Contactile Co-Founder Heba Khamis on giving robots a human sense of touch

Contactile CEO and Co-Founder Dr Heba Khamis explains how to turn a research idea into a profitable business

What gives a human sense of touch? At a fundamental level, our sense of touch begins with nerve endings deep within our skin. Humans have evolved to convert external environmental information into biological signals, enabling us to feel, grab and grip different objects with impressive skill. Every second, our bodies can receive tactile information from more than 10,000 sensors on each hand, and this information is then encoded and interpreted by our brain, which helps us to moderate our response to the task at hand.

In recent years, advancements in deep tech have allowed humans to create artificial tactile sensors that give robot hands a human-like sense of touch. Why does a robot need to “feel” like a human? While robots haven’t taken over the world (just yet), they are taking over some of our most difficult and dangerous jobs. How do robots work? Tactile sensing enables robots to adjust the force of a grip depending on the object and their external environment, like picking up an egg without breaking it. As a result, the demand for sensing technology is predicted to rise significantly over the next decade. The global market is expected to grow from US$6.7 billion (A$10.3 billion) in 2021 to US$10.1 billion (A$15.6 billion) by 2031.

This is good news for Australian companies like Contactile, a Sydney-based start-up that models human biology to enable robotic dexterity. Contactile’s human-inspired tactile sensors allow robots to manipulate objects and assist with doing dull, dirty and dangerous work, according to Dr Heba Khamis, lecturer at UNSW Sydney and co-founder of Contactile. Dr Khamis was recently interviewed by David Burt, Director of Entrepreneurship at UNSW Founders. The two met in 2019 when Dr Khamis and her colleagues were commercialising their technology with the help of the UNSW Founders 10x Accelerator Program.

How Contactile made the leap from UNSW lab to robotics start-up

Contactile’s innovative sensor technology started as a collaboration between Dr Khamis and her colleagues, Adjunct Professor Stephen Redmond and research engineer Benjamin Xia in the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering at UNSW Sydney. Dr Khamis and her colleagues were trying to understand what makes humans so good at gripping things with their hands, and this planted the seed for building an artificial tactile sensor replicating the human sense of touch.

While the initial idea inspired Contactile’s technology, Dr Khamis explained that it took another couple of years for the researchers to hone in on their unique and specific solution, which turned out to be dexterous robotic gripping. “We developed that research, got some grant funding for it to get it to a prototype level, and that's the point when we decided that it was worth pursuing commercially and spinning out the company from the research, which was a challenging task,” she said.

Figuring out the commercial viability of robotic grippers was also one of the first significant challenges. “There's no point in spending lots of money protecting an idea that's never going to have any, you know, commercial value,” explained Dr Khamis. So how did they solve it?  “We used every resource we could get our hands on,” she said. This involved participating in the CSIRO ON Accelerate program, UNSW Founders New Wave US Ready Bootcamp, and the UNSW Founders 10x Accelerator Program. “We tapped into every resource that we could,” she said.

How Contactile raised venture capital and funding support

After establishing Contactile’s purpose and profit viability, the next big challenge was raising capital. While this is a common challenge for most start-ups, it was all the more difficult for Contactile, given the team was looking for funding in the middle of lockdown during one of the worst periods of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, unfortunately, meeting a potential investor face-to-face was out of the question.

“We were in the middle of the UNSW Founders New Wave US Ready program, and we had an excellent mentor, Hamish Hawthorne, who gave us some tips on the strategy behind making a prioritised list of investors you want to approach,” explained Dr Khamis.

David Burt Founders-min.jpg
UNSW Founders Director of Entrepreneurship David Burt and Dr Heba Khamis met in 2019 when Contactile was just beginning its journey to becoming a commercialised product. Image: Supplied

She put together a list of 10 potential hardware investors she’d Googled. But it wasn’t just the investors she was looking at; it was their portfolio companies. “The best way to an investor's heart is through their portfolio founders,” said Dr Khamis. So she sent several cold emails and LinkedIn messages asking for advice about raising funding and working with investors.

“A couple of those portfolio companies were potential customers of ours. So this was a little bit strategic… we could see a real connection between what we do and what they do,” she said. And those founders ended up introducing her to an investor, and after three phone calls, Contactile was offered a term sheet.

“It was a real kind of ‘tick of approval’ that they [the portfolio company] had already spoken to us. They could see the value in what we were doing, and they were recommending us to their investor,” she said. “One of the things we learned from that and hindsight is you can pretty much tell from the first call if this is an investor that's a good fit for you or not."

Does every inventor or startup need to solve a unique problem?

Earlier this year, Contactile announced raising $2.5 million in seed funding to develop its sensors, led by Silicon Valley's True Ventures and participation from Flying Fox Ventures, Radar Ventures and UNSW Founders. But according to the media, US valuations came under significant pressure for both listed and unlisted firms. At the same time, some of Australia's biggest names in the tech ecosystem, like Canva, also lost significant value over the year. 

“There's a lot of media floating around saying that investors are pulling money, or they're not investing as much, or they're being more frugal in what they invest in. And that's probably all true,” said Dr Khamis. “But at the end of the day, a good startup will find investment,” she said. 

The best advice she had for entrepreneurs looking for funding now, whether in advanced manufacturing, human tactile technology, or other developing areas like automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning, was to find the right investor for them – someone who's convinced their business model is sound and has growth potential.

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“Not every startup needs VC investment from the first instance. So you might consider something like a family and friends round first, or, you know, angel investment or something like that, before approaching the VCs – just to see what happens with the market or even just to be in a better position so that you get better terms from a VC,” she said.

“If you are one of the creams of the crop, there's no doubt you'll get investment. And in fact, you will be in a better position because all the startups that don't have such good propositions will just be shut down by VCs very quickly. So you've got more of a chance of being heard,” she said.


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