Cambridge, Mass.-based Soft Robotics, maker of soft robotic grippers that conform to and pick up a variety of objects, raised $20 million in an oversubscribed funding round. Soft Robotics raised a $5 million Series A in December 2015, bringing its total funding to date to more than $25 million.
Soft Robotics CEO Carl Vause tells The Robot Report the new funding will help the startup, which was founded in 2013, accelerate deployments in e-commerce and logistics applications and expand its foothold in the food and beverage market.
Vause says Soft Robotics plans to hire 20 employees by the end of 2018 to continue to build out its product roadmap and technical expertise. The company currently has 32 employees and will be upgrading its headquarters from its current 4,800-square-foot office to a 25,000-square-foot building at an undisclosed location.[Read: Robotics Fundings, Acquisitions and IPOs: April 2018]
“We believe soft robotics technology fundamentally changes what robots can do,” Vause says. “We look at industries that are constrained by labor, need automation to meet production goals, and are in unstructured environments. We’ve done well in the food space and consumer goods and advanced manufacturing. Now we’ve proven the technology makes a difference in logistics.”
Soft Robotics New SuperPick System
One of Soft Robotics’ major focuses will be accelerating deployments of SuperPick, a system it recently unveiled that combines soft robotics and artificial intelligence to automate tasks such as bin picking, sorting, and order fulfillment. SuperPick, which is already in use, can pick from both heterogeneous and homogeneous bins. Soft Robotics says SuperPick is capable of more than 600 picks per hour.
SuperPick is designed to work with little to no human intervention. SuperPick doesn’t require extensive training, offline learning, or 3D models of the items it grasps, according to Soft Robotics. The company’s motto has been it can solve these picking challenges with material science.
If the system has issues or a grasp fails, a human remotely monitoring SuperPick can intervene using a simple browser-based interface. Vause demoed this for me at CES 2018 in Las Vegas, correcting a missed pick by a robot at the company’s Cambridge headquarters a mere 2,700-plus miles away.
Soft Robotics says its revenue grew more than 80 percent in 2017. It has 100-plus customers and annual revenue of less than $10 million. With the new funding and the new SuperPick system, Soft Robotics appears to be in good position to grow its revenue.
Soft Robotics Working on Mobile Manipulation
Vause says mobile manipulation is a space the company is heavily investing in. He wouldn’t disclose any details, unfortunately, but says Soft Robotics is in the “early stages of that process.”
Mobile manipulation is often cited as the holy grail of robotics, and Vause thinks soft robotics will play a crucial role. “We’re going to focus a lot more on enabling collaborative applications,” he says. “We’ve primarily been focused on the industrial space, but we really think soft robotics and collaborative robots can be a game-changer.”
“We saw early on that the Soft Robotics solution is a paradigm shift in the way our machines interact with their environment, especially in their ability to grasp deformable, delicate, binned or otherwise complex items,” says Grant Allen, Head of Ventures at ABB Group. “As a leader in industrial manipulation with over 300,000 robots deployed, ABB sees a huge number of amplifying automation solutions but the intuitive control software Soft Robotics has created combined with their agile gripper is a linchpin of the automated warehouse. In an era of increasingly high mix, low volume production cycles coupled with the need for pain-free automation configurability, we are also extremely excited about the direction Soft Robotics is taking their core technology with SuperPick, allowing ABB arms to do more with less training, greater accuracy and increasing autonomy.”
Learn About Soft Robotics at the Robotics Summit
The Robotics Summit & Showcase, taking place May 23-24 in Boston, is a great opportunity to learn about Soft Robotics. Vause is speaking on our panel about “Advanced Grasping and Manipulation.” The panel, which also includes RightHand Robotics and Universal Robots, will discuss the latest grasping and manipulation technologies and techniques commercially available, as well as solutions emerging from the lab that will allow for whole new classes of robotics applications.
Soft Robotics is commercializing technology developed by George Whitesides at Harvard. Whitesides will be keynoting the Robotics Summit in a talk “Soft Robotics: Ongoing Research, Commercial Systems and Future Directions.” Whitesides will describe ongoing soft robotics research at Harvard’s Whitesides Research Group, as well as commercial class soft robotics systems currently on the market or nearly so. Topics related to materials, sensing, control and actuation will be discussed, along with how inherently flexible soft robotics systems can be engineered to provide for novel capabilities and support task versatility.
Early bird registration for the Robotics Summit ends May 4, 2018. Register by that deadline to save nearly $150 on your registration.