AlleyCorp Robotics | Q4 2022 Newsletter
November 29, 2022
Hi friends -
Welcome to the Q4 2022 edition of our robotics newsletter! It’s been a bit since we sent one of these out, so apologies in advance for the length. Too much robot fun, not enough human time!
PS - if you want a better formatted version of this, hop over here. We're still working out the best platform for publishing these.
AlleyCorp Robotics update
We’ve seen ~1/3 of this year’s deals - based on rough napkin math and Pitchbook data, we think we’ve been able to see about a third of this year’s seed-stage robotics companies. Amazing founders, amazing companies, and we (humbly) like to think, amazing access for a brand new fund 😁
We’re spreading the word - attending the HBS Entrepreneurship Conference, MIT events, The Engine’s Tough Tech Summit, ffVC’s Drones & Robotics Summit, and more - meeting fellow investors and amazing founders.
Micro funds are the new hotness - along the lines of “tell me your fund size, and I’ll tell you your strategy”, folks are coming out in favor of small and focused funds! See a love letter to micro funds, the backbone and future of venture capital and Some new venture firms are going really, really (really) niche. [tl;dr - we’re doing the right thing at Alley Robotics Ventures (and at AlleyCorp!)] [I love the sweet, sweet taste of confirmation bias in the morning!]
Thanks for reading Abe Murray | Alley Robotics Ventures! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Robot news | Part I - synthesis
Viam launched its beta!
In case you missed it - Viam rolls out a free beta of its cloud-based robotics tools - “What a lot of people tell me is ‘hardware is hard,’” Eliot Horowitz explains. “I have a really big problem with that statement.” The company is announcing the release of a public beta of its robotics platform.
Robots are inspiring, terrifying, and fun on video!
One word - tentacle robots. That’s inspiring, right? Tentacle robot can gently grasp fragile objects
You can now walk over 2x faster with robot shoes! From The World's Fastest Shoes Promise to Increase Your Walking Speed by 250%, your very own author wore these during a trip to CMU over the summer - they’re pretty fun! [ Not to be outdone by CMU, Stanford engineers are building an exoskeleton to tackle the same problem - researchers create robotic boot that helps people walk ]
Don’t want to stomp on cockroaches with your fancy new robot shoes? Then you’ll be glad to know that an AI-controlled robotic laser can target and kill cockroaches.
Please don’t start a cockroach / human arms race… brilliant (?) innovators are working to upgrade the cockroaches - Robotic engineers are creating cyborg cockroaches, roboflys and more.
Want more robot videos? The IEEE has robot videos! From quadruped stair climbing to bipedal progress to humanoid teleops to rehab and much more.
What’s new since last time?
We’re feeling better and better about our Mapless thesis - Argo AI shut down, stating “profitable, fully autonomous vehicles at scale are a long way off”. Seoul Robotics is tackling the challenge through a huge infrastructure buildout. And Tesla’s bet against 3D sensors isn’t quite working. [We are convinced Mapless’ teleops approach is a winner!]
Elon has everyone talking about humanoid robots - Goldman Sachs says humanoids will be a huge business within 50 years - via Electrek - and Japan is showing us the way - In Japan, humanoid robots could soon become part of the family.
Some attempts at deploying robots aren’t going as well as people hoped - Robots? Some Companies Find Only Humans Can Do the Job - WSJ - and some humans are pushing back - When Robots Replace Restaurant Workers, We All Lose - and Working alongside robots could contribute to burnout and fears over losing your job, new study finds. [It’s good to read about both the progress in the space as well as the pushback!]
Google is making progress with robots and AI - newly published papers on writing robot code from natural language - Robotics at Google team on Twitter.
Delivery robots are having a bad time - Amazon stops field tests of its delivery robot Scout - delivery robotics companies in general are struggling with the changing macro environment and business models that don’t quite work yet. [That said, we have some insight into what is coming in this space… stay tuned for future episodes]
What’s the same? Long term trends == more robots!
Demographics are destiny - Fortune tells us that the world's baby shortfall is so bad that the labor shortage will last for years. And Amazon can't get enough human workers — so here come the robots: “The company wants to give the most demanding, repetitive tasks to robots, then retrain employees for higher-skilled jobs”.
Amazon bets big on robots (and so should you!) - Amazon introduces 'Sparrow' robotic arm that can do repetitive warehouse tasks. This article provides a deeper dive with videos - Inside Sioux Falls' new Amazon fulfillment center, high-tech robots support human workers - SiouxFalls.Business.
Automation drives abundance - Formic reminds us that “If we want abundance, we need to deploy a lot of robots. (Don't worry: they won't steal our jobs).”
… especially for dull, dirty and dangerous jobs
Robots are disposable, humans aren’t - Caterpillar fined $145K after worker falls into pot of molten iron and is ‘immediately incinerated,’
Robots don’t mind the stink - Robotic spider could soon be inspecting Japanese sewage pipes - According to Japanese robotics firm TMSUK, there's currently a shortage of sewer-inspection workers in that country. [We don’t love the spider mechanism, preferring an approach like Edge AI’s for wastewater pipe inspection]
Robots make fries - Fast Food Robots Are Taking Over - All these companies emphasize that the purpose of this technology is not to take away jobs but to make certain processes safer and more efficient.
Robots cut grass - Swap Robotics is paving the way for electric solar vegetation cuts and sidewalk snow plowing. A number of companies are targeting these dull jobs, whether in commercial or residential.
Robots fight wildfires - China Has a Drone Army to Fight Off Wildfires. So Why Doesn't America? - Fleets of flying robots are becoming a go-to tool for fighting climate-related disasters in China. But America is lagging behind—badly. [Good thing Alley Robotics invested in Earth Force!]
Robots (should) fold laundry - while we still can’t have our laundry magically folded, our Best People are working on the problem - Tired of laundry folding? AI breaks the robot folding speed record.
… some of which will unlock innovation!
… and, just generally, do All The Things!
We need more construction robots! - The U.S. Needs More Housing Than Almost Anyone Can Imagine: “for Americans to live a productive, prosperous, happy life, homes need to be truly abundant.”
We need more infrastructure robots! - First tunnel built entirely by robots: “Hyper Tunnel’s new automated construction method is designed to build tunnels more than 10 times faster and at half the cost of conventional techniques.”
We need more robots and automation! - Transportation, robotics, and automation: The 9 next big things, from delivery drones to warehouse bots - a summary of cool tech in the space, tl;dr is robotics startups are solving important problems in the world.
We need to reshore manufacturing! - as called out in Printing the future: New factory tech reshapes the U.S. industrial economy | Reuters, “A wave of government initiatives, including billions earmarked for … advanced technologies, have raised the profile of the factory sector … the United States is poised for a manufacturing renaissance, aided by what is emerging as a de facto industrial policy”. [We’ve spoken with Rangeview and Dirac Inc among others who are working to make this a reality]
Robot news | Part II - rollup
There’s so much more happening in this space! Below is a loosely organized list of recent raises, exciting companies, and other news that crossed our virtual desk in the past couple of months.
Hey look, Alley Robotics Companies made the news!
Aescape Announces $30M Series A to Transform the Massage Therapy Experience - Aescape, a technology company building fully-automated, data-driven massage therapy experiences, today announced its $30 million Series A funding round led by Valor Siren Ventures and Valor Equity Partners, an early investor in Tesla and SpaceX, with participation from new investors including Fifth Wall and Alley Robotics Ventures, and from existing investors including Crosslink Capital, Alumni Ventures, and NBA Champion and All-Star Kevin Love.
ARIX named as a finalist ahead of 2022 Houston Innovation Awards Gala - The finalists for the Hardtech Business category, honoring an innovative company developing and commercializing a physical technology across life science, energy, space, and beyond, include ARIX Technologies, a robotics and data analytics software company that helps industrial facilities like petrochemical plants and electric utilities prevent costly shutdowns and environmental disasters due to pipe corrosion.
Civ Robotics brings in $5M for autonomous surveyors - Civ Robotics, a four-year-old San Francisco startup whose robot performs autonomous surveying tasks for civil engineering and infrastructure projects such as solar farms, roadways, data centers, and power plants, raised a $5 million seed round co-led by ff Venture Capital and Alley Robotics Ventures, with Trimble Ventures also chipping in. The company has raised a total of $7.5 million. The Robot Report has more here.
Dexai gets a shoutout in TechCrunch’s latest Actuator - I also stopped by Dexai’s offices — though sadly a bit on the early side to eat a salad. I won’t say I’m entirely sold on the form factor just yet, but I’m certainly impressed with the implementation. The secret sauces here are twofold. First is the second arm, which carries the bowl. The second is the system of attachment tools — the robot automatically drops and picks up different utensils. We got to watch as the system learned a new tool in real time, determining how to best hold it (and accidentally dropping some piles of rice as it figured things out). The company currently has a deal to deliver ten of these systems to the military, including one that’s already been installed in a working kitchen.
Mapless tests autonomous car hailing at Pittsburgh International Airport - Traveling is stressful, and anyone who has flown out of Pittsburgh International Airport knows it is a long walk from the long-term parking lots to the terminal. But there may be a solution - a remote controlled autonomous vehicle. It is part of a new partnership with tech firm Mapless AI and the Allegheny County Airport Authority’s xBridge program, which brings early-stage tech companies to the region to conduct testing at the airport.
The latest TechCrunch Actuator is a great read
Scene Report: Boston | TechCrunch - Brian Heater visited Alley Robotics Ventures and a number of local Boston firms the other week, and wrote quite a few words about it (including the blurb on Dexai above).
On the truck, off the truck, through the warehouse
Attabotics, a six-year-old, Alberta, Canada-based 3D robotics supply chain company, has raised a $71.7 million Series C-1 round from Export Development Canada, with participation from earlier investor Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board, which led the company's $50 million Series C two years ago. The new round brings Attabotics’ total funding to $165.1 million.
Ambi Robotics secures $32M infusion to deploy its item-sorting robots in warehouses - Ambi Robotics, a startup developing supply chain automation hardware, today announced that it raised $32 million in additional funding led by Tiger Global and Bow Capital, with participation from Ahren and logistics firm Pitney Bowes. Pitney Bowes is a strategic investor in Ambi, having recently inked a $23 million deal with the company to deploy Ambi’s hardware in U.S.-based Pitney Bowes fulfillment centers.
Pickle picks up $26M for its truck unloading robots - Pickle Robot Company, a four-year-old, Cambridge, Ma.-based company whose robots work alongside people in the very messy world of loading docks, has raised $26 million in Series A funding from Ranpak, JS Capital, Schusterman Family Investments, Soros Capital and Catapult Ventures.
… and eventually, to the recycling center
AMP Robotics raises $91M in Series C funding round - AMP Robotics, an eight-year-old startup based in Louisville, Co., that produces AI software and robotic equipment used to automate sorting of recyclable materials in waste streams, raised a $91 million Series C round co-led by Congruent Ventures and Wellington Management and including Blue Earth Capital, Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, Tao Capital Partners, XN, Sequoia Capital, GV, Range Ventures, and Valor Equity Partners. The company has raised a total of $167.1 million.
We still aren’t excited about humanoids, but Elon is …
Experts’ judgment on the much-hyped Tesla Bot: Elon Musk speedruns robotics 101 - The Verge - Roboticists were impressed by how fast Tesla’s engineers assembled Optimus but said the machine wasn’t anything close to a breakthrough
Tesla’s robot is a real robot now, not just a guy in a suit - Tesla’s robot strategy is inextricably tied to its Autopilot strategy, for better or for worse - In a widely watched presentation tonight, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tonight revealed a prototype of a humanoid "Optimus" robot that shares some AI software and sensors with its cars' Autopilot driver assistance features. It was almost shockingly underwhelming (though at least it was a real prototype, unlike last year when Musk hired a human in a white leotard to mimic a robot). Meanwhile, Musk reiterated that the eventual plan is for the finished Optimus to be made and sold in the millions, and at a price point that he estimated tonight would be less than $20,000. More here and here.
Are human-like robots feasible? Maybe. Are they worth the trouble? Maybe not. - The crucial question raised by Tesla's promise (and its spiritual cousins the geminoids, Sophia, Jia Jia, latex and silicone sex robots, among others) is not whether we can build an ersatz human, but whether we should. Since it's extremely hard to make a robot with human-level abilities, why not concentrate AI and robotics research on more attainable and useful goals?
… and perhaps, in the future, humanoids will have hydraulic muscles
Clone gets deep into the uncanny valley with its lifelike robotic hand - Clone Robotics is going to impressive lengths to make sure its "intelligent androids" will have some of the most human-like hands in the business, and watching the way their hydraulic "muscles" move under a transparent skin is absolutely hypnotic.
We are still excited about food and ag robots
Flying Robots Pick Fruit 24/7, And Know Exactly When It's Ripe - AI devices ease the labor crisis that’s forcing framers to let crops rot on the tree. Flying robots are easing a labor crisis that threatens the world’s fruit farmers. They hover next to the tree, pluck an apple, peach or nectarine with a gentle twist of their suction arms and carefully deposit them in a collection bin.
Jasper’s robots assemble fresh meals for nearby apartment dwellers - After attempting to sell its tech to large food service companies, cooking automation startup Jasper has shifted to direct-to-consumer. In a recent conversation, CEO Gunnar Grass told TechCrunch about the pivot and gave a general update on the company, a member of this year’s Battlefield 200 at Disrupt 2022.
Soft Robotics raises $26 million as staffing shortages continue across industries - Soft Robotics, a nine-year-old, Bedford, Ma.-based outfit that makes compliant robotic grippers a good job picking up fragile and inconsistently sized foodstuffs, from meat to produce, has raised $26 million in Series C funding led by the venture arm of Tyson Foods.
JAY-Z Invests $16.5 Million USD Into Robot-Powered Restaurant Stellar Pizza - Stellar Pizza, a three-year-old, L.A.-based soon-to-launch mobile pizza restaurant powered by robots (that were designed by three founders who come out of SpaceX), has raised $16.5 million in Series A funding led by Jay-Z’s venture capital firm, Marcy Venture Partners. Hypebeast has more here.
In a Bear Market, Investors Bet on Black: RoboBurger Raises Funds In a $10M Seed 2 Funding Round - RoboBurger, a three-year-old Jersey City, NJ, startup that claims its "fully autonomous" robot can grill, toast, add condiments, and assemble a fresh burger in about 4 minutes, raised a $10 million round from Promethean Investments.
Cleaning robot firm cleans up
Avidbots, maker of autonomous industrial cleaning robots, nabs $70M - Avidbots, a Canadian robotics manufacturer that develops autonomous cleaning robots, has raised $70 million in a Series C round of funding.
The robot doctor will see you now
Cyberdontics raises $15M for robotic root canals - It’s been more than 20 years since the da Vinci Surgical System received FDA clearance. Pretty incredible when you think about it. Robotic surgery and automation in general have come a long way since then, and a number of companies have entered the lucrative category, focused on all manner of different procedures. Surprisingly, robotic dental procedures have been slow to follow.
RIF Robotics powers robots that inspect and organize surgical equipment - RIF isn’t tackling cleaning. But the startup claims its prototype product, which was developed in less than two months, can save surgeons time by identifying, classifying and manipulating four different instruments and assembling a small surgical tray.
Galen Robotics looks to assist ENT surgeons with new bot and $15M round - Medical devices and robots have been making their way into operating rooms in an increasing number of procedures. Now a new robot is trying to forge its path in the OR and assist surgeons who don’t yet have that advantage.
Consumer or eldercare? Huge opportunity, hard GTM.
Labrador Systems deploys its first assistive elder-care robots | TechCrunch - We’ve been keeping tabs on Labrador Systems since we caught a very early demo of its elder care-focused technology in a hotel suite several CESes ago. Today the California-based robotics firm announced that it’s begun deploying its Retriever Pro system to a handful of early clients, including, On Lok PACE, Nationwide Insurance, Masonic Homes of California, Western Homes Communities, Eskaton, The Perfect Companion, Presbyterian Villages of Michigan, University of Michigan Flint and Graceworks Lutheran Services.
Will the robotic factory workers unionize?
Pantheon Design alleviates supply chain uncertainty with factory-grade 3D printing | TechCrunch - In the midst of the pandemic, Pantheon Design, a maker of industrial 3D printers from Vancouver, BC, suddenly found itself getting orders from factories in the Midwest, the center of heavy industries. The reason? These manufacturers were having a hard time getting parts out of China as COVID-19 restrictions in the country squeezed global supply chains.
Selling shovels to gold miners seems to be working
KKR Leads US$68 million Series B Funding Round in AI Leader Advanced Navigation - Advanced Navigation, a 12-year-old Sydney startup that develops robot and navigation technology for customers such as tech companies and defense contractors, raised a $68 million Series B round led by KKR, with AI Capital and previous investors Main Sequence, Malcolm Turnbull, In-Q-Tel, and Our Innovation Fund also participating. The company has raised a total of $85.6 million.
Generally Intelligent secures cash from OpenAI vets to build capable AI systems - Generally Intelligent, a one-year-old research startup whose goal is to research the fundamentals of human intelligence that machines currently lack, raised a $20 million round from an array of angels including Jed McCaleb (founder of the Astera Institute), Tom Brown (lead author of GPT-3), Jonas Schneider (former robotics lead at OpenAI), and Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, with commitments to fund the entitiy with an additioonal $100 million through what the company calls "a combination of options and technical milestones." TechCrunch has more here.
BYD-Backed RoboSense Seeks $150 Million in New Round - RoboSense, a Chinese startup that develops sensor technologies used in self-driving cars, is raising a $150 million round, per Bloomberg. Prospective investors include China Structural Reform Fund and Mirae Asset Securities. More here.
Realtime Robotics raises $14.4M for motion planning software - Realtime Robotics, a six-year-old Boston startup that helps customers automate the programming, deployment, and control of their industrial robots within applications such as automotive, raised a $14.4 million round. The deal leads were Soundproof Ventures, Heroic Ventures, and SIP Global Partners. The company has raised a total of $61.8 million. The Robot Report has more here.
Researchers gonna research
Not quite robots, but … Expert Proposes a Method For Telling if We All Live in a Computer Program : ScienceAlert. If you like this vein of thinking, you might be interested in the book The Simulation Hypothesis: An MIT Computer Scientist Shows Why AI, Quantum Physics and Eastern Mystics All Agree We Are In a Video Game eBook, available at your corner Kindle Store and everywhere fine books are sold these days.
Somewhat related to that - the Avatar XPRIZE winning team is both impressive and disappointing - ANA Avatar XPRIZE Finals: Winning team NimbRo Day 2 Test Run - we clearly need to improve the simulation!
Swimming robot performs butterfly to move with unmatched speed - The faster version of the “butterfly bot” uses the soft body as a single drive unit, controlling both wings at once for maximum speed. This enables it to travel at an average of 3.74 body lengths per second, around four times faster than what was previously possible for soft swimming robots
Also not quite robots - but might confuse them when their sensors fail to recognize the human blocking their path! Real-Life 'Invisibility Cloak' Stops AI Cameras From Recognizing People | PetaPixel - Scientists have developed a real-life “invisibility cloak” that tricks artificial intelligence (AI) cameras and stops them from recognizing people.
Congratulations - you read to the end!
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Everyone gets a prize! 🏆
Thanks for reading,
Abe & the Alley Robotics Ventures Team
(who is also, just, Abe - we’re still hiring!)