Robot Investments Weekly: Car Ecosystem Earns Funding Influx
March 29, 2019      

Continued investments in self-driving vehicle technologies across the automotive landscape were the highlights in this week’s funding transactions for startups. Whether it’s smart tire sensors or artificial intelligence software that helps car dealerships generate leads, technology is touching a whole range of spots in the car ecosystem.

This week we’re highlighting 13 recent transactions covering the robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence space. If you’ve missed some transactions over the past few months, you can track them through the RBR Transactions Database. This regularly updated database lets you sort deals by company, industry, technology, or transaction type.

Lidar startups score major funding

At the heart of self-driving technology, as well as any mobile robot that needs to navigate around obstacles, is the lidar sensor. This week, close to $200 million was invested in two companies developing new generations of lidar for automotive manufacturers (and, as a peace dividend, other mobile robot companies).

Israeli startup Innoviz Technologies raised $132 million in Series C funding, bringing its total funding to $214 million. The company said more funding is coming, as “the Series C round will remain open for a second closing to be announced in the coming months.” Innoviz said it will use the funding to support commercialization of its high-performance, solid-state lidar sensors and perception software (InnovizPro and InnovizOne). In addition, the company will focus expansion to markets in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and China.

“We’ve experienced significant growth over the past year to meet increased demand for solid-state lidar,” said Omer Keliaf, CEO and co-founder of Innoviz. “We’re excited to transition our production, manufacturing and research and development efforts into the next phase and continue to furnish the full stack of lidar hardware and software solutions to the industry.” The company has partnered up with several OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers, including Magna, HARMAN, HiRain Technologies, and Aptiv. A partnership with Magna, for example, resulted in the InnovizOne platform to be chosen by BMW for series production of vehicles starting in 2021.

The second lidar investment comes from Ouster, which announced raising an additional $60 million in funding. In addition, the company announced a new manufacturing facility to produce its lidar sensors, as well as the appointment of Susan Heystee to its board of directors. The company develops multi-beam flash lidar technology for applications that include autonomous vehicles, industrial robotics, agriculture, mapping, and defense. With its all-semiconductor approach to lidar, the company said its 3D sensors are smaller, lighter, more durable, and less expensive than other solutions.

Daimler grabs majority stake in Torc Robotics

Daimler Trucks, a division of the Daimler Group, announced this morning that it would acquire a majority stake in Torc Robotics, for an undisclosed sum. Torc, based in Blacksburg, Virginia, will remain a separate entity retaining its name, team, existing customers and facilities, the companies said in a statement.

Torc develops an autonomous software solution for mobility applications, including self-driving cars and transit vehicles. It also provides self-driving technology for safety-critical applications, including those in the defense, mining, and agriculture markets. The company has integrated its software into ground vehicles ranging from SUVs to 300-ton mining trucks.

Daimler Trucks North America ecosystem article

Daimler Trucks North America President and CEO, Roger Nielsen, with Torc CEO, Michael Fleming

“With the ever-rising demand for road transportation, not the least through e-commerce, there is a strong business case for self-driving trucks in the U.S. market, and I believe the fastest path to commercialization for self-driving trucks is in partnership with Daimler Trucks, the OEM market leader,” said Michael Fleming, CEO of Torc. “This move is in line with our mission of saving lives and represents another major milestone for Torc since crossing the finish line in the DARPA Urban Challenge 12 years ago.”

As part of the agreement, Torc will work with Daimler Trucks’ developers, especially with the research & development team of Daimler Trucks North America in Portland, Ore. Torc will continue to develop its Asimov self-driving software and testing within Blacksburg. The North America team of Daimler is currently working on a truck chassis for automated driving, “particularly the redundancy of systems needed to provide the maximum level of reliability and safety.”

Additional automotive sensor development

Las Olas Venture Capital announced a $2 million seed round investment in Preteckt, which develops a vehicle prognostics as a service offering for connected car and autonomous vehicle manufacturers and service providers. Preteckt leverages its proprietary real-time automotive data architecture to allow for continuous integration of artificial intelligence, deep learning and machine learning algorithms to handle automotive data, providing a 100x speed advantage over traditional big data solutions, the company said.

“While the general state-of-the-art of AI is becoming quite good – say perhaps 80% accurate – 80% isn’t good enough for most commercial applications that rely on mission-critical data accuracy,” said Dean Hatton, founding partner at Las Olas Venture Capital. “To improve accuracy, human-in-the-loop (HITL) computing is required to supplement the machine learning process. In the near term, the companies that figure out who make HITL efficient will be winners in the AI space.”

Revvo, formerly known as IntelliTire, announced it raised $4 million in Series A funding to further develop its Internet of Things smart sensor for vehicle tires. The company said monitoring tire health represents a $225 billion opportunity, with its initial focus on the fleet sector, “a segment consuming tires at a disproportionately high rate with clear pain points around tire usage.” The company’s sensor-enabled AI software platform monitors tire while a vehicle is on the road, including propriety sensors that are embedded inside a tire, generating a real-time feed of a tire’s condition and performance. AI and machine learning models can be applied to better predict tire tread wear, helping drivers and fleet managers to better understand the overall health of the tires on the vehicles, to improve efficiency and safety.

“Until now, tires have not benefitted from the mobility revolution,” said Sunjay Dodani, Ph.D., Revvo’s CEO. “Through machine learning and AI, tires can provide an invaluable data set of road conditions, driver behavior, and feedback for vehicle performance.” The company said it will use the financing to continue to build its product, as well as expand its technical and business development teams.

AI Corner: automotive electronics and sales leads

Germany’s Teraki announced raising an additional $2.3 million in funding for its AI and edge data processing software platform within the $395 billion automotive electronics industry. The company provides embedded, pre-processing software for sensor data in the automotive industry. “When embedded in automotive electronic systems, the software enables hardware to process more than 10 times more data without loss of information to train and run machine learning methods of customers,” the company said. The software also reduces energy consumption and heat production due to lower computational tasks, while still delivering the algorithm detection and prediction performance essential to advanced driver assistance systems and autonomous vehicles, Teraki added.

Moving from the production floor to the car dealership, we saw a $1.5 million investment in San Antonio, Texas-based FunnelAI, which is using AI to generate leads for car dealers. The software uses AI, machine learning, natural language processing and data to help connect businesses to potential customers, harvesting data from social media platforms such as Reddit or car enthusiast forums. While it works for real estate and financial services companies, the company is focused on auto dealers at the moment.

Underwater unmanned vehicles earn funding

Three companies developing underwater unmanned vehicles for different purposes received some funding this week. In the military space, the U.S. Navy awarded a $46.7 million contract to Boeing for further modifications to the Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle XLUUV). The latest contract completes the XLUUV competition and brings the total awarded amount for five XLUUVs and associated support elements to $274.4 million, the Navy said.  Work is expected to be completed by December 2022.

A new company was formed by the merger of two startups working on undersea vehicle development. Sofar Ocean Technologies was created by the combination of ocen data startup Spoondrift and OpenROV, a maker of underwater drones. Sofar Ocean also announced a $7 million Series A financing round to support the new company. The company’s products “are already used by thousands of customers around the world, including researchers studying the health of coral reef ecosystems, aquaculture farmers monitoring operations, and surfers measuring real-time wave conditions,” it said in a statement.

“There have been multiple approaches to capturing ocean data, but up to this point they have been large, expensive and generally inaccessible by the ordinary person,” said Peter Rive, chairman of Sofar. “I believe the best approach to reaching a deeper understanding of our oceans is to have pervasive sensors and drones transmitting information in real time. By forming Sofar, we have great products available right now, as well as a platform for future development.”

Sofar Ocean Trident drone ecosystem article

The Sofar Trident Underwater Drone diving beneath the surface. Sofar Ocean Technologies is the result of a merger between leading ocean drone and sensor companies.

The company’s products include Spotter, a solar-powered device that transmits weather information such as wave and wind conditions in real time, can free float or be moored in place. Trident is an underwater drone used for exploration, research, and inspection, and can dive up to 100 meters and stream live video to a smartphone or tablet.

In Canada, the government of Canada awarded a contract worth $1 million CAD (about $745,000) to Kraken Robotics Systems for the ThunderFish 300 Autonomous Underwater Vehicle. The company said it will deliver the ThunderFish to its test partner, Defense Research and Development Canada, in Halifax in Q2 2019. The ThunderFish AUV is a marine robot designed for high-resolution seabed imaging and mapping applications, which can be used for underwater surveys, environmental monitoring, habitat mapping, marine archeology, inspection of submerged structures, searching for downed aircraft, and naval mine countermeasures.

Wrapping up the rest

I’m pretty busy around getting ready to endure all of the fake news stories for April Fool’s Day on Monday, so here are the remaining transactions of note we spotted during the week:

While these companies are tangentially related to the robotics industry, robot makers should pay attention to that technology for possible inclusion in their own systems.

That’s it for the week – the next few weeks will be super-busy with Automate and ProMat updates, so we may delay the investment column for a bit. If you’re attending these big shows, stop by the RBR booth (N6360 in the ProMat section) and say hello!