When Jonathan Hurst interviewed to become a professor at Oregon State University in 2008, he admitted that wasn’t his ultimate goal. His long-term plan was to launch his own robotics company.
Hurst said the school was supportive and was willing to help him overcome one of the biggest barriers: the robot design wasn’t ready. So, Hurst created the first robotics lab ever at OSU.
“There’s now a sizable and really capable, very good robotics program at Oregon State University that grew up around all of this research work,” Hurst said. “And we showed a number of things with robots successfully walking and running outdoors over all kinds of terrain.”
That research allowed Hurst to co-found Agility Robotics in 2015 and ultimately led to Digit, a human-like robot able to work alongside people in places like distribution warehouses and manufacturing facilities.
And last year, investors sent a vote of confidence to Hurst and the Agility Robotics team.
In 2022, the Corvallis-based company garnered more than $150 million from investors (including from the Amazon Industrial Innovation Fund and venture capital firms DCVC and Playground). Later this year, Agility plans to open a Salem factory capable of making up to 10,000 Digit robots a year. In addition to 500 human employees, the new 70,000 square-foot facility will rely on Digit robots to build robots.
Hurst said the Salem factory, dubbed RoboFab, will be the company’s first major facility where humanoid robots are built. While Agility Robotics is growing, and has locations in Pittsburgh and Palo Alto, he wanted to keep RoboFab close to the company’s research hub near Corvallis.
In the last decade, OSU has focused on helping support innovative businesses like Agility, according to Brian Wall, the university’s associate vice president for research, innovation and economic impact. OSU has also supported businesses like NuScale Power, a Portland-based company building small modular nuclear reactors, as well as semiconductor firm Inpria.
“We made an intentional series of investments about ten years ago,” Wall said, “that really focused on driving innovation and entrepreneurship to help support new enterprises, products, services.”
Wall said OSUcan help businesses at multiple phases of development with things such as research and development, connecting with investors and accessing city, state or federal funds. He said the university’s support helps transition start-up companies into high-growth businesses that, ideally, want to expand in Oregon.
Hurst at Agility Robotics said his company is now recruiting talent from the state and from all over the world.
“We’ve certainly done the commercial engagement to find the interest,” he said. “And we’ve got these contracts for over $1 billion worth of robots — and we need to be able to build them in order to sell them. So Salem is a good place for us.”