July 2017 fundings, acquisitions, IPOs and failures
by Frank Tobe
July 2017 was a big month for robotics-related company funding. Four raised $588 million and 19 others raised $370.6 million for a monthly total of $958.6 million. Acquisitions also continued to be significant with ST Engineering acquiring Aethon for $36 million, iRobot buying its European distributor for $141 million, and SoftBank purchasing 5% of iRobot shares for around $120 million.
- Plenty, a San Francisco vertical farm startup, raised $200 million in a Series B round led by SoftBank and included Bezos Expeditions, Data Collective, DCM Ventures, Finistere Ventures, Innovation Endeavors and Louis Bacon. Plenty plans to use the funds to expand to Japan and add strawberries and cucumbers to the leafy greens they already produce. Plenty makes an internet-connected system which delivers specific types of light, air composition, humidity and nutrition, depending on which crop is being grown, and is designing and adding robotics and automation as it can, particularly with their recent acquisition of Bright Agrotech (see below). Plenty says it can yield up to 350 times more produce in a given area than conventional farms — with 1 percent of the water.
Sanjeev Krishnan of S2G Ventures said: “This investment shows the potential of the sector. Indoor agriculture is a real toolkit for the produce industry. There is no winner takes all potential here. I could even see some traditional, outdoor growers do indoor ag as a way to manage some of the fundamental issues of the produce industry: agronomy, logistics costs, shrinkage, freshness, seasonality and manage inventory cycles better. There are many different models that could work and we are excited about the platforms being built in the market.”
- Nauto, a Silicon Valley self-driving device and AI startup, raised $159 million in a Series B funding round led by SoftBank and Greylock Partners and also included previous investors BMW iVentures, General Motors Ventures, Toyota AI Ventures, Allianz Group, Playground Global and Draper Nexus.
SoftBank Group Corp. Chairman and CEO Masayoshi Son said, “While building an increasingly intelligent telematics business, Nauto is also generating a highly valuable dataset for autonomous driving, at massive scale. This data will help accelerate the development and adoption of safe, effective self-driving technology.”
- Desktop Metal, the MIT spin-off and Massachusetts-based 3D metal printing technology startup, raised another $115 million in a Series D round which included New Enterprise Associates, GV (Google Ventures), GE Ventures, Future Fund and Techtronic Industries which owns Hoover U.S. and Dirt Devil.
According to CEO Ric Fulop, “You don’t need tooling. You can make short runs of production with basically no tooling costs. You can change your design and iterate very fast. You can make shapes you couldn’t make any other way, so now you can lightweight a part and work with alloys that are very, very hard, with very extreme properties. One of the benefits for this technology for robotics is that you’re able to do lots of turns. Unless you’re iRobot with the Roomba, you’re making a lot of one-off changes to your product.”
- Brain Corp, a San Diego AI company developing self-driving technology, got $114 million in a Series C funding round led by the SoftBank Vision Fund. Qualcomm Ventures was the only other investor. The funds will be used to develop technology that enables robots to navigate in complex physical spaces. Last October, Brain Corp. rolled out its first commercial product —a self-driving commercial floor scrubber for use in grocery stores and big box retailers.
- Beijing Geekplus Technology (Geek+), a Chinese startup developing a goods-to-man warehousing system of robots and software very similar to Kiva System’s products, raised $60 million in a B round led by Warburg Pincus and joined by existing shareholders and Volcanics Venture. The company claims to have delivered the largest numbers of logistics robots among its peers in China, delivering nearly 1,000 units of robots in warehouses for over 20 customers that include Tmall, VIPShop and Suning.
Yong Zheng, Founder and CEO of Geek+, said, “This round of financing will help us upgrade our business in three aspects. Firstly, we will accelerate the upgrading of our logistics robotics products and expand product offerings to cover more applications.” “Secondly, we will accelerate our geographical expansion and industry coverage to provide our one-stop intelligent logistics system and operation solutions to more customers. Thirdly, we will start exploring overseas markets through multiple channels.”
- Vicarious, a Union City, California-based artificial intelligence company using computational neuroscience to build better machine learning models that help robots quickly address a wide variety of tasks, raised $50 million funding led by Khosla Ventures.
- Momenta.ai, a Beijing autonomous driving startup that is developing digital maps, driving decision solutions and machine vision technology to detect traffic signs, pedestrians and track other cars, raised $46 million in a Series B funding round led by NIO Capital. Sequoia Capital China and Hillhouse Capital along with Daimler AG, Shunwei Capital, Sinovation Ventures and Unity Ventures also participated.
- Autotalk, an Israeli chip maker of vehicle to vehicle communications, raised $40 million from Toyota, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking and other investors. The funding will allow Autotalks to prepare and expand its operations for the upcoming start of mass productions as well as continue to develop communication solutions for both connected and autonomous cars.
- Flashhold (also named Shanghai Express Warehouse Intelligent Technology and Quicktron) raised $29 million in a Series B round led by Alibaba Group's Cainiao Network and SB China Venture Capital (SBCVC). Flashhold is a Shanghai-based logistic robotics company with robotic products, shelving and software very similar to Amazon's Kiva Systems.
- Slamtec, a Chinese company developing a solid state LiDAR laser sensor for robots in auto localization and navigation, raised $22 million from Chinese Academy of Sciences Holdings, ChinaEquity Group Inc. and Shenzhen Guozhong Venture Capital Management Co.
- 6 River Systems, the Boston, MA startup providing alternative fulfillment solutions for e-commerce distribution centers, raised $15 million in a round led by Norwest Venture Partners with participation from Eclipse Ventures and other existing investors.
- Prospera, an Israeli ag startup, raised $15 million in a Series B round for its end-to-end internet of things platform for indoor and outdoor farms. The round was led Qualcomm Ventures and fellow telecom heavyweight Cisco. Propsera uses computer vision, machine learning, and data science to detect and identify diseases, nutrient deficiencies, and other types of crop stress on farms with the hope of improving crop yields and saving farmer costs.
“Receiving funding from these major tech companies is a clear signal that tech industry heavy-hitters understand that agriculture is ripe for digitalization. It means that such companies, which are already involved in digitizing other traditional industries, see a significant opportunity in agtech,” said Prospera CEO Daniel Koppel.
- Embark, a Belmont, California-based self-driving trucking startup, raised $15 million in Series A funding led by Data Collective and was joined by YC Continuity, Maven Ventures and SV Angel. Embark has teamed up with Peterbilt and plans to hire for their engineering team and add more trucks to expand their test fleet across the U.S.
- Xometry, a Maryland startup with an Uber-like system for parts manufacture, raised $15 million in funding led by BMW Groups’ VC arm and GE.
- Intuition Robotics, an Israeli startup developing social companion technologies for seniors, raised $14 million in a Series A round led by Toyota Research Institute plus OurCrowd and iRobot as well as existing seed investors Maniv Mobility, Terra Venture Partners, Bloomberg Beta and private investors.
Dr. Gill Pratt, CEO of Toyota Research Institute said: “We are impressed with Intuition Robotics’ thought leadership of a multi-disciplinary approach towards a compelling product offering for older adults including: Human-Robot-Interaction, cloud robotics, machine learning, and design. Specifically, we believe Intuition Robotics’ technology, in the field of cognitive computing, has strong potential to positively impact the world’s aging population with a proactive, truly autonomous agent that’s deployed in their social robot, ElliQ.”
- SkySafe, a San Diego, California-based radio-wave anti-drone device manufacturer, raised $11.5 million in Series A funding, according to TechCrunch. Andreessen Horowitz led the round. SkySafe recently secured DoD contracts to provide counter-drone tech for Navy Seals.
- Kuaile Zhihui, a Beijing educational robot startup, has raised around $10 million in a Series A funding round led by Qiming Venture Partners and included GGV Capital and China Capital.
- Atlas Dynamics, a Latvian UAS startup, raised $8 million from unnamed institutional and individual investors. Funds will be used to advance the development of its Visual Line of Sight (VLOS) and Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) drone-based data solutions, and to build its presence in key markets, including North America.
- Reach Robotics, a gaming robots developer, raised $7.5 million in Series A funding led by Korea Investment Partners and IGlobe. Reach has produced and sold an initial run of 500 of its four-legged, crab-like, MekaMon bots. MekaMon fits into an emerging category of smartphone-enabled augmented reality toys like Anki.
- UVeye, a New York-based startup that develops automatic vehicle inspection systems, has raised $4.5 million in a seed round led by Ahaka Capital. Israeli angel investors group SeedIL Investment Club also participated. Funds will be used to launch its products and expand to international markets, including China.
- Miso Robotics, the Pasadena-based developer of a burger-flipping robot, raised $3.1 million in a funding round led by Acacia Research. Interestingly, Acacia is an agency that licenses patents and also enforces patented technologies.
- Metamoto, the Redwood City autonomous driving simulation startup, raised $2 million in seed funding led by Motus Ventures and UL, a strategic investor.
- Fastbrick, an Australian brick-laying startup, raised $2 million from Caterpillar with an option to invest a further $8 million subject to shareholder approval. Both companies signed an agreement to collaborate on the development, manufacture, selling and servicing of Fastbrick’s technology mounted on Caterpillar equipment.
- Robopolis SAS, the France-based distributor of iRobot products in Europe, is being acquired by iRobot for $141 million. Last year iRobot, in a similar move to bring their distribution network inhouse, acquired Demand Corp, their distributor for Japan.
- Bright Agrotech, a Wyoming provider of vertical farming products, technology and systems, was acquired by Plenty, a vertical farm startup in San Francisco. No financial terms were disclosed. Bright has partnered with small farmers to start and grow indoor farms, providing high-tech growing systems and controls, workflow design, education and software.
- Singapore Technologies Engineering Ltd (ST Engineering) has acquired robotics firm Aethon Inc through Vision Technologies Land Systems, Inc. (VTLS), and its wholly-owned subsidiary, VT Robotics, Inc for $36 million. This acquisition will be carried out by way of a merger with VT Robotics, a special purpose vehicle newly incorporated for the proposed transaction. The merger will see Aethon as the surviving entity that will operate as a subsidiary of VTLS, and will be part of the Group’s Land Systems sector.
- On the Move Systems, a Canadian penny stock trucking systems provider, is merging with California-based RAD (Robotic Assistance Devices), an integrator of mobile robots for security applications. The merger involves RAD receiving 3.5 million shares of OMVS (around $250k).
IPOs and stock transactions
- iRobot, the 27-year-old Massachusetts-based maker of the Roomba, has seen its stock soar from news of a purchase of an undisclosed amount of iRobot stock by SoftBank (or the SoftBank Vision Fund). The purchase is reported to be over $100 million and less than $120 million (5% of the market value).