January 20, 2020

Robotic gripper designer Soft Robotics lands $23 million in VC

Backers include robot arm vendor Fanuc, automation provider Honeywell, as sector sees rising integration between vendors.

By Ben Ames

Robotic gripper designer Soft Robotics Inc. has landed $23 million in venture capital from funders including the robotic arm manufacturer Fanuc, and plans to use the new backing to accelerate its growth and to drive international expansion in its core packaging and manufacturing sectors.

Robotic arm about to grab strawberriesThe round was co-led by Calibrate Ventures and Material Impact, with additional funds from existing investors Honeywell, Hyperplane, Scale, Tekfen Ventures, and Yamaha. Industrial automation provider Fanuc also joined the deal as a new investor, Bedford, Massachusetts-based Soft Robotics said Monday.

The funding follows a rising tide of investments in the warehouse automation sector, although most of those checks have been written to vendors of mobile, wheeled platforms—as opposed to static arms and grippers—such as the $50 million venture capital round raised by self-driving forklift maker Vecna Robotics, the $46 million money raised by autonomous mobile robot (AMR) vendor Fetch Robotics, $26 million in funding for AMR maker Locus Robotics, and $25 million for AMR provider 6 River Systems Inc. (6RS).

In contrast, fewer startups have been raising funds for the "end effectors" that allow robotic arms to use specialized grippers to grab the individual "each picks" that are critical for e-commerce fulfillment work. Two exceptions are the automated piece-picking startup RightHand Robotics Inc., which raised $23 million in 2018, and Danish robot equipment provider OnRobot A/S, which landed an unspecified amount of venture backing that same year to acquire gripper vendor Purple Robotics ApS.

 

However, the difference between the two camps may be closing, as an increasing number of firms have moved to integrate their approaches to both picking and moving warehouse inventory.

For example, Soft Robotics' new financial connection to Fanuc follows close on the heels of an existing technology integration between the two firms, announced in December 2019 as an effort to integrate Soft Robotics' mGrip adaptable gripper system with Fanuc robots through the deployment of new controllers. Soft Robotics also has connections with additional firms in the warehouse automation space, including a 2019 deal to join its piece-picking and order fulfillment solution, SuperPick, with the "Chuck" AMR platform from 6 River Systems.

Other recent integrations between picking and mobile platforms feature a tie-up between RightHand and Vecna, which said in 2018 they would combine their strengths in different areas of material handling technology, a similar integration between RightHand and Locus, and the move by robotic arm manufacturer Universal Robots (UR)'s parent company Teradyne to buy the autonomous forklift vendor AutoGuide Mobile Robots.

"This new funding will allow us to power the next phase of our growth strategy and continue to provide solutions to our customers' greatest challenges," Soft Robotics CEO Carl Vause said in a release. "Variability is the kryptonite of the robotics industry. By offering a system that is able to grasp and manipulate items that vary in size, shape, and weight, we are able to solve the problem of high variability in both products and processes."

Soft Robotics says its proprietary grasping technology, machine vision, and software solutions enable automation solutions for industries such as food and beverage, consumer goods and cosmetics manufacturing, and e-commerce supply chains.

For future products, the firm is also working with e-commerce, logistics, and retail customers to address the high cost of online returns logistics.  With its technology's ability to handle unstructured and delicate items, Soft Robotics says it can help automate reverse logistics, which is one of the costliest links in the online supply chain owing to high variation and high-value items such as apparel.

About the Author

Ben Ames
Senior Editor
Ben Ames has spent 20 years as a journalist since starting out as a daily newspaper reporter in Pennsylvania in 1995. From 1999 forward, he has focused on business and technology reporting for a number of trade journals, beginning when he joined Design News and Modern Materials Handling magazines. Ames is author of the trail guide "Hiking Massachusetts" and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.

More articles by Ben Ames

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