SoftBank Pepper

SoftBank, which bought Pepper maker Aldebaran Robotics, bought more companies last year.

As 2018 begins, let’s look back at the biggest mergers and acquisitions, hottest sectors, and most newsworthy companies of the past year. Where did entrepreneurs place their bets, and how have big tech players muscled into robotics, AI, and autonomous systems?

One could say that 2017 was the year that SoftBank Group Corp. made serious bids at becoming the No. 1 robotics company in the world, an ambition it has publicly pursued with its Vision Fund. Not only did the Japanese conglomerate invest in numerous startups, but it also made several high-profile acquisitions, including chipmaker ARM Holdings and walking robot creator Boston Dynamics.

SoftBank also bought stock in ride-sharing providers Uber Technologies Inc. and Didi Chuxing, as well as a stake in Nvidia Corp., which made its own investments around self-driving cars.

Why should the rest of the robotics industry pay attention? While the flow of venture capital has slowed to many technology startups, such consolidation and global partnerships could hail a new phase in commercial growth. In manufacturing and supply chain operations in particular, the pace of automation is as strong as ever.

Machine vision sees a bright future

Machine vision and related artificial intelligence companies also did well last year, partly because of the technology’s applicability to industrial automation such as pick-and-place operations and to autonomous vehicles. In addition to Nvidia’s moves, Intel Corp.’s $15.3 billion purchase of Mobileye NV is a big example of this interest, as is KUKA AG’s acquisition of Visual Components.

Speaking of factories and warehouses, our quarterly report also looks back at successful fundraising by Canvas Technology Inc., Locus Robotics, and Veo Robotics. Each is offering mobile, smart robots that can coexist with humans and meet materials-handling needs. Investors are looking for similar companies, while startups should understand which markets they serve.

Most importantly, robotics users can see which companies are emerging as stable leaders and technology suppliers.

Despite warnings of inflation or a recession later in 2018, the first quarter looks to continue the strong growth of automation across vertical markets. Subscribers to Robotics Business Review should check out our updated Transactions Database, which lists companies receiving funding for everything from manufacturing and AI to drones and healthcare robotics.

In addition, we’ll soon be putting out the call for nominations to the 2018 RBR50, our list of the most innovative, influential, and successful robotics companies!


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