Nobody said it would be easy

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We’re exactly a week away from TC Sessions: Robotics 2022. I have been attending prep calls for the last month and I can confidently say that this will be the best and biggest single day robotics event ever. I have now been helping plan events for various outlets for almost 15 years and I also feel comfortable saying that this is the strongest lineup I’ve been involved in creating, period.

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Our latest robotics event came at perhaps the strangest time. The show went well, but March 2020 wasn’t the perfect time to host the event – this is becoming more and more obvious in hindsight. It was a strange and uncertain time and we made sure to have plenty of Purell stations on hand because that seemed like the best defense at the time.

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Last month at our climate event, I had a strange full circle moment. I’ve been doing stage interviews for a long time, and there are always butterflies fluttering before the adrenaline rushes and takes you to the end of the road. But standing on stage at UC Berkeley’s beautiful Zellerbach Hall was surreal.

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It was our first climate show, the first time at Berkeley since Robotics 2020, and it was my first time on stage since then. When people tell you something is like “cycling,” people tend to gloss over those first few seconds or minutes before your brain and muscle memory kick in can be excruciating. In comparison, returning to Robotics next week is more like meeting an old friend for the first time in two years. Sure, we emailed, texted, zoomed in from time to time, and wished each other a happy birthday on Facebook walls, but it wasn’t the same.

I started thinking about the next robotics event as soon as I stepped off the stage in March 2020, but you know, the best plans and all. Missing an event for a year due to the pandemic gives you an extra year of planning. COVID hasn’t gone away, of course, and as excited as I am at the prospect of the show returning to Boston for the first time since the first event, there’s something to be said for the scale that going online gives you. And offering it all for free doesn’t hurt either.

To help mark the occasion, we’ve also planned a few programs in the run-up. I replaced Matt on TechCrunch Live this week as he is currently teaching a group of campers the magic of tension lines. It was a great conversation with Attabotics CEO Scott Gravel and Yuri Kim of Forerunner Ventures, one of the project’s early investors. An hour later, I had a great conversation with Ayanna Howard of Ohio State University and littleBits founder Aya Bdeir on Twitter Spaces. It’s okay if you missed one of them – they’ll both be online soon.

I will also be appearing on the Equity podcast on Saturday to discuss with Alex some of the broader investment trends in the robotics industry. And on Monday at 3pm ET we will have another Twitter Spaces with iRobot CEO Colin Angle. I honestly exhausted myself typing the last two paragraphs. The plan is to have you completely exhausted by the end of next week, and the next year you take a vacation somewhere unknown.

Anyway, make me firm and register for the free event right here, so the event group stopped bothering me. Where else will you see Dean Kamen, US Secretary of Labor, CEOs of Amazon, Boston Dynamics, Locus Robotics, Zebra, Agility, Sarcos, littleBits, Veo, Robust.AI, Berkshire Gray and MassRobotics; Venture capitalists from DCVC, Playground Global, FoundersX Ventures and The Engine; and leading researchers from MIT, CMU, UC Berkeley, and Ohio State University in one place?

Okay, now that all the hype is out of the way, it’s time to get things back on Earth. It’s my fault that I got caught up in the investment whirlwind of the last two years like everyone else, but it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that starting a robotics startup is absolutely crazy. It’s a long and arduous journey that requires a lot of capital, a long runway, and very few first fruits that you get from, say, a successful application.

It was recently pointed out to me how incredibly few robotics companies have taken the traditional IPO route. Even during the recent SPAC frenzy, robotics firms were few and far between. And among those who have taken this path, the results have been mixed at best. For most companies, acquisition is the best-case scenario, but even these can fall apart quickly.

Sally, the Chowbotics salad robot, has 20 different canisters for dispensing ingredients. Image credits: Chaubotics /(Opens in a new window)under license.

Case in point: Chaubotics. Let’s be honest, it was weird from the start. It was a rocky marriage that came about as a result of the DoorDash pandemic as the delivery service sought to diversify. Salad robots are definitely the way to do it. Perhaps DoorDash’s own income, which began to decline to the average, forced them to take a closer look. Perhaps food stalls in public places are no longer as attractive as the pandemic continues. Maybe we’ll just use Occam’s razor and say it just doesn’t fit.

Sudden closure of Chowbotics 17 months after the acquisition is a bummer, regardless of the reasoning. Here’s what DoorDash told TechCrunch:

We have made the decision to discontinue Chowbotics as of August 31, 2022. At DoorDash, we create an environment to create new products and set high standards to determine when to scale, continue or scale back investments. We are always looking for new ways to serve our merchants to exceed ever higher consumer expectations and complement our logistics infrastructure.

Textile

Fabric Automated Execution Center. Image credits: Textile

Cloth meanwhile recently informed his staff of 300 that he fires 40% of them. Considering how hot shipping and logistics has been, it’s perhaps a bit surprising, but there’s also huge competition. Along with the layoffs, the well-funded New York-based startup also says it is moving from “platform to service” as an overall major shift in focus.

Last week, South China Morning Post highlighted some of the difficulties in the country’s white-hot robotics startup market. “We have decided to cut some of our company’s operations and business in order to survive,” Pudu CEO Felix Zhang Tao said in a leaked letter. “It’s a difficult decision.” He went on to add that the layoffs are meant to help the company turn a profit and “survive the long winter.”

agility robotics

Image credits: Agility Robotics

In happier news, in Philadelphia Fort declared series B worth $25 million for its robot safety software. The round, led by Tiger Global, raised a total of $41.50. Fort’s clients include Agility, Hexagon, and Moog (a robot company, not a synthesizer). The company cited ongoing labor shortages as the main reason for the increase. Founder/CEO Samuel Reeves says:

Smart machines are changing the world, but they come with unprecedented security risks. there is a huge need for these machines to communicate in a reliable manner and this is something that has yet to be addressed in the industry. This investment will allow us to scale to meet the needs of the next generation of smart machines.

Image credits: Expeng Robotics

Meanwhile, Xpeng Robotics, which makes this quirky rideable unicorn robot, managed to raise $100 million Series A at a time when venture capital investment in his native China began to slow down. Here is CEO He Xiaopeng:

I also believe that in the future, smart car manufacturers will also become smart robot manufacturers… As part of our mission as technology innovators and explorers, we will continue to support Xpeng Robotics.

Lunar Outpost

Lunar Outpost rover. Image credits: Lunar outpost

And quick, a couple stories about space robots: Aria profiles Lunar outpostwhich is currently working on a lunar rover for NASA, and Japanese startup Gitaiwhich is currently working on the creation of autonomous space robots.

Image credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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