As the COVID-19 pandemic slowed global manufacturing and trade, investments in robots, drones, and self-driving cars continued in March 2020, with both more shutdowns and an eventual recovery to come.
While the novel coronavirus pandemic began in China a few months ago, March 2020 was when it affected the global economy. Many governments and companies have ordered millions of people to work from home or shut down, but the robotics industry continues, with more than $2.7 billion in reported transactions last month.
Granted, the majority of that amount was investment in self-driving car company Waymo early in March, when the economic slowdown was just beginning in some countries and industries. However, as sibling publication The Robot Report has found, the COVID-19 crisis has also provided opportunities for some providers of robots, autonomous vehicles, drones, and artificial intelligence to grow and help people.
Investment activity had already begun slowing in East Asia earlier this year, particularly in manufacturing center China, which is reportedly starting to recover. When Europe, North America, and the rest of the world pass the worst in terms of infections and shutdowns depends largely on local governments and remains to be seen.
Robotics Business Review tracked 29 investments in March 2020, compared with 43 worth $1.3 billion in March 2019 and 18 worth $1.9 billion in February 2020. The table below lists fundings in millions of U.S. dollars, where amounts were publicly available.
Robotics Investments March 2020
|Lead investor, partner
|Sparx Group, Dai-ichi Life Insurance
|Altaeros Energies Inc.
|Mirai Creation Fund II
|Contineental Venture Capital, Wachstumsfonds Bayern
|Sequoia Capital China
|Shanghai Grand Yangtze Capital
|Hyperplane Venture Capital
|Diligent Robotics Inc.
|AI, service robots
|Trustbridge Partners, Direct Line Group, Sistema VC
|Hupan Licheng Fund
|ABB Technology Ventures, NEC Corp., Latitude Ventures
|Source Code Capital
|mobile service robots
|autonomous air taxis
|Mech-Mind Robotics Technologies Ltd.
|Sequoia Capital China
|Lixiang Automotive, Addor Capital, Yunqi Partners, Glory Ventures
|Thee Trendlines Group, JJDC Inc.
|Dragonrise Capital, Linear Venture Capital
|Everest Venture Capital
|Shanghai Yitu Technology Co.
|CR Capital Management, China Chengtong Hong Kong
|Silc Technologies Inc.
|Teleo (Electronic Equipment and Instruments)
|TransEnterix Surgical Inc.
|Ladenburg Thalmann & Co.
|Silver Lake, CPP Investments, Mubadala Investment Co.
March 2020 mergers and failures
Just as the number of reported robotics investments started to drop, so too have mergers and acquisitions. There was only one in March 2020, compared with six in February and 16 a year ago.
Yokogawa Electric Corp. bought Danish AI and machine vision firm Grazper Technologies for an unspecified amount.
Even though there has been a sharp rise in U.S. unemployment, some executives are already looking ahead to resuming mergers and acquisitions, according to PitchBook.
In the meantime, two robotics companies shut down in March 2020 because they ran out of funding, not because they might have been considered “non-essential” businesses. San Francisco-based autonomous truck startup Starsky Robotics and Malden, Mass.-based hybrid drone power-supply provider Top Flight Technologies Inc. closed.
Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, co-founder and former CEO of Starsky Robotics blamed impatient investors and “non-sexy” AI development for the failure, but other self-driving vehicle companies are continuing to work on systems for delivery and carrying passengers. Sources confirmed that Top Flight Technologies has released its employees and is looking to sell its intellectual property.
Autonomous vehicles keep rolling, flying
As mentioned above, Alphabet Inc. unit Waymo LLC raised $2.25 billion in its first external round. The Mountain View, Calif.-based self-driving car company said it plans to continue investing in people and technologies around its Waymo Driver product.
Munich, Germany-based Lilium raised $240 million in March 2020 to build and operate an autonomous air taxi. London-based Skyports Ltd. raised $796,000 in Series A funding to acquire “vertiports” and bring its urban and rural drone-delivery services to market.
Altaeros Energies Inc. in Somerville, Mass., said it has received an unspecified investment for its autonomous aerostat platforms for bringing broadband Internet to rural communities.
Back on the ground, London-based FiveAI Ltd. raised Series B funding of $41 million to commercialize its autonomy algorithms and cloud-based processing platform. Helm.ai Inc. in Menlo Park, Calif., received seed investment of $13 million to develop its deep-learning systems for self-driving cars.
Component technologies draw investment in March 2020
While autonomous vehicles have received the lion’s share of funding lately, the past month was a good one for companies supplying sensors, processors, and programming for such vehicles and robotics.
ABB Technology Ventures, NEC Corp., and Latitude Ventures participated the $60 million Series B investment in Hailo in Tel Aviv, Israel. The company is working on a neural network processor for edge devices such as robots.
SiLC Technologies Inc. in Monrovia, Calif., closed a $12 million seed round in March 2020. The company is working on its 4D+ Vision Chip, which it claimed is the industry’s first fully integrated frequency modulated continuous wave (FMCW) silicon photonic platform.
Japan’s AIsing raised $6.5 million in Series B funding to advance its Algorithm Development Group, which is working on edge AI software. Pudong, China-based Buffalo Lab raised “tens of millions of dollars” for its “AIoT” ultra-low-power chips in a Series B round, reported DealStreet Asia.
As these investments demonstrate, pushing processing to the edge is becoming a popular way of pre-processing data for compute in the cloud. The effect of 5G networks on the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and AI could accelerate this approach.
Munich-based lidar sensor maker Blickfield raised an unspecified amount of Series A funding.
A quiet month for industrial automation, service robots
Reflecting the slowdown in manufacturing, two Chinese companies raised over 100 million yuan ($14 million) each in the only investment activity in that sector this past month. Beijing-based Mech-Mind Robotics Technology obtained Series B financing for its robots for bin picking and machine tending.
Chengdu-based CRP Robot raised Series B funding as it continues its expansion from robot controllers to robots for welding, stamping, and materials handling.
Slowdowns vary considerably by region. “In Mexico, automotive manufacturing is not viewed as essential, as in the U.S. and Canada,” noted Mike Cicco, president and CEO of FANUC America, during an Association for Advancing Automation (A3) webinar today. “Other industries are still producing goods.”
Gindie, Australia-based SwarmFarm Robotics raised 6 million Australian dollars ($3.45 million U.S.) to grow its global ambitions for its agricultural robots. It has sold six units so far.
Shanghai-based Keenon Robotics Co., whose Peanut mobile robots are among those being used to deliver food and minimize human contact during the novel coronavirus pandemic, received $28.5 million in a Series B round.
Like Miso Robotics Inc., which opened its crowdfunding campaign for kitchen automation this week, Somerville, Mass.-based Dexai Robotics announced an “oversubscribed $5.5 million seed round” for its food-preparation robot. Such robots are expected to be in high demand, as hygiene and labor concerns rise.
Healthcare, service robots round out the month
In March 2020, there were not many healthcare robotics transactions, but that could change in the near future with shortages of trained personnel and the need for “social distancing.”
Austin, Texas-based Diligent Robotics, which has been working on the Moxi mobile manipulator (see image at top of article), raised $10 million in Series A funding. Meanwhile, OrthoSpin Ltd. in Misgav, Israel, raised $5 million for its robotic orthopedic treatment system.
TransEnterix Surgical Inc. announced an initial public offering. The company in Research Triangle Park, N.C., has developed the Senhance robotic surgical system. Its Intelligent Surgical Unit for machine vision guidance received FDA approval in March 2020.
Automakers and other manufacturers are switching over production lines to fill shortages of personal protective equipment, ventilators, and other healthcare technologies, and many industry experts expect both awareness and demand to continue beyond the COVID-19 crisis.
“There’s a real opportunity [for the public to see] robots at the forefront, doing great things,” said Milton Guerry, president of Schunk USA and of the International Federation of Robotics, during the A3 webcast. “So many things are disrupted right now, but the most successful companies will take a good look at automation.”
Editors’ note: What defines robotics investments? The answer to this simple question is central in any attempt to quantify them with some degree of rigor. To make investment analyses consistent, repeatable, and valuable, it is critical to wring out as much subjectivity as possible during the evaluation process. This begins with a definition of terms and a description of assumptions.
Investors and investing
Investment should come from venture capital firms, corporate investment groups, angel investors, and other sources. Friends-and-family investments, government/non-governmental agency grants, and crowd-sourced funding are excluded.
Robotics and intelligent systems companies
Robotics companies must generate or expect to generate revenue from the production of robotics products (that sense, analyze, and act in the physical world), hardware or software subsystems and enabling technologies for robots, or services supporting robotics devices. For this analysis, autonomous vehicles (including technologies that support autonomous driving) and drones are considered robots, while 3D printers, CNC systems, and various types of “hard” automation are not.
Companies that are “robotic” in name only, or use the term “robot” to describe products and services that that do not enable or support devices acting in the physical world, are excluded. For example, this includes “software robots” and robotic process automation. Many firms have multiple locations in different countries. Company locations given in the analysis are based on the publicly listed headquarters in legal documents, press releases, etc.
Funding information is collected from a number of public and private sources. These include press releases from corporations and investment groups, corporate briefings, industry analysts such as PitchBook, and association and industry publications. In addition, information comes from sessions at conferences and seminars, as well as during private interviews with industry representatives, investors, and others. Unverifiable investments are excluded.