ABB buys smart home device maker, Eve Systems

ABB this week announced that it has acquired Eve Systems, a German firm best known for a broad range of smart home accessories, including smart lights, plugs, air monitors and security cameras. I’ll admit the deal initially struck me as strange, given that Zurich-based ABB is well known – in my world, at least – as one of the leaders in industrial robotic arms.

More broadly, however, it’s an industrial automation firm with electrical equipment manufacturing roots that stretch back to the late-19th century. Among its many verticals is a Smart Building division. Per the company’s site,

We are working together to create workplaces where anything is possible. Through intelligent and automatic lighting, air-conditioning, heating and movement detection, we make greater energy efficiency and increased security easier than ever. With digital solutions everything can even be controlled remotely, giving you complete control wherever you are, whenever you need it most.

Eve, meanwhile, dates back to the final year of the 20th century. Several years ago, the home automation firm shifted its focus exclusively to HomeKit. The sageness of putting all of its eggs in that specific basket was largely rendered moot by an industry wide move Matter and Thread. At CES, the company smartly went into full shift with a portfolio of products that support those standards, which work across smart home ecosystems.

“Our focus is on being the best and most comprehensive provider of smart technology and innovation for our global customers,” Mike Mustapha, ABB’s Smart Buildings Division President, said in a release. “Matter and Thread, in which Eve is a leader, is a game changing development for the uptake of smart home technology. It allows different devices and services to integrate flawlessly, intuitively, and securely, making it possible for people to manage their energy, and their surroundings conveniently and safely.”

The move is clear from ABB’s side. The conglomerate wants to deal in first party hardware when it comes to its Smart Buildings initiative. While the division currently focuses on office buildings, the move could signal a broader push into the home builders/real estate developers.

Eve CEO Jerome Gackel says, “Building on our heritage, pace of innovation and brand, we will now be combining our passion, agility and experience with ABB’s international caliber, reputation, and expertise to keep growing Eve as a global leader.”

ABB has not disclosed financial information, nor specifics around integrating Eve’s technology’s an 50-person headcount into its corporate structure. Today’s press conference will likely shed further light on the deal.

ABB buys smart home device maker, Eve Systems by Brian Heater originally published on TechCrunch

It’s time to talk about consolidation in the EV charging industry

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill included a $7.5 billion tranche of cash set aside to build out a national network of 500,000 electric vehicle chargers. Ever since Biden signed the bill into law, EV charging companies have been quickening their pace, eager to take advantage of national momentum and federal funding.

Alongside the ambitious attempts at scaling, there has been a wave of consolidation. While some early adopters, like ChargePoint, EVGo, Electrify America and Tesla, have created large national EV charging infrastructure networks, they’ve by no means captured the entire market.

A recent spate of acquisitions in the electric vehicle charging space is outlining what consolidation in this industry looks like and which players might come out on top.

Blink Charging finalized Tuesday its plans to acquire SemaConnect in a $200 million cash and common stock transaction that will add 13,000 EV chargers to Blink’s footprint, an additional 3,800 site host locations and more than 150,000 EV driver members, according to Blink. This brings Blink up to 48,000 chargers, according to the company, which means it’s finally on equal footing with ChargePoint, the erstwhile leader of EV charging in the U.S. that boasts 30,000 stations with over 47,000 individual charging ports.

The infrastructure bill also appears to be attracting foreign companies to increase their footprints in the U.S. EV Connect said Tuesday that it was acquired by Schneider Electric, a French energy management and automation company with a foundation in sustainability and e-mobility. Schneider is using the acquisition to beef out its own charging capabilities and footprint in the United States.

Other companies seem keen to grow through M&A. Take ABB, for instance.

Earlier this year, ABB’s e-mobility business, which makes fast electric chargers for cars, buses and trucks, shared plans to spend $750 million on expanding operations, in large part through acquisitions. In addition to acquisitions this year of India’s Numocity and China’s Chargedot, ABB has acquired InCharge Energy, a commercial charging infrastructure company, to strengthen its foothold in the North American market.

For a company that doesn’t have millions in venture funding or a legacy conglomeration backing it, Blink in particular has been coming in hot over the past year. The company, which is publicly traded and was founded in 2009, has long been something of an underdog when compared to the other big EV charging companies. However, it’s been using its revenue organically to scoop up companies.

Aside from SemaConnect, in 2022 Blink also acquired the U.K.’s EB Charging for $23.4 million. Last year, Blink bought Blue Corner for $24 million in cash and stock, and in 2020, the company acquired BlueLA and U-Go for undisclosed amounts.

The SemaConnect buy is one to pay attention to, because it specifically allows Blink to take advantage of Biden’s infrastructure bill and might signal the direction of future strategic acquisitions by Blink and others. Not only will Blink take on SemaConnect’s in-house research and development, hardware design and manufacturing capabilities, but it also gets the company’s manufacturing facility in Maryland. Blink’s chargers are not currently manufactured in the U.S., so now, the company will officially be compliant with the Buy American mandates, which will allow it to tap into that $7.5 billion.

“Although we have been actively looking into U.S.-based manufacturing, it would take significant time and resources,” a Blink spokesperson told TechCrunch. “Utilizing the newly acquired SemaConnect facility greatly reduces those variables and qualifies us much quicker and more cost-effectively.”

Notably, even with the SemaConnect acquisition, Blink’s network of deployed chargers are mostly Level 2, which takes about six to 12 hours to fully recharge a vehicle. Blink has at most 100 DC Fast chargers, all of which are first generation, according to the company. While it’s a start, it’s nothing compared to Tesla’s. Globally, the luxury EV automaker has over 30,000 charge ports, almost all of them DC Fast. Historically, they’ve only been available to Tesla vehicles, but the company is slowly opening up its network to non-Tesla EVs.

As the EV industry continues to consolidate, expect acquisitions that involve companies with manufacturing capabilities within the U.S., as well as companies that are finding innovative ways to commercialize and scale DC Fast chargers.

ChargeLab’s software layer to power ABB’s EV chargers in North America

ChargeLab, a Toronto-based startup that builds software to operate and optimize electric vehicle charging equipment for fleets and commercial customers, has raised a $15 million Series A round. The round was led by King River Capital and notably includes participation from strategic investor ABB E-Mobility, a spinoff of technology company ABB that focuses on electric mobility and building charging stations.

As part of ChargeLab’s commercial agreement with ABB, the two companies will launch a bundled hardware and software solution for fleets, multifamily buildings and other commercial EV charging use cases, according to Zak Lefevre, founder and CEO of ChargeLab. While the partnership with ABB will certainly give ChargeLab the resources it needs to build out and scale its enterprise software, Lefevre noted that ABB’s interest in ChargeLab stems from the company’s need for a better out-of-the-box software in North America.

“The reality is that ABB has a device with the capability to connect to the internet, but they haven’t built those back-end services for connecting it, managing it, doing billing and payments, scheduling and power management and all those things,” Lefevre told TechCrunch. “So we are very much in that transition phase where everybody’s making their devices ready to connect to the cloud, but these big hardware companies haven’t necessarily thought through what all the second order consequences are and all the other systems that chargers are going to need to plug out to, whether it’s a parking management system or demand response system to the grid.”

ChargeLab’s core product is its cloud-based charging station management system, which provides apps for EV drivers, dashboards for fleet managers and open APIs for third-party system integration. The hardware-agnostic software, which runs on the edge and in the cloud, also includes capabilities like automated monitoring of chargers, management of pricing and access rules, payment processing and electrical load balancing, according to the company.

The startup’s latest funding round, which also included existing investors like Construct Capital, Root Ventures, Highline Beta, Third Sphere and Maple VC, will help the company go from its seed stage-level solution of connecting chargers and controlling them in the cloud to more advanced milestones. 

“Is that going to be SOC 2 compliant? Is it going to be scalable across hundreds of thousands of devices?” Lefevre said.  “ABB is selling to the biggest fleets and the biggest enterprises in the world. Are we going to be able to bundle with ABB and meet those needs?”

(SOC 2 is a voluntary compliance standard developed by the American Institute of CPAs which specifies how organizations should manage customer data.)

ChargeLab’s software is embedded onto chargers, which helps ensure those chargers are not only secure but also efficient and working flawlessly on the back end, co-founder and chief technology officer Ehsan Mokhtari told TechCrunch.

“And that ties into the security side of things. EV chargers will be a target of cybersecurity attacks as they are connected, so we are very active and in front of it,” said Mokhtari. “We already formed the InfoSec team within the ChargeLab company, as well as advanced techniques to handle offline behavior and self healing for these chargers. So that is really top of mind for us to build products and take them to market with our partners.”

Aside from ABB, ChargeLab works with EV charger manufacturers like Phihong, United Chargers, Siemens and Tritium. The startup’s tech is also white-labeled by charging networks like Girardin Energy, TurnOnGreen and EVStart. Lefevre says ChargeLab’s software is currently inside thousands of devices in North America, but has yet to surpass the 10,000 charger mark. That said, Lefevre says the EV charging industry is growing exponentially, which means the market opportunity is massive.

Getting high on HRI

I know I keep teasing how excited I am about July’s big robotics event, but it’s precisely because of panels like the one we announced earlier this week. We’ve got Rodney Brooks and Clara Vu teaming up for a 2-on-1 fireside to discussing the changing face of human-robot interaction.

It’s a big, broad and important topic, as robotics take an increasingly larger role in our lives. Honestly, I couldn’t think of a better duo to discuss the topic with (that’s the nice thing about running programming for an event).

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Brooks is the co-founder and CTO of deep learning robotics software firm Robust.AI. He also co-founded iRobot and cobot firm Rethink Robotics, and served as the director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL)  for a decade. Vu is the co-founder and CTO of collaborative robotic safety firm Veo and a co-founder of Harvest Automation.

Both Brooks and Vu have appeared onstage at TC Sessions: Robotics in previous years, and I’m psyched to have them in conversation this time out. All right, that’s enough plugging from me this week.

Image Credits: Qualcomm

Kicking things off with Qualcomm this week. Unsurprisingly, the company is making a new push into the robotics world this week, in hopes of leveraging its 5G technologies for autonomous robotic systems. The Qualcomm Robotics RB6 Platform is a development kit announced this week at the company’s 5G summit, and the Southern Californian chip maker is casting the net quite wide here, with a focus on drones, delivery robots, collaborative systems and more.

Says Qualcomm’s Dev Singh:

Building on the successful growth and traction of Qualcomm Technologies’ leading robotics solutions, our expanded roadmap of solutions will help bring enhanced AI and 5G technologies to support smarter, safer, and more advanced innovations across robotics, drones and intelligent machines. We are fueling robotics innovations with 5G connectivity and premium edge-AI that will transform how we think and approach challenges and ever-evolving industry expectations in the digital economy.

RB6, which is built on top of the Qualcomm Robotics Platform, arrives along with the RB5 AMR Reference Design to help kickstart robotics hardware development that utilizes the firm’s components. Given the recent explosive growth of automation, it’s clear why companies like Qualcomm, Nvidia and Intel are all making pushes to get in on the ground floor of development.

Some fun research out of Hangzhou, China’s Zheijang University this week. The school is showcasing drone swarming in a difficult to navigate forest setting. The 10 drones are controlled by a central computer, flying in formation and following human subjects, all while avoiding crashing into trees.

Image Credits: DJI

Speaking of crashing into trees, we’ve done our fair share at TechCrunch while testing DJI drones. The company’s got a new version of the Mini 3 Pro, which weighs in at 249 grams. That’s precisely one gram from the FAA cutoff that requires drone users to register their systems. It has been fascinating watching the company iterate on the folding Mavic line over the last several years.

These things are getting impressively powerful at their size, and much as smartphone innovations have created components that have launched several other fields, it seems likely that the work being done in the consumer drone space is going to have a profound impact in the broader automation field, going forward. Oh, and the new version of the Mini has even more safety features, theoretically making it more difficult to accidentally slam into trees.


Image Credits: Hyundai

This one completely flew under our radar a few weeks back. Hyundai is recommitting to some of those wild Ultimate Mobility Vehicle (UMV) concepts by launching the New Horizons Studio (NHS). The Bozeman, Montana-based studio will be focused on iterating some of those ideas courtesy of a $20 million investment over the next five years.

As to why the company chose Montana, New Horizon head John Suh says, “Montana is quickly becoming a hub for high-tech companies and entrepreneurs with a growing talent pool of skilled labor in the field of engineering, research and natural science. Bozeman is a thriving and economic micropolitan city. Nestled near dozens of off-road trails with more than 150 miles of terrain and mountain access for UMV testing — it’s the perfect fit for our new R&D Lab.”

As for the concepts the team is working on, Hyundai notes, “The first is an uncrewed transforming intelligent ground excursion robot (similar to what was revealed at CES in 2021) designed to carry various types of payloads while traveling over treacherous terrain. The second, inspired by Elevate, is a larger (size of a two-person ATV) vehicle with robotic legs that can address challenging driving situations and potentially save lives as the first responder in natural disasters.”

The founders of Eureka Robotics with an Archimedes robot arm

Image Credits: Eureka Robotics

This week was a little light on actual funding news, but we’ve got one addition, just under the wire: Eureka Robotics. The Singapore-based firm caused a minor online sensation back in 2018 with its Ikea furniture building robot. Turns out its technology was successful enough to earn it a $4.25 “Pre-Series A” for robots that can drill, inspect, assemble and perform other complex tasks.

The round, which was led by The University of Tokyo Edge Capital Partners, will be used to deploy and accelerate development on the company’s flagship Eureka Controller. The company co-founder, Dr. Pham Quang Cuong, tells Catherine, “while the core technologies are mature and have already been deployed in production, we want to make those technologies really easy to use by System Integrators. Making advanced technologies easy to use by non-programmer engineers is actually difficult.”

Image Credits: ABB Robotics

Closing us out this week for good measure is an ABB demo featuring a car-painting robot. Haje notes:

For this PR stunt, the company collaborated with eight-year-old Indian child prodigy Advait Kolarkar and Dubai-based digital design collective Illusorr, to create the world’s first robot-painted art car. The project is showing off the company’s PixelPaint technology, which is basically an inkjet printer with 1,000 nozzles mounted on an industrial robot.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Fire up that robotic arm and subscribe to Actuator. 

Rodney Brooks and Clara Vu will discuss human-robot interaction at TC Sessions: Robotics 2022

Robots have transformed automation across industries such as agtech, automotive, logistics, manufacturing and warehousing. Yet even the most advanced robots typically work in restricted workcells away from people due to safety concerns. 

The field of human-robot interaction (HRI) offers the potential for robots with enough cognitive smarts to work effectively and safely alongside humans in places such as factory floors. The rise of the collaborative robot — or cobot — is well underway, with a projected market value of $8 billion by 2030.

We’re thrilled to announce that two roboticists at the forefront of HRI — Rodney Brooks, Founder and CTO of Robust.AI (and co-inventor of Roomba, the popular household robot), along with Clara Vu, Co-founder and CTO of Veo Robotics — will join us on stage at at TC Sessions: Robotics 2022 on July 22 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Our conversation will cover the current state of HRI, the challenges of developing robots with “common sense,” and the technologies required for people and robots to work in close proximity. Of course, we’ll ask what they’re up to right now and what’s coming down the road.

We’ll also ask how long will it be before cobots become part of the everyday work environment. And what kind of training infrastructures do we need to create as more efficient cobots replace human workers in physically demanding or repetitive menial jobs?

Robotics legend Rodney Brooks founded Robust.AI in 2019 with a mission to build a first-of-its-kind industrial-grade cognitive platform for robots. The goal is to make robots that are smarter, safer, more robust, context-aware and collaborative. Such robots could function reliably in construction, eldercare, households and other highly complex environments.

In 2020, Robust.AI raised a $15 million Series A.

In addition to his roles at Robust.AI, Brooks, an award-winning computer scientist, taught and held directorships at MIT. He was also founder and CTO at Rethink Robotics and iRobot.

Veo Robotics, an industrial automation company founded in 2016, created FreeMove, a comprehensive 3D safeguarding system for industrial robots that powers dynamic human-robot collaboration. In other words, it turns run-of-the mill industrial robots into machines that respond to humans.

When human skill and creativity join forces with the strength and speed of robots, the result is a flexible human-robot interaction, which would help manufacturers adjust to continuous, rapidly changing market demands.

In 2019, the company raised a $15 million Series A.

As Veo Robotic’s co-founder and CTO, Clara Vu leads the engineering team and developments of the computer vision-powered sensing and intelligence used by four of the biggest industrial robot companies in the world: FANUC, Yaskawa, ABB and Kuka.

With more than two decades of robotics experience, Vu has developed multiple products from inception to market. She began her career at iRobot programming robots for oil well exploration; she then moved on to interactive toys and the Roomba. 

Prior to Veo, Vu was co-founder and director of software development for Harvest Automation, the makers of mobile robots for agricultural automation.

Don’t miss a fascinating conversation with Rodney Brooks and Clara Vu, two roboticists on the cutting edge of human-robot interaction, about the reality and potential of humans and robots working side-by-side.

TC Sessions: Robotics 2022 takes place in person on July 22 in Boston, Massachusetts. Buy your pass by Friday, June 24 at 11:59 pm (PT) and save $200.

Business, school

Before we get started, two quick notes. We’re launching Actuator as a newsletter in a few short weeks! Make sure you’re in on the ground floor by signing up (for free!) over here. Also, the powers that be helpfully noted that I’ve not taken any days off this year, so I’ll be doing that next week. That means, among other things, attempting to sleep in until 7AM, a couple of museum visits and no newsletter on Thanksgiving. See you in December!

Last week, Carnegie Mellon announced that it had appointed Matthew Johnson-Roberson the sixth director of its Robotics Institute. We’ve spoken to Johnson-Roberson a number of times in the last few years, primarily in his capacity as Refraction AI’s co-founder and CTO. When I sat down with him again last week to discuss his new role, he called me from the University of Michigan’s Ford-funded robotics wing, where he served as co-director.

It’s a smart hire for a number of reasons — not the least of which is the CMU grad’s experience in both founding a startup and working as part of a corporate-university alliance. We’ve devoted a lot of words to Pittsburgh and CMU on this site over the past few years, and the consensus is that the former has been doing a better job incubating startups, but things could always improve.

Matthew Johnson-roberson

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

Pittsburgh is quite possibly the strongest example of how a vibrant startup scene can revitalize a region suffering from economic depression. There are, of course, broader economic issues around potentially leaving residents behind through gentrification, but on the whole, Pittsburgh has largely been regarded as a success story, bouncing back from the rust belt region’s economic devastation.

It’s clearly something U of M is focused on for the Ann Arbor/Detroit regions. And Ford’s model will likely prove an increasingly popular one, as corporations look to research facilities for bleeding-edge technologies, while universities look for funding beyond the traditional endowment model (something which, granted, has worked for a university named for two of America’s most powerful industrialists).

As Johnson-Roberson tells TechCrunch:

So many of the technologies that were developed in the 90s and 00s are now reaching a level of maturity where they are getting rolled out in commercial products and making a big difference to the future of a lot of industries. I think it’s a natural extension of that. You begin to see relationships between universities and companies. Even if you look at Pittsburgh as a city, the transformation that it’s undergone from heavy industry focused around natural resources and steel, that transformation is only going to accelerate.

Part of my goal is to continue relations and build new ones. Beyond just industries, thinking about government and policy and all the other things that are now going to become more relevant for robotics — making sure we make those relationships and build on the strengths of the technical work that already goes on at the institute. That is something I’m particularly excited about.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Part of me is hoping the robotics news slows down a bit next week, if only for my nagging FONB (fear of not blogging) while I’m out. It’s not healthy, I know. But there are worse addictions (maybe?). I get the sense things will slow down a bit for American Thanksgiving week, if only because it seems like everyone is rushing to get their news out this week. There’s a LOT to crawl through here.

Image Credits: Aeris

Let’s start with a pair of acquisitions. As we noted in this column last week, iRobot has been getting aggressive about smart home. That’s largely meant things like Amazon Alexa integration up to now, but today’s news marks an interesting new angle. The Roomba maker purchased a Swiss company that makes air purifiers — a move it believes can improve its footprint in users’ homes.

CEO Colin Angle says in a release:

Today’s acquisition of Aeris is an important step in iRobot’s strategy to expand our total addressable market and diversify our product portfolio in ways that will provide consumers with new ways to keep their homes cleaner and healthier. We are enthusiastic about the growth potential for Aeris’ products, especially as the pandemic has raised greater consumer awareness of the value of maintaining a cleaner, healthier home. We are also excited about the potential to leverage our Genius Home Intelligence platform and existing ecosystem of home robots to bring the iRobot experience to air purification.

As we noted last week, most of iRobot’s biggest non-Roomba successes have come in the form of acquisitions of brands like Braava and Root. So hopefully this will open up some interesting avenues, in terms of having devices that can double as smart home beacons and improve home mapping.

Image Credits: Midnight Robotics

In the agtech space, Fieldin has acquired Midnight Robotics. It’s a deal that makes a lot of sense. Fieldin makes technology that allows farms to collect data for accelerating automation, while Midnight’s tech retrofits tractors and other farming machinery with lidar-based sensors.

Here’s Fieldin CEO Boaz Bachar:

Over the past eight years we’ve digitized hundreds of farms and over 10,000 tractors and pieces of farming equipment — more than anyone else in the high-value crop world — and amassed a trove of invaluable data that can offer insights into best practices in farm management. By acquiring Midnight Robotics, we’re helping farmers close the loop from insight to autonomous action, so they know exactly what they need to do and execute it autonomously, all through the same platform.

Monarch’s tractor, meanwhile, is more of an all-in-one solution. The company just announced a $61 million Series B. Like Fieldin, the company cites pandemic-related job shortages as a driving force in interest around its technology.

Image Credits: Nommi

From fields to the dinner table, Nommi just announced a distribution deal with C3 (Creating Culinary Communities) that is set to bring up to 1,000 of its robotic food prep kiosks to locations across the country. The deal also brings Iron Chef’s Masaharu Morimoto’s Sa’Moto brand to the machines, which can operate 24/7, unlike even the ironest of human chefs.

The robot is partially made of plastic, but teams up with Zume to reduce plastics. Excellent work, Judas. Photo: ABB

As hot as robotics are becoming in food, however, there’s probably an even brighter future in sustainable packaging — because, let’s face it, whatever direction we’re currently headed in isn’t great. In one of the wilder pivots in recent memory, Zume moved from pizza robots to bio-degradable packaging. The company is, however, returning to robotics (in a sense) courtesy of a new deal with industrial giant ABB to produce its food packaging.

And one final Tiger Global investment before I leave you (it wouldn’t be a robotics roundup without it). The firm just led a $25 million Series A for SVT Robotics. The Virginia-based company is working to develop a “plug-and-play” solution for industrial robotic deployment. Here’s co-founder and CEO A.K. Schultz:

The demand for industrial automation is even higher, but industry growth has been limited by capacity to execute. Integrations are typically all custom coded, meaning long development cycles. It’s expensive, and companies wait as much as a year or more for new automation to go live. Solving that problem with the SOFTBOT Platform empowers the market to grow at its full potential.

That’s it for me this week. Happy Turkey Day to those who celebrate. And don’t forget to sign up for Actuator here.

Zume inks deal with ABB to deploy 2,000 plastic-reducing robots

Plastics are bad, m’kay, and a lot of the world is pretty god-awful at reducing, re-using and recycling. Single-use plastics are among the worst environmental evils out there, and Zume is leaping to the rescue. The company is working to create a sustainable, viable and economic alternative to a lot of the plastics we currently use. This also marks an acceleration of Zume, finding product-market fit as one of the most remarkable startup pivots we’ve ever seen — Zume started its life as a company creating pizza-making robots, with some pretty impressive robotic pizza-making robot arms, before its co-founder Julia Collins left to make climate-friendly food, and the whole company eventually changed its focus.

It seems as if the company’s culture of climate focus didn’t leave with Collins, however — and Zume has been making a name for itself in plant-based alternatives to plastics since its acquisition of Pivot back in 2019. Now, the company is declaring all-out war on plastics with an aggressive scale-up operation and a brand new partnership with industry giant ABB.

“By 2050, we estimate that the world’s oceans will have more plastic than fish, so it is critical that we move everyone away from single-use plastics,” said Alex Garden, chairman and CEO of Zume, succinctly capturing both why they are solving a problem worth solving, and the urgency of the solution. The company recently inked a deal with ABB to provide an army of robots to help it fulfill its mission, although neither Zume nor ABB are eager to disclose the financial details of the deal.

ABB will supply robotic cells that will enable Zume’s production of sustainable packaging on a global scale, helping to reduce reliance on single-use plastics. ABB will integrate and install more than 1,000 molded fiber manufacturing cells (MFC) — including up to 2,000 robots at Zume customer sites worldwide over the next five years.

“Automating production of Zume’s sustainable packaging with ABB robots makes this a viable and economic alternative to single-use plastics. With Zume, we have the potential to remove trillions of pieces of plastic from the global marketplace, preserving scarce resources and supporting a low carbon world,” said Sami Atiya, president of ABB Robotics & Discrete Automation. “Today, robotic automation is expanding possibilities, making the world more sustainable through more efficient production that reduces energy use, emissions and production waste. Our collaboration showcases what is possible when organizations that are committed to pursuing a low-carbon society work together.”

The robot is partially made of plastic, but teams up with Zume to reduce plastics. Excellent work, Judas. Photo: ABB

Not a moment too late — the UN Environment Program (UNEP) has identified single-use plastics as one of the most serious environmental issues we face today, with almost 60% of all plastics produced since the 1950s ending up in landfills or in nature. It doesn’t help that a lot of plastics aren’t nearly as recyclable as you’d think, as NPR’s Planet Money explored recently: it doesn’t make sense economically or environmentally to recycle plastic a lot of the time.

Shifting some of our use to compostable, bio-degradable materials makes a lot of sense. To that end, Zume and ABB installed a pilot project at Satia Industries, one of India’s largest wood and agro-based paper manufacturers, creating a facility of 10 manufacturing cells that will process 20 tons of wheat straw daily creating 100% compostable packaging for a range of industries. Unlike plastic, plant-based material is 100% biodegradable and simply breaks down after use.

“Our work with Zume and ABB enables Satia Industries to meet and exceed the expectations of our clients for high-performing, affordable and reliable products that are sustainably manufactured and easily composted,” said Dr. Ajay Satia, CMD Satia Industries. “Besides adding significant value to the company, we are able to support the planet by providing sustainable solutions to help our customers transition to more modern, reliable and customized products compared to those they use today.”

Why former Alibaba scientist wants to back founders outside the Ivory Tower

Min Wanli had a career path much coveted by those pursuing a career in computer science. A prodigy, Min was accepted to a top research university in China at the age of 14. He subsequently obtained Ph.D. degrees in physics and statistics from the University of Chicago before spending nearly a combined decade at IBM and Google.

Like many young, aspiring Chinese scientists working in the United States, Min returned to China when the country’s internet boom was underway in the early 2010s. He joined Alibaba’s fledgling cloud arm and was at the forefront of applying its tech to industrial scenarios, like using visual identification to mitigate highway traffic and computing power to improve factory efficiency.

Then in July 2019, Min took a leap. He resigned from Alibaba Cloud, which had become a major growth driver for the e-commerce goliath and at the time China’s largest public cloud infrastructure provider (it still is). With no experience in investment, he started a new venture capital firm called North Summit Capital.

“A lot of enterprises were quite skeptical of ‘digital transformation’ around 2016 and 2017. But by 2019, after they had seen success cases [from Alibaba Cloud], they no longer questioned its viability,” said Min in his office overlooking a cluster of urban villages and highrise offices in Shenzhen. Clad in a well-ironed light blue shirt, he talked with a childlike, earnest smile.

“Suddenly, everyone wanted to go digital. But how am I supposed to meet their needs with a team of just 400-500 people?”

Min’s solution was not to serve the old-school factories and corporations himself but to finance and support a raft of companies to do so. Soon he closed the first fund for North Summit with “several hundreds of millions of dollars” from an undisclosed high-net-worth individual from the United Arab Emirates, whom Min had met when he represented Alibaba at a Duhai tech conference in 2018.

“Venture capital is like a magnifier through which I can connect with a lot of tech companies and share my lessons from the past, so they can quickly and effectively work with their clients from traditional industries,” Min said.

“For example, I’d discuss with my portfolio firms whether they should focus on selling hardware pieces or software first, or give them equal weight.”

Min strives to be deeply involved in the companies he backs. North Summit invests early, with check sizes so far ranging from roughly $5 million to $25 million. Min also started a technology service company called Quadtalent to provide post-investment support to his portfolio.

Photo: North Summit Capital’s office in Shenzhen

The notion of digital transformation is both buzzy and daunting for many investors due to the highly complex and segmented nature of traditional industries. But Min has a list of criteria to help narrow down his targets.

First, an investable area should be data-intensive. Subway tracks, for example, could benefit from implementing large amounts of sensors that monitor the rail system’s stauts. Second, an area’s manufacturing or business process should be capital-intensive, such as production lines that use exorbitant equipment. And lastly, the industry should be highly dependent on repetitive human experience, like police directing traffic.

Solving industrial problems require not just founders’ computing ingenuity but more critically, their experience in a traditional sector. As such, Min goes beyond the “Ivory Tower” of computer science wizards when he looks for entrepreneurs.

“What we need today is a type of inter-disciplinary talent who can do ‘compound algorithms.’ That means understanding sensor signals, business rationales, manufacturing, as well as computer algorithms. Applying neural network through an algorithmic black box without the other factors is simply futile.”

Min faces ample competition as investors hunt down the next ABB, Schneider, or Siemens of China. The country is driving towards technological independence in all facets of the economy and the national mandate takes on new urgency as COVID-19 disrupts global supply chains. The result is skyrocketing valuations for startups touting “industrial upgrade” solutions, Min noted.

But factory bosses don’t care whether their automation solution providers are unerdogs or startup unicorns. “At the end of the day, the factory CFO will only ask, ‘how much more money does this piece of software or equipment help us save or make?'”

The investor is cautious about deploying his maiden fund. Two years into operation, North Summit has closed four deals: TopScore, a 17-year-old footwear manufacturer embracing automation; Lingumi, a London-based English learning app targeting Chinese pre-school kids; Aerodyne, a Malaysian drone service provider; and Extreme Vision, a marketplace connecting small-and-medium enterprises to affordable AI vision solutions. 

This year, North Summit aims to invest close to $100 million in companies inside and outside China. Optical storage and robotic process automation (RPA) are just two areas that have been on Min’s radar in recent days.

Soft Robotics raises another $10M, citing pandemic-related demand

Add Soft Robotics to the long list of automation companies that have seen a boost in investment interest amid the pandemic. The New England-based firm announced this morning a $10 million raise that serves as an extension of the $23 million Series B it announced in January of last year.

The extension was led by Material Impact, Scale Venture Partners and Calibrate Ventures and featured existing investors Tekfen Ventures and industrial robotics giant ABB. The latest round brings the company’s total funding to around $58 million.

Founded in 2013, the company takes a novel approach to picking machines, with a soft, pneumatic-powered gripper that’s ideal for fragile food stuffs that might otherwise be damaged by rigid robotics. Food, of course, has been a prime target for interest in automation during the pandemic, due to labor shortages and fears of disease transmission.

“Today’s industrial robots are unable to deal with product variability or unstructured environments typically found across the labor challenged food supply chain in areas such as agriculture, food processing, and logistics,” Soft Robotics COO Mark Chiappetta said in a release. “With our revolutionary soft grasping, 3D perception, and AI technologies, Soft Robotics unlocks robotic automation by augmenting widely available industrial robots with true hand-eye coordination allowing them to perform tasks that traditionally could only be performed by human workers.”

The round also sees Tyson Food’s investment wing, Tyson Ventures joining the fold. Tyson, which produces poultry, beef and pork in massive volumes, is an existing customer.

“At Tyson Ventures, we are continually exploring new areas in automation that can enhance safety and increase the productivity of our team members,” Tyson Ventures’ Rahul Ray said in the release. “Soft Robotics’ best-in-class robotic technology, computer vision and AI platform have the potential to transform the food industry and will play a key role in any company’s automation journey.”

ABB and AWS team up to create an EV fleet management platform

Swiss automation and technology company ABB has announced a collaboration with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to create a cloud-based EV fleet management platform that it hopes will hasten the electrification of fleets. The platform, which the company says will help operators maintain business continuity as they switch to electric, will roll out in the second half of 2021.

This announcement comes after a wave of major delivery companies pledged to electrify their fleets. Amazon already has a number of Rivian-sourced electric delivery vans on the streets of California and plans to have 10,000 more operational by this year; UPS ordered 10,000 electric vans from Arrival for its fleet; 20% of DHL’s fleet is already electric; and FedEx plans to electrify its entire fleet by 2040. A 2020 McKinsey report predicted commercial and passenger fleets in the U.S. could include as many as eight million EVs by 2030, compared with fewer than 5,000 in 2018. That’s about 10 to 15% of all fleet vehicles.

“We want to make EV adoption easier and more scalable for fleets,” Frank Muehlon, president of ABB’s e-mobility division, told TechCrunch. “To power progress, the industry must bring together the best minds and adopt an entrepreneurial approach to product development.” 

ABB brings experience in e-mobility solutions, energy management and charging technology to the table, which will combine with AWS’s cloud and software to make a single-view platform that can be tailored to whichever company is using it. Companies will be able to monitor things like charge planning, EV maintenance status, and route optimization based on the time of day, weather and use patterns. Muehlon said they’ll work with customers to explore ways to use existing data from fleets for faster implementation.

The platform will be hosted on the AWS cloud, which means that it can scale anywhere AWS is available, which so far includes in 25 regions globally.

The platform will be hardware-agnostic, meaning any type of EV or charger can work with it. Integration of software into specific EV fleets will depend on the fleet’s level of access to third-party asset management systems and onboard EV telematics, but the platform will support a layered feature approach, wherein each layer provides more accurate vehicle data. Muehlon says this makes for a more seamless interface than existing third-party charging management software, which don’t have the technology or the flexibility to work with the total breadth of EV models and charging infrastructure. 

“Not only do fleet managers have to contend with the speed of development in charging technology, but they also need real-time vehicle and charging status information, access to charging infrastructures and information for hands-on maintenance,” said Muehlon. “This new real-time EV fleet management solution will set new standards in the world of electric mobility for global fleet operators and help them realize improved operations.”

This software is aimed at depot and commercial fleets, as well as public infrastructure fleets. Muehlon declined to specify any specific EV operators or customers lined up to use this new technology, but he did say there are “several pilots underway” which will “enable us to ensure that we are developing market-ready solutions for all kinds of fleets.”