Summary:

Mail.ru CEO Dmitry Grishin isn’t happy being one of Russia’s most successful internet entrepreneurs: now he wants to help a new generation of robotics companies, and is launching a fund with $25 million of his own money to try and kickstart a more ambitious future.

Dmitry Grishin, Mail.ru

After having made a fortune with the Russian web company Mail.ru, you could forgive Dmitry Grishin for taking it easy. But the 33-year-old has something else in mind — becoming the man who kickstarts a revolution in robotics.

On Friday, Grishin is launching a new $25 million investment fund, Grishin Robotics, with the intention of funding a new generation of robotics startups. It’s his own money, and he wants to use it for something more exciting than yet-another-internet-business.

“I have a big passion for robotics,” he tells me. “Looking around, I think it’s the right time.”

More specifically his fund will look at so-called “service robotics”, the sort of personal robots that can be used to help people (it’s often used as a catch-all for anything that is not military or industrial). That may include telepresence bots that let you be somewhere without really being there, he says, or bots that provide assistance for the elderly. Whatever the case, he wants to go mass market, and he’s looking to invest a few million dollars in companies that already have prototypes in action but need money for production.

Why? Because he believes somebody needs to make the leap.

Robotics requires risk

“Usually venture capitalists are very conservative,” he says. “They only want to fund ideas that have already been proven and don’t really take much money. But robotics requires quite a lot of capital, and you can’t make a big step until some risk-takers invest capital. I really want to make robotics more popular and drive future investment in this area.”

The time is right, he suggests, because the costs of making robots have now fallen to a point that is feasible. Unlike the past, where a single bot might cost hundreds of thousands — or even millions — of dollars to build, the price of even high-end models is dropping. That’s partly due to advances in technology and the efficiency of outsourced manufacturing in China.

But even so, Grishin also says the robotics industry (which has largely spun out of the academic world) could do with an injection of internet culture: more pace, faster iteration, a speedier production process than traditional offline companies. That’s something he can bring as the CEO of Mail.ru Group, which started as a web portal in the late 1990s, span off in various directions until it become one of Russia’s most important internet companies — and went public in 2010.

In undertaking this project, Grishin joins a pantheon of internet industry entrepreneurs who are trying to use their wealth to build a more ambitious future. Most of them are focused on space: Jeff Bezos of Amazon with his Blue Origin project, or Elon Musk who has used wealth generated by PayPal to push Space X to the point where its spacecraft, Dragon, was able to dock with the International Space Station last month.

Grishin says he’ll keep investing in internet companies too, but he thinks the world could be a more exciting place if those who had money used it to fund high-risk, high-reward ideas as well as the more mundane stuff.

“I don’t know too much about their projects, but I think the idea is very similar,” he says. “You need people to put money into the next generation, the next step.”

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