contracts). In September, our new Scotland student investor Iain, who was on the same university incubator as Zaki, kickstarted the conversation again, and has been instrumental in getting the deal done. Iain (a PhD in Computer Science) insisted on making his own angel investment, alongside his Creator Fund exposure.

Shaking Hands: Why we Invested

  1. Zaki’s vision: At Creator Fund we talk about founders who are both Babe Ruth and Lewis Hamilton. They can hit a home run, but in the meantime they know how to get to the next pitstop. Zaki has bootstrapped this company during his PhD, and with no investment sold into and expanded his relationship with a major UK retailer. He is focused on the short term use cases for eDermis (e.g. warehouses/factories, nuclear decontamination), while readying his company for the opportunities five years out (telemedicine, space exploration).
  2. Deep technological innovation solving a real problem: We love investing in technical experts who are building companies with innovation at their core. Sometimes, however, university innovation can be divorced from real commercial need. We find that young PhDs, like Zaki, are often most able to marry the two.
  3. Fast and growing market: Covid-19 has significantly accelerated the need for robotic solutions to replace human contact across industries. In many of these cases, machines need to be able to touch to replicate the role of man. Robotics is growing at 19% a year, the electronic skin is growing 40%.
  4. Hardware enabling software: Touchlab’s hardware is versatile and can be used across robotic devices, and connects to software that makes sense of the data being picked up by the skin. This makes Touchlab easy to adopt, and sticky to use.
  5. University innovation: Creator Fund likes to back startups where a founder has an unfair advantage by virtue of being a student at that university. In this case Edinburgh’s Centre for Robotics, Nanomaterials laboratory, and Scottish Microelectronics Centre give Touchlab the expertise, equipment and talent it needs to scale.

We are excited to be joining the team on this exciting journey. As Touchlab says “if avatars can touch, that is the first real attempt for man to fuse with machine, and not only control it, but enhance ourselves beyond what is naturally possible.