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We covered 25 acquisitions in 2023, which was down significantly from the 50 we covered in 2022. Below are eight robotics acquisitions, in chronological order, that stood out to us in 2023. Here’s a look back at the notable acquisitions of 2022 and 2021.
Note that there’s one major acquisition still pending from 2022. Amazon announced in August 2022 its intent to acquire iRobot for $1.7 billion. The deal was quickly put on hold in September 2022, when the U.S. Federal Trade Commission officially started an antitrust investigation. In late November 2023, the European Commission shared an update on its investigation into the deal. Its preliminary view is the acquisition may restrict competition in the market for robot vacuum cleaners. The European Commission’s concerns with the merger center around Amazon’s ability to throttle iRobots’ competition in its online marketplace. A final decision on the deal is expected by Feb. 14.
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John Deere acquires SparkAI
Date Announced: March 6
John Deere acquired SparkAI, a New York-based startup that develops human-in-the-loop technology to help robots resolve edge cases in real time. John Deere, which has developed autonomous tractors, was a SparkAI customer for a few years before the acquisition. The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
SparkAI’s role in the workflow is not to take over control and remotely pilot the autonomous tractor. SparkAI provides contextual cues that the autonomous tractor is sometimes missing to make confident decisions.
“Spark is going to expedite everything we do. We’re going to be able to ship products sooner and at higher quality with less work,” said Willy Pell, VP of autonomy and new ventures at Blue River Technology, a company John Deere acquired in 2017. “When we automate away the chunks of human intervention, we will do so with great datasets that characterize the problem across many situations and environments. And all the while we will be delivering value to the customers and learning more about our technology and the environment. And then we will apply that cognition to the next area of growth.”
Berkshire Grey joins Softbank
Date Announced: March 27
Amount: $375 million
Softbank has made several robotics investments over the years that didn’t pan out. In 2023, however, it made at least two warehouse automation-related acquisitions that appear to be safer bets. The first deal came in March when it acquired Berkshire Grey for $375 million in cash. Berkshire Grey produces a variety of robots that address use cases in retail, eCommerce, grocery, 3PL, and package handling companies. Berkshire Grey had struggled financially after going public via a SPAC in 2021.
Before the acquisition, the two companies were familiar with one another. In January 2020, Softbank participated in Berkshire Grey’s $263 million Series B financing round.
Details on the second important acquisition for Softbank can be found further down in this story.
Shopify offloads 6 River Systems to Ocado
Date Announced: May 4
News of UK grocer Ocado acquiring 6 River Systems broke on the morning of May 4. This came as a surprise to most in the industry. But shocking details of the acquisition were made public in Ocado’s mid-year report.
Ocado revealed it paid Shopify a measly $12.7 million for 6 River Systems, which makes autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) for logistics applications. For context, Shopify paid $450 million to acquire 6 River Systems in September 2019. Ocado paid roughly 2.8% of what Shopify paid for 6 River.
Suffering a $437.3 million loss can’t be good, even if you’re trying to offload a business that’s no longer part of future plans. In its mid-year report, Ocado said the 6 River business “has a good client list, is debt-free, cash flow positive, and generates positive EBITDA.” Shopify offloaded 6 River as part of a shift in strategy.
The 6 River acquisition adds a new type of robot to Ocado’s portfolio – AMRs. Ocado has developed its own ASRS for years for its online grocery business. Ocado recently won a lawsuit against fellow ASRS developer AutoStore, in which AutoStore must pay Ocado a $256 million settlement over two years.
Softbank acquires Balyo
Date Announced: June 16
Softbank acquired a controlling stake in Balyo for about $13 million. Based in France, Balyo has nearly 20 years of robotics experience. Balyo now has access to SoftBank’s global network of over 470 technology-led companies, allowing it to develop new commercial relationships.
More importantly, Balyo’s portfolio of robotic forklift technologies strengthens SoftBank’s existing investments in logistics automation. In addition to the aforementioned acquisition of Berkshire Grey, Softbank in April 2021 bought a 40% stake in ASRS maker AutoStore for $2.8 billion. AutoStore generated $149.2 million in revenue during the first quarter of 2023. That represented 21.1% growth year-over-year.
Softbank’s logistics robotics portfolio includes AutoStore, Balyo, and Berkshire Grey. Not a bad start.
Rockwell Automation buys AMR developer Clearpath Robotics
Date Announced: September 6
Rockwell Automation buying Clearpath Robotics, and its OTTO Motors division, for more than $600 million is arguably the most significant acquisition of 2023. The sticker price is certainly memorable, but this is also noteworthy because of how important Rockwell Automation is in the industrial automation space. This deal is a major endorsement of AMRs.
Ontario, Canada-based Clearpath develops AMRs for research and development purposes. OTTO Motors, a division of Clearpath, develops AMRs for manufacturing and logistics applications. When announcing the deal, Rockwell Automation said AMRs “are the next frontier in industrial automation and transformation, and this acquisition will supercharge Rockwell’s lead in bringing the connected enterprise to life.”
“The combination of autonomous robots and PLC-based line control has long been a dream of plant managers in industries as diverse as automotive and consumer packaged goods,” said Blake Moret, chairman and CEO, Rockwell Automation. “With Clearpath, Rockwell is uniquely positioned to make that dream a reality across virtually all discrete and hybrid verticals, optimizing planning, operations, and the workforce.”
Agile Robots acquires Franka Emika
Date Announced: November 13
Agile Robots swooped in and saved Franka Emika from insolvency in November. Agile said it will take over Franka Emika’s operations, keeping its approximately 100-person staff with plans to grow the company. Two months before this deal, Franka Emika cited “irreconcilable shareholder differences” as the reason it filed for insolvency.
Both companies are based in Germany and develop collaborative robot arms for research and education and industrial uses. Agile Robots was founded at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in 2018.
“This transaction allows us to accelerate the implementation of our international growth strategy,” Rory Sexton, vice president of operations at Agile Robots, said. “The combination of strong AI and software expertise with leading robotics technology strengthens our innovation power and our ability to develop demand-driven and market-ready products. This is good for our location, for the teams, and for the customers of both companies.”
LIG Nex1 acquires quadruped maker Ghost Robotics
Date Announced: December 8
LIG Nex1, a South Korean aerospace manufacturer and defense company, is acquiring a controlling stake in Ghost Robotics for $240 million. Philadelphia-based Ghost Robotics develops quadrupeds for the U.S. military and its allies, as well as industrial customers.
Despite ethical debates, robots in military and homeland security applications promise to improve efficiency and save lives. In March 2022, the U.S. Department of Defense specified policy, assigned responsibilities and provided procedures for automated weapons platforms.
About a year ago, Hyundai-owned Boston Dynamics filed a patent-infringement lawsuit against Ghost Robotics, which replied at the time that its systems are based on original research. That case is still pending.
Robot lawnmower maker Electric Sheep Robotics buys landscaping companies
Electric Sheep Robotics made perhaps the most interesting acquisitions of 2023. San Francisco-based Electric Sheep Robotics launched in 2019 as a developer of robot lawnmowers for commercial landscapers. In 2023, it acquired four commercial landscaping businesses – Caliscapes, Complete Landscaping, Phenix Landscape and Westar Landscaping. Financial terms of the deals weren’t disclosed.
This is part of a long-term strategy for Electric Sheep. It wants to acquire profitable landscaping businesses and increase their profitability and efficiency by adding robot lawnmowers into their existing workflows.
“The ESR [Electric Sheep Robotics] business model of acquiring landscaping businesses and improving their margins by augmenting workers with automation is radically innovative, and a sustainable, rapidly scalable way to build moonshot robotics,” said Pieter Abbeel, professor in AI and Robotics at UC Berkeley, co-founder and chief scientist at Covariant, and long-time scientific advisor to Electric Sheep. “As this model scales, ESR is poised to build an RL factory to train AI agents for sustainable outdoor work. I’m excited to support their mission.”
“Our intent is to roll this up to hundreds of millions, to almost a billion dollars, in revenue and deploy at the scale of tens of thousands of robots because we believe that the next shift in robotics will have to happen with this progressive automation and reinforcement learning done up to that scale,” Murty told The Robot Report in October.