Last week, Kathryn Zealand shared some insight on the eve of Women’s Equality Day. The post highlighted an issue that’s been apparent to everyone in and around the robotics industry: there’s a massive gender gap. It’s something we try to be mindful of, particularly when programming events like TC Sessions: Robotics. Zealand cites some pretty staggering figures in the piece.
According to the stats, around 9% of robotics engineers are female. That’s bad. That’s, like, bad even by the standards of STEM fields in general — which is to say, it’s really, really bad. (The ethnic disparities in the same source are worth drawing attention to, as well.)
Zealand’s piece was published on LinkedIn — fitting, given that the overarching focus here is on hiring. Well worth your time, if you’re involved in the hiring process at a robotics firm and are concerned about broader diversity issues (which hopefully go hand in hand for most orgs). Zealand offers some outside of the box thinking in terms of what, precisely, it means to be a roboticist, writing:
We have a huge opportunity here! Women and other under-represented groups are untapped pools of talented people who, despite not thinking of themselves as “roboticists,” could be vital members of a world-changing robotics team.
I’m going to be real with you for a minute, and note what really caught my eye was that above image. See, Zealand is a Project Lead at Alphabet X. And what you have there is a robotic brace — or, rather, what appears to be a component of a soft exosuit.
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch
Exosuits/exoskeletons are a booming category for robotics right now that really run the gamut from Sarcos’ giant James Cameron-esque suit to far subtler, fabric-based systems. Some key names in the space include Ekso Bionics, ReWalk and SuitX. Heck, even Samsung has shown off a solution as part of a robotics department that appears to be largely ornamental at the moment.
Image Credits: Harvard Biodesign Lab
Most of these systems aim to tackle one of two issues: 1) Augmenting workers to assist with difficult or repetitive tasks for work and 2) Provide assistance to those with impaired mobility. Many companies have offers for both. Here’s what Harvard’s Biodesign Lab has to say on the matter:
As compared to a traditional exoskeleton, these systems have several advantages: the wearer’s joints are unconstrained by external rigid structures, and the worn part of the suit is extremely light. These properties minimize the suit’s unintentional interference with the body’s natural biomechanics and allow for more synergistic interaction with the wearer.
Alphabet loves to give the occasional behind-the-scenes peak at some of its X projects, and it turns out we’ve had a couple of glimpses of the Smarty Pants project. Zealand and Smarty Pants make a cameo in a Wired UK piece that ran early last year about the 10th anniversary of Google/Alphabet X. The piece notes that that the project was inspired by her experience with her 92-year-old grandmother’s mobility issues.
Image Credits: Alphabet X
The piece highlights a very early Raspberry Pi-controlled setup created by a team that includes costume designers and deep learning specialists (getting back to that earlier discussion about outside the box thinking when it comes to what constitutes a roboticist). The system is using sensors in an attempt to effectively predict movement in order to anticipate where force needs to be applied for tasks like walking up stairs. The piece ends on a fittingly somber note, “Fewer than half of X’s investigations become Projects. By the time this story is published it will probably have been killed.”
My suspicion is that the team is looking to differentiate itself from other exosuit projects by leveraging Google’s knowledge base of deep learning and AI to build out those predictive algorithms.
Alphabet declined to offer additional information on the project, noting that it likes to give its moonshot teams, “time to learn and iterate out of the spotlight.” But last October, we got what is probably our best look at Smarty Pants, in the form of a video highlighting Design Kitchen, Alphabet X’s lab/design studio.
Image Credits: Alphabet X
The Wired piece mentions a “pearlescent bumbag,” holding the aforementioned Raspberry Pi and additional components. For you yanks, that’s a fanny pack, which are not referred to as such in the U.K., owing to certain regional slang. Said fanny pack also makes an appearance in the video, providing, honestly, a very clever solution to the issue of hanging wires for an early-stage wearable prototype.
“One of the things that’s really helped the team is being really focused on a problem. Even if you spent months on something, if it’s not actually going to achieve that goal, then sometimes you honor the work that’s been done and say, ‘we’ve learned a ton of things during the process, but this is not the one that’s actually going to solve that problem.’ ”
The most notable takeaway from the video is some additional footage of prototypes. One imagines that, by the time Alphabet feels confident sharing that sort of stuff with the world, the team has moved well beyond it. “It doesn’t matter how janky and cardboard-and-duct-tape it is, as long as it helps you learn — and everyone can prototype, even while working from home,” the X team writes in an associated blog post.
The one other bit of information we have at the moment is a granted patent application from last year, which comes with all of the standard patent warnings. Seeing a patent come to fruition is often even more of a longshot (read: moonshot) than betting on an Alphabet X project to graduate. But they can offer some insight into where a team is headed — or at least some of the avenues it has considered.
Image Credits: Alphabet X
The patent highlights similar attempts to anticipate movement as those highlighted above. It effectively uses sensors and machine learning to adjust the tension on regions of the garments designed to assist the wearer.
Image Credits: Alphabet X
The proposed methods and systems provide adaptive support and assistance to users by performing intelligent dynamic adjustment of tension and stiffness in specific areas of fabric or by applying forces to non-stretch elements within a garment that is comfortable enough to be suitable for frequent, everyday usage. The methods include detecting movement of a particular part of a user’s body enclosed within the garment, determining an activity classification for that movement, identifying a support configuration for the garment tailored to the activity classification, and dynamically adjusting a tension and/or a stiffness of one or more controllable regions of the garment or applying force to non-stretch fabric elements in the garment to provide customized support and assistance for the user and the activity the user is performing.
It’s nice seeing Alphabet take a more organic approach to developing robotics startups in-house, rather than the acquisitions and consolidations that occurred several years back that ultimately found Boston Dynamics briefly living under the Google umbrella. Of course, we saw the recent graduation of the Wendy Tan White-led Intrinsic, which builds software for industrial robotics.
All right, so there’s a whole bunch of words about a project we know next to nothing about! Gotta love the startup space, where we’re definitely not spinning wild speculation based on a thin trail of breadcrumbs.
I will say for sure that I definitely know more about Agility Robotics than I did this time last week, after speaking with the Oregon-based company’s CEO and CTO. The conversation was ostensibly about a new video the team released showcasing Digit doing some menial tasks in a warehouse/fulfillment setting.
Some key things I learned:
Image Credits: Agility Robotics
Oh, and a good quote about job loss from CEO Damion Shelton:
The conversation around automation has shifted a bit. It’s viewed as an enabling technology to allow you to keep the workforce that you have. There are a lot of conversations around the risks of automation and job loss, but the job loss is actually occurring now, in advance of the automated solutions.
Agility hopes to start rolling out its robots to locations in the next year. More immediate than that, however, is this deal between Simbe Robotics and midwestern grocery chain, Schnuks. The food giant will be bringing Simbe’s inventor robots to all of its 111 stores, four years after it began piloting the tech.
Schnuck Markets deploys Tally robot by Simbe Robotics to its stores – bringing shelf insights for better shopping experience. Photographed on Friday, Aug. 13, 2021, in Des Peres, Mo.
Simbe says its Tally robot can reduce out of stock items by 20-30% and detect 14x more missing inventor than standard human scanning.
Carbon Robotics (not to be confused with the prosthetic company of the same name that made it onto our Hardware Battlefield a few years back) just raised $27 million. The Series B brings its total funding to around $36 million. The Seattle-based firm builds autonomous robots that zap weeds with lasers. We highlighted their most recent robot in this column back in April.
And seeing how we recently updated you on iRobot’s continued indefinite delay for the Terra, here’s a new robotic mower from Segway-Ninebot.
Image Credits: Segway-Ninebot
Segway’s first robotic lawnmower is designed for a lawn area of up to 3,000 square meters, has several features of a smart helper in the garden and is the quietest mower on the market with only 54 dB. The Frequent Soft Cut System (FSCS) ensures that the lawn is cut from above and the desired height is reached gradually. Offset blades allow cutting as close as possible to edges and corners.
That’s it for the week. Don’t forget to sign up to get the upcoming free newsletter version of Actuator delivered to your inbox.
Private equity firm Vista Equity Partners announced today that it is taking a majority stake in Drift, a company which aims to be the Amazon of businesses, with a “growth investment” that propels the venture-backed startup to unicorn status.
Unfortunately, neither party would disclose the amount of the investment, or Drift’s new valuation. But co-founder and CEO David Cancel did say the SaaS company saw 70% growth in its annual recurring revenue (ARR) in 2020 compared to the year prior and is on target for a similar metric this year. It is not yet profitable, as it is focused on growth, he added.
Prior to this financing, Boston-based Drift had raised $107 million in funding from the likes of Sequoia Capital, CRV and General Catalyst since its 2015 inception.
So just what does the company do exactly? The startup says it is out to ”reimagine the B2B buying experience,” according to Cancel. By using its software, Drift’s 50,000 customers are able to bring together sales and marketing teams on one platform to “deliver personalized conversations” that the company says build trust and accelerate revenue.
Its customers include ServiceNow, Okta, Grubhub, Mindbody, Adobe, Ellie May and Snowflake, among others. Today 75% of Drift’s customers are mid-market enterprise, according to Cancel.
Over the past five years, Drift has worked to create and define something it describes as “Conversational Marketing” with the goal of helping marketers “harness the digital experience for lead generation.” Or to put it more simply, Drift subscribers can use chatbots to help turn web visits into sales.
The company says it is out to remove the friction between buyers and sellers so they can not only get more leads, but also close more sales. This led Drift to expand its focus to build a platform that includes conversational sales, which integrates chat, email, video and artificial intelligence to power conversations, not just on a customer’s website, but for the sales team too.
Cancel said that Vista’s strategic growth investment will help the company move even faster, expand globally and launch a new B2B category called “Conversation Commerce,” an interactive approach to conversations that Drift believes has the potential to “transform the entire B2B revenue function.”
Basically, the company is trying to make the B2B buying/selling experience similar to that of a B2C one. At least 80% of B2B buyers are not only looking for, but expect, a buying experience similar to that of a B2C customer, according to Cancel.
So far in 2021, Drift’s customers generated $5 billion in pipeline value by making the customer side of the buying process easier, he said.
For Cancel, a serial entrepreneur who previously founded and sold four other companies, the notion of owning a company with a unicorn valuation was not something he and co-founder and CTO Elias Torres were overly consumed with.
But what did appeal to the pair was the opportunity to add to the too-short list of U.S.-based unicorns with Latin founders and serve as an inspiration for other entrepreneurs of Latin descent. Cancel’s parents emigrated from Puerto Rico and Cuba while Torres emigrated from Nicaragua in his teens.
“I didn’t really care about that [unicorn] status except for one reason and the reason was that we are both Latino and if we hit this milestone, then we would be part of the less than 1% of Latinos that had ever done that,” Cancel told TechCrunch. “And that was important to us because we believe that we have the responsibility to pay it forward and to help people and to inspire other people who are like us and are often marginalized. We want to show that they can do this too.”
Torres agreed, saying that he and Cancel were “proud to be one of the only Latino-founded companies to ever achieve over $1 billion valuation – a rare, Latino-founded unicorn.”
“We want to see more of us do the same and we will pave the way for other Latino founders and leaders to achieve success,” he added.
By having a majority owner in Vista, which focuses exclusively on backing enterprise software, data and technology-enabled businesses, Cancel believes that Drift can “get more efficient in some areas.” He also thinks that the firm can help it ramp up its acquisitions pace. (So far it has made three.)
The nearly 600-person company still has its sights on going public, according to Cancel, and believes that by working with Vista, it will have a “clearer path” to do so.
“It’s something we think about a lot,” he told TechCrunch. “It’s still in our future.”
Monti Saroya, co-head of the Flagship Fund and senior managing director at Vista, thinks that Drift represents a “compelling” opportunity for Vista.
“Drift is a company that is experiencing hypergrowth at scale, we and we believe the conversational marketing and sales tools it offers will continue to be in high demand as companies race to modernize their B2B commerce strategies,” he told TechCrunch.
Earlier this year, Vista — which has over $77 billion in assets under management — invested $242 million to acquire a minority stake in Vena, a Canadian company focused on the Corporate Performance Management (CPM) software space.
Meanwhile, Vista’s acquisition of Drift is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2021.
Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.
Natasha and Alex and Grace and Chris were joined by none other than TechCrunch’s own Mary Ann Azevedo, in her first-ever appearance on the show. She’s pretty much the best person and we’re stoked to have her on the pod.
And it was good that Mary Ann was on the show this week as she wrote about half the dang site. Which meant that we got to include all sorts of her work in the rundown. Here’s the agenda:
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One of the most fascinating aspects of Boston Dynamics’ transition into a commercial organization is watching the company — and its partners — figure out real-world jobs for Spot. There’s no question that the tech is impressive, but there’s always been the broader subject of usefulness beyond the company’s initial purpose of serving as off-road pack mules.
We’ve seen some interesting examples since Spot first went on sale, including inspection for constructions sites and potentially dangerous settings — from nuclear power plants to off-shore oil rigs. There have also been some, shall we say, more controversial gigs, including Spot’s time as an electronic K9 for the NYPD.
But maybe finding the perfect job for Spot entails thinking both outside the box and Earth’s gravitational pull. NASA’s JPL in California has been working with the quadrupedal robot for a couple of years now, first as part of a DARPA challenge and now as a potential way to explore extraterrestrial caves. For this week’s installment of Actuator, we spoke to JPL NeBula Autonomy Project lead Ali Agha about the partnership.
How long has NASA been working with Spot?
We have been working with the SPOT robots for about two years now. We initially integrated our NeBula autonomy and AI solutions on the Spot robot as one of our robots participating in the DARPA Subterranean challenge competition. However, since then we have extended the application of these robots and JPL’s NeBula autonomy solution to planetary cave exploration and surface exploration as well as terrestrial disaster response and mining efforts.
What is the advantage of using legs (as opposed to wheels) on the Martian surface?
Imagine a no-road terrain on Earth. The ability to walk will allow traversing different elements of such a terrain much better than a typical wheeled vehicle. Similarly, legged locomotion can potentially enable totally new missions when exploring extreme and challenging terrains on planetary bodies in the solar system beyond our home planet.
How closely does NASA/JPL work with a company like Boston Dynamics on a project like this?
We have had an amazing collaboration with Boston Dynamics and work closely with them. On our project, JPL and Boston Dynamics’ efforts are highly synergistic. At JPL, we develop autonomy and AI solutions (called NeBula) acting as the robot brain to enable fully autonomous exploration of extreme and challenging environments with very minimal (to none) prior information about the terrain or environmental conditions.
NeBula is agnostic to the choice of robotic platform and can be used on wheeled rovers, legged platforms, as well as drones. On the other hand, Boston Dynamics is developing cutting-edge incredible robotic locomotion systems that can maintain the stability of the system over extreme environments. As a result, the combination of an autonomy solution like NeBula with a capable locomotion system like Boston Dynamics’ Spot opens up avenues for totally new classes of planetary and terrestrial missions.
I know autonomy is a big piece of this. Do the robots need to be able to function with no human intervention?
Yes, autonomy is the main focus of our project. In planetary exploration, specifically, when exploring underground caves, there is no, or very minimal, prior information about the environment. Further, when robots enter the cave, they typically lose communication with the surface and are on their own to accomplish the mission objectives.
As a result, autonomy is a crucial capability to enable such missions to accomplish mission goals with no human intervention when the robot is out of communication exploring previously unseen terrains and environments. To this end, JPL has been developing autonomy and AI solutions (called NeBula) acting as the robot brain, which is now being paired with Boston Dynamics Spot robots as the robot body.
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch
A bit closer to Earth (as in, roughly 100 to 150 feet above our heads), Alphabet’s Wing announced this week that it’s approaching 100,000 drone deliveries two years after launching in the Brisbane-adjacent city of Logan, Australia. The announcement follows recent insight into Amazon’s struggles in the drone delivery space.
The company told TechCrunch,” I think we’ll launch new services in Australia, Finland and the United States in the next six months. The capabilities of the technology are probably ahead of the regulatory permissions right now.”
Image Credits: Wing
A closer look at some of those 100,000 deliveries:
Image Credits: Coco
Speaking of food, LA-based Coco just raised $36 million for its delivery robots. The round brings its total funding up to $43 million. The UCLA spinout is currently piloting its 50-pound, remote-piloted robots in a variety of Los Angeles neighborhoods. The company tells TechCrunch:
We are currently operating in Santa Monica and in five different L.A neighborhoods. Later this year we are expanding into a number of other major U.S. cities. We have partnered with national restaurant brands like SBE (Umami Burger) and are actively scaling across many locations, and we are serving a wide range of family operated restaurants like Bangkok West Thai in Santa Monica and San Pedro Brewing Company in Los Angeles. We are out of the pilot phase and are launching with dozens of new merchants every day.
Image Credits: Spyce
Meanwhile, California-based fast casual salad chain Sweetgreens just acquired Spyce. Built by MIT alums, the company develops kitchen robotics, which it has rolled out in a pair of Boston-based restaurants. Sweetgreens eventually plans to implement these in some of its 120+ locations, though no timeline has been given as of yet.
In this week’s small-ray-of-sunshine-in-an-otherwise-horrifying-situation news, a team of young women roboticists managed to evacuate Kabul amid the Taliban takeover. The team has found refuge in Mexico on a 180-day humanitarian visa, with an option to extend their stay.
“From now on forward we will have opportunities for many more achievements in our lives, and thus be part of the fight for a better life,” team member Fatemah Qaderyan said at a press conference on their arrival in the country. “Although we are far from our homes, we will always be united and thanks to your help we will achieve it, thank you very much, we really appreciate having all our things here in Mexico with us.”
The team also made international headlines in 2017, as they entered the U.S. on a 10-day “parole,” in spite of the Trump administration’s executive order banning entry from predominately Muslim countries.
Image Credits: Tesla (opens in a new window)
Before we go, a thought on the Tesla robot. Or, rather, a story. A few years ago, I was asked to be on a panel discussing robots for a group of people who weren’t really familiar with the field. That’s fine. There’s a lot to be said for getting outside your comfort zone. At the end, we opened things up to Q&A.
As is nearly always the case with these things, the first question — well, it wasn’t a question really. It was more of a laundry list of things the asker would like to see a robot do. She went on to describe a small drone that flies from surface to surface, cleaning different parts of the house. I told her it sounded great, and I’d love to see her invent it.
Point is, I think the vast majority of people outside of robotics have an entirely unrealistic idea of what’s possible with technology today. There’s a reason iRobot spent the better part of a decade banging its head against the wall, working out a robot that can vacuum floors. There’s also a reason that the Roomba is really the only semi-ubiquitous home robot. Always be wary of robots announced onstage as a press event.
I’m not saying a Tesla robot is impossible. I’m just saying we have to temper our expectations of what is. Sometimes you go in expecting a robot and get someone in a spandex onesie doing the Dougie:
Image Credits: Tesla
The global startup community is currently enjoying a period of fundraising success that may be unprecedented in the history of technology and venture capital. While this is happening around the world, few startup hubs in the world are reveling in a greater boost to their ability to attract capital than Boston.
The well-known U.S. city is a traditional venture capital hub, but one that seemed to fall behind its domestic rivals Silicon Valley and New York City in recent years. However, data indicates that Boston’s startup activity in fundraising terms has reached a new, higher plateau, funneling record sums into the city’s upstart technology companies this year.
And, according to local investors, there could be room for further acceleration in capital disbursement.
The Exchange explores startups, markets and money.
The Exchange wanted to better understand what’s driving Boston’s rapid-fire results, and discover if there is any particular need for caution or concern. Is the market overheated? According to local investors Rob Go from NextView, Jamie Goldstein from Pillar VC, Lily Lyman from Underscore and Sanjiv Kalevar from OpenView, things may be more than warm, but Boston’s accelerating venture capital totals in 2021 are not based on FOMO or other potentially ephemeral trends.
Instead, Boston is benefiting from larger structural changes to at least the U.S. venture capital market, helping close historical gaps in its startup funding market and access funds that previously might have skipped the region. And local university density isn’t hurting the city’s cause, either, boosting its ability to form new companies during a period of rich investment access.
Let’s talk data, and then hear from the investing crew about just what is going on over in Beantown.
When discussing venture capital data, we often note that it is somewhat laggy, with rounds announced long after they are closed. In practice, this means that more recent data can undersell how a particular quarter has performed. With Boston’s 2021 thus far, all that we can say is that if this data includes normal venture capital lag, it will simply be all the more incredible.
First of all, we’ve got a fancy new name. While “Robotics Roundup” was nothing if not very technically accurate, it lacked the kind of panache one ought to strive for when rounding up robotics. Actuator, on the other hand — that’s a mover and shaker.
It’s a name you can take to the bank (or at least run by the legal department for clearance). To mark this momentous occasion, we employed our resident graphic design genius Bryce to sketch up something befitting our rebrand.
We’re also using the opportunity to announce that Actuator will be coming soon to an inbox near you as a free TechCrunch newsletter. All of this fun change seems extra fitting, given that this happens to be the 25th edition of the roundup. You can find all of the older updates under our Actuator tag if you want to catch up.
If you’ve been following for a while, you’ve got the gist of what the newsletter is about: a digestible look into the week’s robotics news. We cover all of the startups making waves and the big companies impacting the industry, along with the most fascinating updates in the world of robotic research, as well as dives into labor concerns and various ethical issues stemming from automation and AI.
If all of that sounds good, you can sign up here to get Actuator in your inbox as soon as the first issue hits. I’m told you may have to prove you’re not a robot, so apologies in advance to all of the robots reading this. But hey, if you’ve gotten this far, you’ll figure it out.
Image Credits: Intel
Following an earlier report from CRN, Intel has since confirmed with TechCrunch that it will be winding down its 3D imaging platform, RealSense. It’s always a shame to see these sorts of forward-looking initiatives go away. And certainly Intel has been leaning pretty heavily on the division as a leading indicator of its efforts to remain relevant as the industry evolves.
Over the years, we’ve covered RealSense’s involvement in drones, robotics and AR/VR. In June of last year, we covered the platform’s embrace of 5G connectivity.
Image Credits: Intel
“We are winding down our RealSense business and transitioning our computer vision talent, technology and products to focus on advancing innovative technologies that better support our core businesses and IDM 2.0 strategy,” the company said in a statement offered to TechCrunch. “We will continue to meet our commitments to our current customers and are working with our employees and customers to ensure a smooth transition.
Translation: The company is choosing to focus its core competency. IDM 2.0 refers specifically to the new chipmaking strategy into which the company is pumping $20 billion. Understandable, but it’s always hopeful to see big companies like Intel, Nvidia and Qualcomm really go all in on such forward-facing technologies.
Boston Dynamics, meanwhile, made news this week, ostensibly for another slick viral video, this one featuring the Hyundai-owned company’s humanoid Atlas robot. By now we’re all well aware of the fact that the company makes impressive robots and highly effective YouTube videos that launch a million Black Mirror and Terminator jokes on Twitter.
I’ve seen Atlas do some really impressive stuff in person at BD’s headquarters, and I’ve got a pretty good idea of what it’s currently capable of. So, while Atlas is extremely cool, I didn’t find the recent parkour video especially shocking. What did catch me off guard, however, was the fact that the company also used the opportunity to essentially publish some outtakes from the film.
Image Credits: Boston Dynamics
A six-minute, behind-the-scenes video featured a montage of Atlas falling on its face. Like any great skateboarding video, there are a few gratuitous shots included that demonstrate that, regardless of how advanced the system is, there are still going to be some face-planting, gasket-blowing falls that leave its chest scuffed in a pool of its own fluid. The company notes:
During filming, Atlas gets the vault right about half of the time. On the other runs, Atlas makes it over the barrier, but loses its balance and falls backward, and the engineers look to the logs to see if they can find opportunities for on-the-fly adjustments.
"We'll be singing / when we're winning." pic.twitter.com/51DYD1Avvg
— Brian Heater (@bheater) August 17, 2021
That’s probably enough news of shuttered divisions and bodily robot harm for this week. A couple of fundraising rounds are worth noting.
First is Rapid Robotics, which has been on a fundraising tear of late. The new $36.7 million Series B values the manufacturing robotics company at $192.5 million and marks its third(!) fundraising round in a year that started with a seed raise.
Image Credits: Rapid Robotics
CEO Jordan Kretchmer cites pandemic-fueled manufacturing bottlenecks as a big source of interest in the company:
We hear a lot about the semiconductor shortage, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Contract manufacturers can’t produce gaskets, vials, labels — you name it. I’ve seen cases where the inability to produce a single piece of U-shaped black plastic brought an entire auto line to a halt
Image Credits: Diamond Age
Rapid will be making its robotic systems available through the increasingly popular RaaS (robotics as a service) model also being employed by Diamond Age. The fellow Bay Area-based firm announced its own $8 million seed round this morning for an intriguing mix of robotics and 3D printing designed at speeding up house construction. The company is still in its early stages, but it claims its technology can dramatically reduce the need for manual labor and shrink house construction time from nine months to 30 days.
Image Credits: Picnic
Following its own recent funding back in May, Picnic this week announced that it’s finally selling its modular robotic pizza maker. Pizza is, of course, a popular target for food robotics companies, because Americans eat a ton of it — reportedly 100 acres a day, as of 2015. It’s also relatively uniformly constructed as far as self-contained meals go, and is therefore easier to automate.
Nuro team on test track during early validation in Arizona, before first-ever public road deployment in Arizona. Image Credits: Nuro
And speaking of pizza robots, before we leave you this week, a note to check out the EC-1 on Nuro. Here’s a fun anecdote from Domino’s chief innovation officer that seems to ring true across the robotic spectrum:
One of the things we laugh about is how customers constantly talk to the bot. It’s almost like they think it’s ‘Knight Rider.’ It’s very common for customers to thank it or say goodbye, which is great because that indicates we’re creating an engaging experience that they’re not frustrated by.
As its name suggests, venture firm Pillar VC is focused on building “pillar” companies in Boston and across the Northeast.
The Boston-based seed-stage firm closed a raise of $192 million of capital that was split into two funds, $169 million for Pillar III and $23 million for Pillar Select. More than 25 investors are backing the new fund, including portfolio founders.
Jamie Goldstein, Sarah Hodges and Russ Wilcox are Pillar VC’s three partners, and all three lead investments for Pillar. The trio all have backgrounds as entrepreneurs: Goldstein, who has spent the past two decades in VC, co-founded speech recognition company PureSpeech, which was acquired by Voice Control Systems; Hodges was at online learning company Pluralsight; and Wilcox was CEO of electronic paper company E Ink, which he sold in 2009.
Pillar typically invests in a range of enterprise and consumer startups and aims to target Pillar III at startups focused on biology, enterprise SaaS, AI/ML, crypto, fintech, hardware, manufacturing and logistics. The firm will make pre-seed investments of $50,000 to $500,000 and seed-round investments of $2 million to $6 million.
One of the unique aspects of the firm is that it will buy common stock so that it will be aligned with founders and take on the same risks, Goldstein told TechCrunch.
The firm, founded in 2016, already has 50 portfolio companies from its first two funds — Pillar I, which raised $57 million, and Pillar $100 million. These include cryptocurrency company Circle, which announced a SPAC earlier this month, 3D printing company Desktop Metal that went public, also via SPAC, last year, and PillPack, which was bought by Amazon in 2018.
“Pillar is an experiment, answering the question of ‘what would happen if unicorn CEOs came in and helped bootstrap the next generation’,” Wilcox said. “The experience is working, and Pillar does what VCs ought to do, which is back first-of-its-kind ideas.”
In addition to leading investments, Hodges leads the Pillar VC platform for the firm’s portfolio companies. Many of the portfolio companies are spinouts from universities, and need help turning that technology into a company. Pillar provides guidance to recruit a CEO or partner on the business side, leadership development, recruit talent and makes introductions to potential customers.
Pillar also intends to invest a third of the new fund into that biology category, specifically looking at the convergence of life science and technology, Wilcox said.
In its second fund, the firm started Petri, a pre-seed bio accelerator focused on biotech, and brought in founders using computation and engineering to develop technologies around the areas of agriculture, genetics, cell and gene therapies, medical data and drug discovery. The third fund will continue to support the accelerator through both pre-seed and seed investments.
The first investments from Pillar III are being finalized, but Hodges expects to infuse capital into another 50 companies.
“We are super bullish on Boston,” she added. “So many companies here are growing to be household names, and an exciting energy is coming out.”
As I mentioned at the close of last week’s roundup, the biggest issue in writing this roundup on Wednesday is that sometimes news breaks on Thursday morning. Again, I’m asking the robotics community to try not make any big headlines on Thursdays. That would really help a guy out.
Last week, news broke that Zebra Technologies had purchased Fetch. I’ve written about the latter several times over the past couple years, and spoken to founder Melonee Wise a number of times, as well. Ultimately, it’s not much of a surprise Fetch went the acquisition route. If I were a better man, however, I would have leaned heavily toward an acquisition by some mega-retailer like Walmart or Target.
Image Credits: TechCrunch
Everyone is looking for a competitive advantage against Amazon, including those big names. And, of course, they’ve got the deep pockets to purchase a head start. Ultimately, I think a deal like this is better for the industry, at large, given how Amazon’s acquisitions tend to go. The company loves to buy up startups and keep all of that cool technology to itself. I spoke to Wise about the deal, late last week. Some excerpts:
As we were fundraising for our Series D, this opportunity came out of that. I think when you look at it, over the last couple of years, we’ve had a good relationship with them. With the pandemic, there’s been a huge draw for more and more automation technology. Before the pandemic, there were already labor shortages for warehouse and logistics, and the pandemic only exacerbated it. One of the other great things about us joining Zebra is they have a strong go-to-market engine, and they can amplify our sales capability. They’re already in all of the customers we want to be working with. It helps us reach a much broader, wider and deeper audience.
I think it’s complicated. When I started the company, I never really planned on anything. I just wanted to go build something. I mean that in the most sincere way. I wanted to go build something and not fail. And the question is, what does not failing look like? I think the facts are that in the last 20-something years, almost no robotics company has IPO’ed. Now we’re starting to see SPACS, but there hasn’t been a robotics company that’s IPO’ed through the traditional route.
In terms of vision of how we’re thinking about it, Zebra is very excited to kind of make Fetch the centerpiece of this whole new offering that they’re building out. It’s a high strategic priority for them.
Image Credits: Abundant
On the whole, this week marked a pretty substantial slow down in terms of funding announcements. We did get one big bummer news item, as Abundant Robotics is shutting down. Good Fruit Grower got the following statement from CEO Dan Steere,
After a series of promising commercial trials with prototype apple harvesters, the company was unable to raise enough investment funding to continue development and launch a production system.
We’ve reached out for further comment, but the company’s understandably not champing at the bit to discuss where things went wrong. It’s easier, of course, to celebrate the successes than it is to dissect the failures, the latter happens much more often than we can to admit in this field. Often they arrive early in the process and don’t really warrant a lot of ink.
Abundant’s different. From the outside, the Bay Area company appeared to be on the right track toward becoming a dominant name in robotic fruit harvesting. The company had raised a total of $12 million, including Series A in 2017. Granted, that’s not an insignificant amount of time to go between raises and bringing robotics to production is extraordinarily difficult.
What’s more surprising is that the company couldn’t drum up enough interest to get it across the finish line during the pandemic, when, anecdotally, interest in robotics and automation seems to be heating up. Certainly that applies to farming, which has experienced series labor shortages over the past year. More insight into that soon, I hope.
Sarcos, meanwhile, keeps finding its way into the news cycle. This week, it’s the launch of the teleoperated Guardian XT. The company’s exoskeletons get all the love (thanks in no small part to some high profile partnerships), but company also produces non-body mounted robotics. Per the company,
The SenSuit controller enables the Guardian XT robot to mimic the operator’s movements in real-time. It is an inertial measurement unit (IMU)-based motion tracker that communicates with the robot and leverages Sarcos’ proprietary force feedback technologies. The company also plans to integrate a VR- or AR-based HMD to provide remote visual and situational awareness to the operator. The Guardian XT robot is equipped with 3-degrees of freedom end effectors that enable dexterous control of trade tools and materials, including hand-held power tools, welding and cutting equipment, inspection and test equipment, parts and components, hazardous materials, and retail inventory goods, amongst others.
The system is capable of lifting and moving up to 200 pounds and will hit the market by the end of next year.
Image Credits: Fusion
Meanwhile, robotic surgery company Fusion Robotics announced this week announced plans to merge with Adaptive Geometry, another tech company specializing in spinal surgery technology. The two companies will combine to create the perfectly nondescript Accelus (frankly, Fusion is a pretty good name for two combined companies, but maybe that’s just me).
“Accelus will create opportunities for wide-scale adoption of robotics in spine surgery—both in hospitals and ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs)—by addressing previous constraints related to cost and efficiency,” Accelus Chris Walsh said in a release. “Both Fusion Robotics and Integrity Implants have built enabling technology platforms that create a force multiplier for spinal care. Our products and culture create accessibility to fit each patient’s anatomy, each surgeon’s preferred approach, and each healthcare facility’s space and budget limitations, embodying our core principle of access without compromise.”
That’s a lot of business talk this week, so here’s a fun video of Boston Dynamics doing fun Boston Dynamics stuff, presumably to welcome their new Hyundai overlords:
The other week at TC Sessions: Mobility, I spoke to a trio of executives at top automotive companies about why they’re all so bullish about robotics. There are the obvious implications, of course. Automakers have long employed robotics for manufacturing – they were really ahead of the curve on those concerns about automating job loss. And then there’s the fact that self-driving cars are effectively robots.
Beyond that, however, it’s clear that car companies see robotics as a key investment in their future. What really struck me about the conversation, is how differently the three companies – Hyundai, Ford and Toyota – are approaching the space. If nothing else, it’s a sign that there’s plenty of opportunity here.
We wrote quite a bit about Ford’s ambitions in the category several roundups ago, including an interview with Mario Santillo, who joined us for the recent panel. As evidenced by the company’s recent investment in University of Michigan, Ford’s approach is largely research-based. The company wants to be in on the ground floor both in terms of technology and talent. Though when I pressed Santillo about acquisitions, however, (specifically as it pertains to Digit-maker, Agility), he told me, “that’s always something we’re looking at.” So don’t rule it of, especially as other car companies begin to lockdown big names in the category.
Hyundai, of course, made one of the biggest robotics acquisitions in recent memory, picking up Boston Dynamics after its short stint in the Softbank portfolio (the investment firm remains a shareholder). Of course, that post-Google time has been important for the company, seeing the commercialization of Spot and the upcoming sale of Stretch. Hyundai’s Ernestine Fu shed some more light for us on the deal, which officially closed this week,
With New Horizon Studios, the mandate is reimagining what you can do when you combine robotics with traditional wheeled locomotion, like walking robots and walking vehicles. Obviously the technology that [Boston Dynamics] has put together plays a key role in enabling those sorts of concepts to come to life.
Image Credits: Screenshot/Hyundai
As we discussed, the driving force in the Toyota Research Institute’s interest in the category Japan’s aging population. Eldercare forms the basis of much of what the company does in robotics, including some home robotics research that it showed off this week – specifically how its imaging can handle reflective and transparent surfaces. Both have traditionally been tricky for robotic systems.
As TRI’s Max Bajracharya told me,
[I]n Japan, in 20-30 years, the number of people who are over 65 will roughly be the same as the number of people who are under 65. That’s going to have a really interesting socioeconomic impact, in terms of the workforce. It’s probably going to be much older and we at Toyota are looking at how these people can keep doing their jobs, so they can get the fulfillment from doing their jobs or staying at home longer. We don’t want to just replace the people. We really think about how we stay human-centered and amplify people.
Image Credits: NVIDIA
We’ve been following NVIDIA’s Isaac software for a while now, and the robotic simulation software is available as an open beta. Built on top of Omniverse, the software is designed to test a wide range of different camera and sensor capabilities for robotics. It’s a fascinate project and potentially a big deal for early-stage robotics startups.
Quick follow up to some funding last week from a robots landscaping company, I asked iRobot what’s going on with their Terra mower, which was delayed amid pandemic-related cuts. The company tells me there’s still no clear timeline for the indefinitely delayed robot.
Miso Robotics, meanwhile, continues to build out from Flippy, the hamburger-flipping robot with an automated beverage dispenser. The machine, created with beverage dispenser manufacturer Lancer, fully automates the process, right down to adding the cap on the cup. No clear timeline on the product yet, however, but it’s fun to see some of these companies branch out in a given sector.
Image Credits: Berkshire Grey
A pair of warehouse automation stories worth highlighting here. Berkshire Grey has unveiled a bunch of new fulfillment robots. Per the company,
This new generation of mobile robots offers increased fulfillment throughput at a lower cost point to enable shorter delivery times and support a larger number of SKUs. Unlike fixed conveyor belts and early generation mobile robots, Berkshire Grey’s intelligent fleets harness the power of AI to orchestrate tens to thousands of mobile robots to pick, organize, and deliver items for a wide variety of customer and store orders.
The company will tell you the same thing as every robotics maker: it’s all about helping retailers compete with the behemoth that is Amazon. Fittingly, the ecommerce giant also showed off some new robots this week. Amazon says it’s utilized 350,000 mobile drive units since the company acquired Kiva Systems, which formed the foundation for its Amazon Robotics wing. The post has caused some to wonder whether, in spite of a head start and some massive funding, whether the company is beginning to fall behind a number of aggressive warehouse robotics startups.
Not a ton of funding news this week, but that should change soon. Hot bot summer is nearly upon us. I feel it in the air. Meantime, please enjoy this submersible drone designed to track a wide range of creators in the mesopelagic “twilight” zone. Developed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Mesobot is designed to observe zooplankton, gelatinous animals and more, without disturbing their habitat. Here’s Senior Scientist Dana Yoerger,
We expect that Mesobot will emerge as a vital tool for observing midwater organisms for extended periods, as well as rapidly identifying species observed from vessel biosonars. Because Mesobot can survey, track, and record compelling imagery, we hope to reveal previously unknown behaviors, species interactions, morphological structures, and the use of bioluminescence.
Security compliance is precisely three things: incredibly boring, time consuming, and entirely necessary to run a business in the modern age. Compliance isn’t going away, but startups like Drata are making it slightly easier to bear.
Drata helps companies get their SOC 2 compliance quicker by using automation. SOC 2 is a certification used to show that a company can store customer data in the cloud securely, but the process is notoriously complex and can take months to complete — and you have to do it all over again every year. That’s particularly burdensome for startups and smaller firms.
Drata says it can get companies SOC 2-compliant faster and keep them in compliance for longer by integrating with popular business tools and cloud services to get a better picture of a company’s security posture.
Now with a new round of $25 million at Series A in the bank, Drata said it’s expanding its compliance platform to also include ISO 27001, another core security standard used all over the world to help companies protect their systems and safeguard data.
The round landed six months after its $3.2 million seed round in January, and was led by GGV Capital, with participation from Silicon Valley CISO Investors, Okta Ventures, Cowboy Ventures, Leaders Fund, and SV Angel.
Drata CEO and co-founder Adam Markowitz told TechCrunch that the company is growing on average 100% month-over-month since it launched out of stealth and is serving hundreds of customers, including three-person startups to publicly traded companies.
The startup joins several other companies in the compliance space. Secureframe raised $18 million at Series A in March to offer SOC 2 and ISO 27001 certifications. Strike Graph raised a $3.9 million seed round last year to help companies automate security audits and get FedRamp certification needed to provide technology to the federal government. And, Startup Battlefield participant Osano in 2019 raised $5.4 million at Series A to build out its risk and compliance platform.
Related funding news:
The funding round, said to be the largest Series A investment in cybersecurity history and one of the highest valuations for a bootstrapped company, was led by Insight Partners and General Atlantic, with additional investment from Cyberstarts, Geodesic, SYN Ventures, Vintage, and Artisanal Ventures.
Transmit Security said it has a pre-money valuation of $2.2 billion, and will use the new funds to expand its reach and investing in key global areas to grow the organization.
Ultimately, however, the funding round will help the company to accelerate its mission to help the world go passwordless. Organizations lose millions of dollars every year due to “inherently unsafe” password-based authentication, according to the startup; not only do weak passwords account for more than 80% of all data breaches, but the average help desk labor cost to reset a single password stands at more than $70.
Transmit says its biometric-based authenticator is the first natively passwordless identity and risk management solution, and it has already been adopted by a number of big-name brands including Lowes, Santander, and UBS. The solution, which currently handles more than 9,000 authentication requests per second, can reduce account resets by 96%, the company says, and reduces customer authentication from 1 minute to 2 seconds.
“By eliminating passwords, businesses can immediately reduce churn and cart abandonment and provide superior security for personal data,” said Transmit Security CEO Mickey Boodaei, who co-founded the company in 2014. “Our customers, whether they are in the retail, banking, financial, telecommunications, or automotive sectors, understand that providing an optimized identity experience is a multimillion-dollar challenge. With this latest round of funding from premier partners, we can significantly expand our reach to help rid the world of passwords.”
Transmit Security isn’t the only company that’s on a mission to kill off the password. Microsoft has announced plans to make Windows 10 password-free, and Apple recently previewed Passkeys in iCloud Keychain, a method of passwordless authentication powered by WebAuthn, and Face ID and Touch ID.
Hyundai this morning announced that it has completed its acquisition of Boston Dynamics. The deal, which values the innovative robotics company at $1.1 billion, was announced in late-2020. The companies have not disclosed any future financial details.
The South Korean automotive giant now owns a controlling interest in Boston Dynamics, previously belonging to SoftBank. The Japanese investment company was effectively a transitional owner, purchasing Boston Dynamics from Google, which owned the company for just over three years.
While its time with Softbank wasn’t much longer than its stint under Google/Alphabet X, Boston Dynamics saw the commercialization of its first two products since launching nearly 30 years ago. The company brought its quadrupedal robot Spot to market and this year announced the (still upcoming) launch of Stretch, an updated version of its warehouse robot, Handle.
In a recent appearance at TechCrunch’s Mobility event, Hyundai’s Ernestine Fu discussed the planned acquisition of an 80% controlling interest in the company. Fu noted that Hyundai’s New Horizon Studios has previewed multiple “walking” car concepts that look poised to build on decades of Boston Dynamics research.
“With New Horizon Studios, the mandate is reimagining what you can do when you combine robotics with traditional wheeled locomotion, like walking robots and walking vehicles,” Fu told TechCrunch. “Obviously the technology that [Boston Dynamics] has put together plays a key role in enabling those sorts of concepts to come to life.”
As it has changed hands over the years, Boston Dynamics has long insisted on maintaining its own research wing, which has given us less commercial technology, like the humanoid robot, Atlas. How this will function under the umbrella of Hyundai remains to be seen, though the company does seem to have a vested interest in maintaining a forward-looking approach.
“We and Hyundai share a view of the transformational power of mobility and look forward to working together to accelerate our plans to enable the world with cutting-edge automation, and to continue to solve the world’s hardest robotics challenges for our customers,” Boston Dynamics CEO Rob Playter said when the deal was announced.
Automakers’ interest in robotics is not a new phenomenon, of course: Robots and automation have long played a role in manufacturing and are both clearly central to their push into AVs. But recently, many companies are going even deeper into the field, with plans to be involved in the wide spectrum of categories that robotics touch.
At TC Sessions: Mobility 2021, we spoke to a trio of experts at three major automakers. Max Bajracharya of Toyota Research Institute, Mario Santillo of Ford and Ernestine Fu of Hyundai Motor Group joined us to discuss their companies’ unique approaches to robotics.
Let’s get the simple question out of the way first, shall we? Moving beyond existing investments in manufacturing and autonomous vehicles, why do so many carmakers seem so bullish about companies like Boston Dynamics and Agility Robotics?
Bajracharya: I think all automakers are recognizing that there won’t be the automotive business in the future as it is today. A lot of automakers, Toyota included, are looking for what’s next. Automakers are very well positioned to leverage what they already know about robotics and manufacturing to take on the robotics market. (Timestamp: 1:01)
Concept cars are nothing new in the industry, but even still, Hyundai’s recently announced Ultimate Mobility Vehicle (UMV) was pretty wild, with large, extending legs that help it walk off-road.
Proving that Central and Eastern Europe remains a powerhouse of hardware engineering matched with software, Gideon Brothers (GB), a Zagreb, Croatia-based robotics and AI startup, has raised a $31 million Series A round led by Koch Disruptive Technologies (KDT), the venture and growth arm of Koch Industries Inc., with participation from DB Schenker, Prologis Ventures and Rite-Hite.
The round also includes participation from several of Gideon Brothers’ existing backers: Taavet Hinrikus (co-founder of TransferWise), Pentland Ventures, Peaksjah, HCVC (Hardware Club), Ivan Topčić, Nenad Bakić and Luca Ascani.
The investment will be used to accelerate the development and commercialization of GB’s AI and 3D vision-based “autonomous mobile robots” or “AMRs”. These perform simple tasks such as transporting, picking up and dropping off products in order to free up humans to perform more valuable tasks.
The company will also expand its operations in the EU and U.S. by opening offices in Munich, Germany and Boston, Massachusetts, respectively.
Gideon Brothers founders. Image Credits: Gideon Brothers
Gideon Brothers make robots and the accompanying software platform that specializes in horizontal and vertical handling processes for logistics, warehousing, manufacturing and retail businesses. For obvious reasons, the need to roboticize supply chains has exploded during the pandemic.
Matija Kopić, CEO of Gideon Brothers, said: “The pandemic has greatly accelerated the adoption of smart automation, and we are ready to meet the unprecedented market demand. The best way to do it is by marrying our proprietary solutions with the largest, most demanding customers out there. Our strategic partners have real challenges that our robots are already solving, and, with us, they’re seizing the incredible opportunity right now to effect robotic-powered change to some of the world’s most innovative organizations.”
He added: “Partnering with these forward-thinking industry leaders will help us expand our global footprint, but we will always stay true to our Croatian roots. That is our superpower. The Croatian startup scene is growing exponentially and we want to unlock further opportunities for our country to become a robotics & AI powerhouse.”
Annant Patel, director at Koch Disruptive Technologies, said: “With more than 300 Koch operations and production units globally, KDT recognizes the unique capabilities of and potential for Gideon Brothers’ technology to substantially transform how businesses can approach warehouse and manufacturing processes through cutting edge AI and 3D AMR technology.”
Xavier Garijo, member of the Board of Management for Contract Logistics, DB Schenker, added: “Our partnership with Gideon Brothers secures our access to best in class robotics and intelligent material handling solutions to serve our customers in the most efficient way.”
GB’s competitors include Seegrid, Teradyne (MiR), Vecna Robotics, Fetch Robotics, AutoGuide Mobile Robots, Geek+ and Otto Motors.