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September 18, 2014

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Joe Downtown: Course reversal sees high-tech firm leaving for Bay Area

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Christopher DeVargas

Romotive’s unique iPhone/iPod-controlled robots are shown in different colors, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011.

Romotive's Robots

Keller Rinaudo, of Romotive Inc., and co-founder Peter Seid, at right, give a demonstration on how their robotic platform works, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011. Launch slideshow »

In a move that some will see as a blow to the growing Las Vegas tech community, Romotive, a personal robotics company that quickly saw its fortunes rise after moving to the city in 2011, is leaving for the Bay Area.

The company’s CEO, Keller Rinaudo, sent an email to downtown’s tech community, including Vegas Tech Fund, which invested $500,000 in the company early on, announcing the company’s departure.

Neither Rinaudo nor a company spokeswoman responded to inquiries from the Sun.

Zach Ware, a VegasTechFund partner, said he ws sad to see his friends leave town. At the same time, Ware said he didn't see the announcement as hurting the tech movement downtown that he and others are vigorously supporting.

“I’m super energized about what’s happening here,” Ware said. “We understood (Rinaudo) making a decision he thought was important for his company.”

Ware said he understood how people might jump to conclusions and see the move as a negative for downtown. However, he said, “If you have the full perspective of what’s happening in the tech community, you won’t see it that way.”

“With what we’ve been doing in the last year, I’m inspired every day about what’s going on,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a negative. And the influence and positivity (Romotive) brought here was definitely a positive for the community.”

Rinaudo wrote the reason behind the move, which will take place over the next three months, was the company’s desire to be closer to the large pool of tech-savvy operators in the Silicon Valley.

In his email, Rinaudo said the company’s goal was to build the first affordable personal robot.

“It’s my responsibility to make sure that Romotive is located where we are most likely to achieve this vision,” he wrote. He also said the company wanted to be close to “strategic partners and hiring brilliant senior talent that can take our robotics focus to the next level.”

Las Vegas’ tech community is a baby relative to the decades-old Silicon Valley in the Bay Area. The California tech hub also is near a wealth of universities that pump out thousands of tech-ready graduates. By comparison, Nevada’s four-year, public universities pale in both size and number of graduates.

Rinaudo credited Las Vegas with providing fertile ground for the company, whose three founders moved here in 2011 with the idea of creating a small robot that can be operated by someone with a smartphone. By attaching a phone to “Romo,” the company’s robot, someone else halfway around the world can maneuver Romo with another smartphone or computer and see what Romo sees.

“This was a difficult decision for us because Romotive wouldn’t be the company we are without the constant support of Downtown Project, Tony (Hsieh, Zappos CEO and VegasTechFund partner), Fred (Mosler, also with Zappos and a VegasTechFund partner) and many others,” Rinaudo wrote.

VegasTechFund was founded after Zappos announced its move from Henderson to downtown Las Vegas in late 2010. This fall, Zappos is relocating about 1,300 employees downtown into the old City Hall building at Stewart Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard.

Hsieh and others also created Downtown Project, which will invest $350 million downtown in education, small business, tech and other areas. The move has spurred growth and more interest in tech startup companies in the area.

For more than a year, Romotive operated out of condos in the Ogden. Last March, when U.S. Sen. Harry Reid stopped by the Ogden to visit Hsieh at his condo, a Romotive employee showed Reid how the robot worked.

Reid marveled at the device, mentioning how one day something like that could perhaps be “weaponized.”

Romotive now employs at least 20 people; a plant in China now manufactures the tiny robot. Rinaudo wrote that the company has signed its single largest order for 10,000 Romos.

A few weeks ago, Rinaudo was a featured speaker at an annual TED Talks conference, which was simulcast in the Downtown Project’s Construction Zone trailers downtown. Romotive employees who watched high-fived one another when Rinaudo came on screen to give his talk or when other speakers mentioned the potential upside of the business of personal robotics.

Despite his departure from Las Vegas, Rinaudo said he believed Hsieh "will succeed in building the downtown area into a bright tech ecosystem.”

Romotive’s departure follows news in February when ecomom.com, one of the first startups VegasTechFund invested in, liquidated and went out of business. Ecomom CEO Jody Sherman took his own life in January.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown, he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.

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  1. Anyone is free to move themselves, or their business, anywhere they like. That said, this tale sounds remarkably similar to any of the other hundreds of thousands of individuals and/or companies that have moved to Las Vegas in order to take something from the city, only to leave when whatever it is has been achieved. I have been told countless times, "I'm only here to make a bundle of cash and move on." Draw your own conclusions.

  2. What? A company leaving a tax haven like Nevada for a high-tax state like California? Come on, anti-tax, anti-spend conservatives, how is this possible? It's not as though the quality of an education system could have anything to do with affecting corporate ideas about a good relocation destination.

  3. "most people with kids will never live here." <-- You realize this is easily and empirically proven incorrect, right?