Although global tech transactions cooled off in the past quarter, SoftBank Group Corp. continued its pursuit of the No. 1 spot in automation with more acquisitions. Still, more than 120 investments, initial public offerings, and mergers and acquisitions demonstrated that robotics, artificial intelligence, and unmanned systems are still a bright spot in technology.
Masayoshi Son, CEO of Japan-based SoftBank, has made no secret of his ambitions to achieving the so-called Singularity — when AI capabilities rival human intelligence. On the way, his company has led $200 million funding of Plenty Inc., $159 million funding of Nauto Inc., and $114 million funding of Brain Corp., among others.
In addition, SoftBank has taken a stake of less than 5% in iRobot Corp., the leading provider of household robot hardware in the U.S. These investments reflect wide-ranging interest in next-generation agriculture, self-driving cars, AI, and consumer appliances.
Tech transactions go small
According to Crunchbase, the general slowdown in tech transactions in Q3 of 2017 is tied to late-stage venture funding, which is good for entrepreneurs, but maybe not for investors looking for fast returns.
This trend could be affecting robotics investments by favoring hardware over more speculative software and AI startups. Traditional industrial automation has fared well, with automotive manufacturers, supply chain operations, and small and midsize enterprises looking to adopt or expand their automation implementations.
By contrast, despite all the hype around AI and the Industrial Internet of Things, both end users and suppliers need to understand their business models and what they need from big data before they can proceed. Much of the AI spending at the moment is being directed toward customer service and self-driving cars.
Aerospace and autonomous vehicles benefit
Of the biggest Q3 tech transactions we rounded up in this report, billions of dollars were involved in United Technologies Corp.’s purchase of Rockwell Collins, Northrop Grumman’s acquisition of Orbital ATK, and Baidu Inc.’s Apollo Fund for driverless vehicles.
In addition, ABB Group, which is one of the world’s top robotics vendors in addition to an energy equipment supplier, picked up GE Industrial Solutions from General Electric.
Singapore Technologies Engineering Ltd. announced plans to buy Aethon Inc., which provides mobile robots for logistics.
Internationally, China will remain the fastest growing market for automation for the next few years, particularly among collaborative robots and autonomous ground vehicles, STM Stieler reports. However, the country is working to develop its domestic production of robots, competing with the foreign suppliers that currently dominate.
How will Chinese companies parlay partnerships and trade deals into displacing that foreign leadership? As the “world’s factory” goes, so too will much of the robotics industry. See our quarterly report for more details.