Abundant’s new owner looks to revive the apple-picking robot through equity crowdfunding

Last summer, Hayward-based Abundant Robotics abruptly closed up shop. Plenty of startups fail, a phenomenon that certainly applies in the notoriously difficult world of robotics. But the pandemic has proven a boon for robotics funding, particularly in fields like agriculture, where employees continue to have difficulty filling roles, two years in.

Clearly Wavemaker Labs saw potential in the firm’s apple-picking technology. In October, the investment firm involved in robotics startups like Miso and Future Acres purchased Abundant’s IP. We noted at the time it seemed the company was likely to integrate the tech into the latter, but now it seems Wavemaker is getting ready to relaunch the Abundant brand.

Buck Jordan, who founded both Miso and Wavemaker (as well as holding the CEO role at both) now holds the CEO role at the newly resurrected Abundance. Piestro co-founder and Miso/Wavemaker CFO Kevin Morris has the latter position at the new company, as well. The pair say they are “working with industry leaders to build out the rest of the executive team.”

With those pieces roughly in place, the next step is funding — specifically equity crowdfunding. The firm is talking to WAX to launch a $20 million seed campaign. The firm says funding from the campaign — which runs through October — would be used to build a new apple harvesting robot around Abundant’s existing IP.

Image Credits: Abundant Robotics

“If we raise the maximum amount set out in our ‘Use of Proceeds,’ the extensive acquired product development efforts will allow our team of roboticists and engineering experts to build a fully functioning prototype for demos and pilots, then start production on a minimally viable product for commercial pre-orders,” Jordan tells TechCrunch. “In addition, we would anticipate not needing to raise additional capital for the business as this funding would allow us to capitalize on market traction and corporate partnerships with the execution of our product plan.”

The firm clearly sees value in the Abundant branding, as well. While it ultimately failed to find its market fit, the six-year-old firm attracted a reasonably high profile in the burgeoning agtech robotics category — along with around $12 million in funding. This new version of the company seeks to launch with a seed round nearly doubling what the company raised through its Series A. If that all goes according to plan, it’s a pretty healthy runway when coupled with the cache of IP Wavemaker purchased last year.

“We saw great value in the breakthrough technology Abundant Robotics had developed so far, including its computer vision and machine learning applications; however, the protype was overly engineered and expensive to produce,” says Jordan. “Using the acquired IP, software product and a proven team that knows how to bring products to market at a cost that makes sense, we will use the funds to re-engineer a fully functioning prototype at a fraction of the current build cost, as well as to conduct business development and fundraising efforts.”

Remembering the startups we lost in 2021

When we penned the intro for this piece last year, little did we know that — in many ways — we’d still be deep in it by the time 2021’s feature rolled around. Amid another holiday season marred by a new variant, seemingly the more things change — well, you get the picture.

Surprisingly, however, in spite of the fact that we’re still very much in the throes of a global pandemic, 2021 hasn’t been punctuated by as many high-profile losses in the startup world as the year prior.

Perhaps the first year of the pandemic was simply the final straw for so many companies that were already treading water — or maybe an influx of capital sources has kept heads above water. Some companies successfully pivoted and others were born as a direct result of a world forever changed because of COVID-19.

2021 also largely lacked the kind of blockbuster crashes we saw last year, courtesy of names like Quibi and Essential. But even in a non-pandemic year, keeping a startup afloat is still an enormously difficult task, and not everyone managed to make it to the New Year unscathed.

Abundant Robotics (2016-2021)

Total raised: $12 million

Image Credits: Abundant

This is a major sputtering in what has been an otherwise remarkable year for robotic startups. In a certain sense, Abundant was ahead of the curve on agtech robotics, which can often be more curse than blessing. Barely two years after rolling out its first commercial deployments, the apple-picking robotics firm quietly closed up shop. Over the years, the company managed to raise $12 million, including a $10 million Series A led by GV (Google Ventures) back in 2017.

Farmers are taking a long, hard look at robotics and automation to help ease the strain of continued labor shortages. Companies like John Deere are investing a lot in homegrown solutions and acquisitions. It seems very much within the realm of possibility that we’ll see more widescale picking robots deployed sooner than later, but the main question at the moment is from whom?

In October, it was reported that Waverly Labs had acquired Abundant’s IP, meaning that its technology may still live on in some form.

Chanje (2015-2021)

Image Credits: Chanje

In November 2018, TechCrunch reported that FedEx was working with a relatively new and unknown startup as it ramped up its efforts to electrify its fleet of delivery vans. The company announced plans to add 1,000 electric delivery vehicles from Chanje Energy, a California-based and China-backed startup founded in 2015. In subsequent years, Chanje came to be known for its practice of importing electric delivery vans from China and selling them to companies like FedEx, Ryder and even Amazon. FedEx and other customers were left in the lurch when the electric vehicle company reportedly “quietly folded” sometime this year, The Verge reported on December 15. CEO Bryan Hansel (described by some employees as both “charismatic” and “narcissistic,” had partnered with a Chinese company that went bankrupt. Hansel reportedly worked hard to convince investors to buy pieces of that company so that Chanje could keep operating, but to no avail. According to The Verge, he fired the last of Chanje’s employees the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. 

Chanje reportedly still owes “many” of its former employees months of back pay and promised bonuses, with at least four having filed suit against the startup. Ryder also sued the company for more than $3 million after Chanje did not deliver most of the vans it promised to the fleet company. Meanwhile, FedEx never got the 1,000 electric vans it expected from Chanje from that 2018 deal. That led to the delivery giant being forced to abandon a project to build out charging infrastructure at FedEx depots across California. While FedEx is also suing the company in an effort to get back some of the millions of dollars it had spent on that charging infrastructure, its prospects are bleak.

Dark Sky (2012-2021)

Image Credits: Dark Sky

In March of 2020, Apple acquired the Dark Sky weather app, which was popular for its hyperlocal focus. Clearly the tech giant was interested in its features, many of which it incorporated into the iPhone weather app. From the get go, Apple had made clear that the Android app would shutter that July. The fate of the iOS app and API service, however, remained fuzzy. (The API service allowed other developers to tap Dark Sky’s database of “weather forecasts and historical weather data.”) 

By June of 2021, the iOS app and API service officially had expiration dates, with co-founder Adam Grossman writing: “Support for the Dark Sky API service for existing customers will continue until the end of 2022. The iOS app and Dark Sky website will also be available until the end of 2022.” While this was not an explicit shutdown announcement, it was certainly implied.

Katerra (2015-2021)

Total raised: $2 billion

Image Credits: Katerra

There was a time that Katerra was considered the darling of the construction tech world. Some argue it made prefab construction more mainstream — and cool. As it grew, Katerra ambitiously wanted to own the tech stack around a construction project, whether it be office buildings or apartments. But by the end of 2020, signs of serious problems emerged. The startup was said to be on the verge of filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy when Japanese investment conglomerate SoftBank swooped in with a $200 million bailout. But it was too little, too late. Katerra’s vertically integrated approach couldn’t keep up with rising labor and construction costs and the company was struggling with delays and cost overruns on some projects, while the COVID-19 pandemic delayed others. Irregularities that the company discovered in accounting practices also added to headaches, according to The Wall Street Journal

So it was not a huge shock when on June 1, 2021, Kattera was reported to be officially shutting down (The Information broke the news) after burning through more than $2 billion in funding. Founded in 2015, Katerra had at one point been valued at $4 billion and employed more than 8,000 people. When it shuttered, it was believed to have had around 2,400 employees. The failure marked the second high-profile SoftBank-backed proptech that struggled in recent years (WeWork was the first). While there were concerns that Katerra’s implosion might affect faith in the construction tech industry as a whole, the year still saw a number of large fundings in the space.

Loon (2015-2021)

Image Credits: Alphabet

Alphabet’s Loon flew high over the course of its nine-year run, only to come crashing back down to earth earlier this year. Two-plus years after spinning off the X graduate, the company grounded the project aimed at bringing internet connectivity to underserved areas via balloon. Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth noted in a blog post that the project simply wasn’t able to achieve profitability.

“While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business,” he wrote. “Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”

Loon said its technologies would continue to live on, having already been adopted by outfits like Project Taara, another Alphabet X moonshot aimed at delivering high-speed internet through light transmission. In September, Alphabet passed an additional 200 patents along to SoftBank, which plans to execute on them as part of its High Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS) business. Fellow high-flying moonshot Wing, on the other hand, continues to gain steam.

Houseparty (2015-2021)

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Before Houseparty sunsetted, it soared. In the early innings of the pandemic, the social video chat app claimed that it was landing 50 million new signups a month, as humans sought virtual connection amid quarantine. Fast-forward to today, and it seems that Houseparty’s pandemic bump didn’t help the company stay relevant. In September, Epic Games announced that it was shutting down Houseparty in October, a little over two years since it first acquired the company for a reported $35 million.

There are a variety of potential reasons as to why the once-booming app was shut down, from the rise of Clubhouse to the inevitable fatigue from Zoom. In a thread announcing the shutdown, Houseparty CEO and co-founder Sima Sistani hinted it was simply a strategy shift.

“The metaverse vision and products we’re working on at [EpicGames] are also about shared experiences, but in a more rich form than 2D video — one that’s better positioned to shape the next generation of the internet,” Sistani wrote.

Houseparty will live on as the core of Fortnite’s voice chat and within larger projects in the Epic Games metaverse.

Pearl Automation (2014-2021)

Pearl Automation, an automotive accessory startup, shuttered just a year after launching out of stealth mode. Founded by former Apple engineers, Pearl debuted with a wireless rear-view camera and already began shipping out its products, which cost $499.99.

“Once connected, the RearVision app in landscape will show you a full-screen view of what the cameras in the license plate holder is seeing, with a 175-degree viewing angle,” reporter Darrell Etherington wrote in a 2016 review of the product. “You can toggle between the full fish-eye experience, or a warp-corrected view that fills the display corner-to-corner with the space behind your car. You can also pivot the view up or down to get a better look at more of the sky, or more of the ground as needed.”

While Etherington liked the industrial design and minimal software of the product, he noted that it is a premium device which needed upgrades: “It’s still for a specific subset of users — those who value quality and craftsmanship and are willing to pay for it, but who also don’t have a modern vehicle with its own backup camera, and don’t plan on getting one anytime soon.” This year, it seems like that subset wasn’t enough to keep the company going.

Per Axios, the shutdown was a result of disappointing product sales and a high burn rate, despite the fact that Pearl Automation had raised $50 million in venture capital funding. Investors included Accel, Venrock, Shasta Ventures and Wellcome Trust, according to Crunchbase.

Honorable Mentions

Fry’s Electronics

A closed Fry's Electronics store

DALLAS, Feb. 26, 2021 — A closed Fry’s Electronics store is seen in Plano, Texas, the United States, Feb. 25, 2021. U.S. electronics store chain Fry’s Electronics is permanently closing all of its stores, the company announced Wednesday. The company said in a statement on its website that it “made the difficult decision to shut down its operations and close its business permanently” because of changing consumer shopping habits and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Fry’s Electronics had 31 stores across nine U.S. states. (Xinhua/Dan Tian via Getty Images)

Mea culpa. This one’s not a startup, but it would still feel weird to do a list without it. The Februrary closure of the Bay Area-based electronics chain left a massive Egyptian (or, perhaps, Mayan) pyramid-shaped hole in the hearts of many who grew up wandering its aisles. For me, it was the Fremont store, whose 1893 World’s Fair theme didn’t make for a particularly exciting exterior, but the indoor Tesla coil did the trick.

In an Amazon-ruled world devoid of Circuit Cities, where RadioShack is a shadow of its former self, it’s frankly amazing that this strange, beautiful beast held on for as long as it could. At its peak, Fry’s boasted 34 giant stores across nine states. But ultimately, COVID-19 was the final nail in the already troubling environment of brick and mortars. It’s a testament to just how big these big box stores were that their former homes are dealing with zoning headaches in their wake.

LG Phones

Image Credits: Joan Cros/NurPhoto / Getty Images (Image has been modified)

Unlike other pandemic-fueled losses over these past two years, the death of LG’s mobile division was a long time coming. The South Korean electronics giant simply couldn’t keep up in a market dominated by Samsung, Apple and, increasingly, manufacturers in China. In April, LG announced its exit from phones in order to spend more time with TVs and other smart home products.

Visionrare (2021-2021?)

NFT car on fire

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

And so rare its vision truly was. When founders Jacob Claerhout and Boris Gordts launched Visionrare, they combined two trends: the gamification of investing and the surging interest around NFTs. The end result was a platform in which users could bid for NFT shares of different startups, stacking up a fake portfolio that they could then compete against others with. It even got some Y Combinator startups on board.

Crypto angle aside, Visionrare’s pitch was interesting. The fake stock market could get non-accredited investors a track record in betting on startups, and one day “serve as a signal for VCs looking for their next hires.”

If you think it sounds buzzy, some entrepreneurs and investors had a different word: illegal. Some questioned whether the platform was legal or if it was an investment security, pushback that ended up causing the co-founders to shut down the paid marketplace due to underestimating “the legal complexities” with selling novelty NFT shares in real startups.

Crypto marketplaces aren’t controversial, but Visionrare’s approach to the burgeoning sector rang alarm bells. And that doesn’t happen as often as you’d think. Nonetheless, the founders promised to relaunch the company soon. Their LinkedIn’s show that they are continuing to work together, and are “building something new.”

Nuzzel (2012-2021)

Nearly a decade ago, Friendster’s Jonathan Abrams launched Nuzzel, a social news reading service that highlights headlines that are being read and shared by friends in your network. The simple yet savvy startup soon attracted a loyal user base, especially for Twitter users who wanted a more personalized timeline. According to Crunchbase, Nuzzel had raised $5.1 million from investors, including Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.

In 2019, Nuzzel was acquired by Scroll, which wanted to bring aggregation and curation to its subscription service. While no one from Nuzzel’s original team joined Scroll in a full-time capacity, the app continued to function as is — until this year, of course. Twitter scooped up Scroll in May and simultaneously shut down Nuzzel. In a blog post that has since been removed, Nuzzel’s team explained that the product needed to be rebuilt in order to scale with Twitter.

“To those of you who love Nuzzel and are disappointed that we can’t maintain Nuzzel as-is in the interim, I’m as disappointed as you,” Scroll CEO Tony Haile said in the now-deleted post. “We explored any number of Hail Marys to make that happen and just couldn’t get there. Looking to the future, Nuzzel’s functionality has always felt like it should be a part of Twitter and I’m excited to help make it so.”

Months later, some good news: While Nuzzel as we know it has ceased to exist, Twitter brought back one of the app’s most-loved features, Top Stories, in the debut of its premium subscription service Twitter Blue.

Robot response team

I’ve been working on a big project the past several days (more on that soon), which means, unfortunately, I’ve been away from the daily breaking news. That means, in turn, that I really haven’t been on top of the big robotics news this week. So let’s use this column as an opportunity to play a little catch-up.

Before we get to that, however, I did have the opportunity to sit down with an interesting robotics company that had a unique pandemic experience.

It’s fair to say the world was a different place when Diligent Robotics announced its Series A. March 2020 wasn’t all that long ago, of course, but the worlds of healthcare and hospitals have seen tremendous strain amid a pandemic whose scope and length few could have predicted. Demand for the company’s nurse assisting robot Moxi has spiked as hospital staffs have grown increasingly overworked and understaffed, accelerating trends that existed prior to COVID-19.

While last year’s $10 million cash infusion has no doubt helped Diligent grow, the company has faced the difficult task of accelerating production while dealing with the familiar challenges of moving to remote work.

Andrea Thomaz, the associate professor of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech who co-founded Diligent in 2017 with Vivian Chu, joined us this week to discuss the unique challenges and opportunities the last year has held.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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How profound an impact is the pandemic having on both robotics generally and Diligent specifically?

It is really just a dramatic shift in labor markets across a lot of different industries. It seems to be related both to people kind of having a great resignation, where people are deciding that they want to do different things. And a lot of people shifting jobs. We’re seeing that all across tech work, a lot in our industry and healthcare. A lot of people are just deciding to do something else. There were already workforce challenges pre-pandemic, and now those are reaching crisis levels.

This is kind of a perfect storm, in a sense, because you have fewer people wanting to do the job, and more people needed to do the job all at the same time.

And that trend was starting before the pandemic. The pandemic just added fuel to the fire. But the trend kind of started with the Affordable Care Act. More people having access to healthcare means more people are going to hospitals and getting care. That together with an aging population, and you just have more care needing to happen with fewer and fewer people.

Are you able to quantify that demand, in terms of how many hospitals you were in initially, and how that demand has spiked subsequently?

We’re not really sharing that. I think towards the early half of next year, we’ll be sharing more specific announcements around scale numbers, but I can say that we’re, we’re doubling the number of robots that are deployed every quarter.

What is that process like in terms getting one of these robots up and running?

I think that’s what’s really interesting about hospital markets. It’s different than traditional warehouse or manufacturing automation. There’s people in the environment and they’re nurses and clinicians. The robot has to work within that environment and alongside the people. The first thing we do is workflow assessments. How does work currently happen in that environment?

Image Credits: Diligent Robotics

How has the pandemic impacted your own growth?

Pre-pandemic, we were still proving out product market fit. We were keeping the R & D team pretty small, making small tweaks to the product, but really, it was all about getting it out in front of customers and showing that they were really seeing value. And Now it’s all about execution and delivery, how do we make it as fast as possible to implement and as robust as possible. On the hardware side, in particular, it’s around design for manufacturing and reliability. Now that we’ve had robots out in the field for over a year, you’re starting to see some of the pieces and parts that we could get more reliability around, so we’re getting to that fun longtail of robotics.

Are there any surprising features or demands that people had of the robots that are a result of the pandemic?

I think that across all of our customer sites, the one request that we get, from every single nurse is, “is that robot gonna be able to bring me coffee?” They want Moxi to go to the Starbucks in the lobby and bring coffee for everyone. They try to justify that as a time savings, because then I wouldn’t have to go and stand in line at Starbucks. It’s not out of the question. But we’re not actively piloting that one.

So, you’re not going to build an espresso machine into Moxi?

Not in the next year.

Do you anticipate seeking additional funding at some point in the near future?

We are making plans for growth capital. They’re still working it out. But with the huge uptick in demand from customers, I think we’re ready to sort of accelerate some of our team and get more robots out.

Are you focusing on the U.S. for the time being?

For the time being. We are starting to consider what an international strategy would look like. I wouldn’t expect that we’ll have any international deployments next year, but we’ve started to have a lot of interest. We’re deciding what the right distribution partners would look like. We get several inquiries a month from international clients. At this point, we’re not actively in any project with them.

Safeway Tortoise

Image Credits: Tortoise/Albertsons

So, more on funding rounds and coffee deliveries at a later time. There are, however, a couple of delivery stories worth noting this week. First off, Tortoise (which we’ve covered a bunch in the past), is getting a big boost for its team of remote-controlled delivery bots. A deal with Idaho-based King Retail Solutions will bring more than 500 of its robots to U.S. sidewalks for last-mile delivery.

“Everybody’s waking up to this new reality that same-day is the new normal, and it’s just not sustainable on every possible front to have that consumer expectation be met with people making $20 an hour doing those deliveries,” CEO Dmitry Shevelenko said of the deal. “The math just doesn’t work.”

Yesterday, Google’s Wing announced its own partnership. Teaming with Australian retail property group Vicinity Centres lets the drone-based delivery program expand its footprint. Following the recent announcement of its 100,000th delivery, the Wing team says it’s already launched 2,500 deliveries from the roof of Logan, Australia’s Grand Plaza shopping center over the past month.

Residents can get bubble tea, juice, sushi and now health and beauty products. Says Wing, “Because almost every business has a roof, our new rooftop delivery model opens up the possibility for more businesses to offer drone delivery services with little additional cost or added infrastructure.”

Image Credits: Jamba/Blendid

Speaking of juice (not a segue I get to use very frequently in this roundup), Bay Area-based smoothie robot maker Blendid this week announced that it will be powering Jamba’s second mall kiosk. The location opened this week at a mall in Downey, California, a city in LA County that’s also home to the oldest operating McDonald’s (thanks, Wikipedia).

Wave of the future or gimmick? Yes and yes.

“After a successful launch of our first Jamba by Blendid kiosk, we’re excited to open a second test kiosk at the Stonewood Center, bringing freshly blended smoothies to mall shoppers,” Jamba president Geoff Henry, said in a release. “Jamba by Blendid provides an opportunity for our local franchisees to make smoothies more accessible to Jamba fans, while leveraging the latest in technology to deliver contactless food.”

Image Credits: Abundant Robotics

On the orchard side of the fruit business, The Robot Report this week notes that Wavemaker Labs has acquired the IP for Abundant Robotics, which shuffled off this mortal coil over the summer. Unfortunately, this likely doesn’t mean the return of Abundant’s apple-picking robots, but rather the integration of its technology into the robotic systems from Future Acres, a Wavemaker portfolio startup.

And finally, a quick bit of robotic search out of MIT that uses an RF antenna and camera mounted to an arm to find lost objects. Per the school:

Using machine learning, the robotic arm automatically zeroes-in on the object’s exact location, moves the items on top of it, grasps the object, and verifies that it picked up the right thing. The camera, antenna, robotic arm, and AI are fully integrated, so RFusion can work in any environment without requiring a special set up.