UPDATED 09:00 EDT / APRIL 10 2024


Secretive robotics startup Collaborative Robotics closes on $100M round

The robotics startup Collaborative Robotics Inc. said today it has closed on a bumper $100 million round of funding.

Today’s Series B round was led by General Catalyst and saw the participation of a host of other new investors, including Bison Ventures, Industry Ventures and Lux Capital, plus existing investors Sequoia Capital, Khosla Ventures, Mayo Clinic, Neo, 1984 Ventures, MVP Ventures and Calibrate Ventures. The round comes just nine months after the startup closed on a $30 million Series A investment, bringing its total amount raised to more than $140 million, all in less than two years.

Collaborative Robotics was founded in 2022 by the former head of Amazon.com Inc.’s robotics unit, Brad Porter (pictured, center), who is backed by a team of robotics experts from prestigious companies and organizations such as Apple Inc., Google LLC, Meta Platforms Inc., Microsoft Corp. and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Porter was a key figure in the development of Amazon’s warehouse automation systems that power hundreds of that company’s fulfillment centers, and he is leveraging the expertise acquired there to develop a new kind of collaborative robot, or cobot, that’s designed to work alongside humans and in close proximity to them. They’re primarily designed to automate tasks such as moving merchandise, such as boxes, totes and carts, in warehouse facilities.

According to the startup, although robots are already fairly commonplace in the logistics industry, such systems can still perform only very basic tasks. More complicated jobs still require human input, and it’s this challenge that it’s attempting to tackle. In other words, it’s building more capable cobots that require less human input to do their jobs.

Despite raising millions, the startup has been quite secretive about the exact capabilities of its cobots, and to date it hasn’t even released any images of what they look like. However, it has previously disclosed that it’s not building the humanoid robot designs preferred by industry rivals such as Figure AI Inc., which raised a massive $625 million in funding just two months ago, and Agility Robotics Inc., whose last round in 2022 reeled in $150 million.

Impressively, the startup has managed to maintain its veil of secrecy even after deploying its prototype cobots at multiple customers’ warehouses in the biotech, healthcare, logistics and manufacturing industries. Those customers have been able to access the startup’s tech through its Cobot Flywheel Program.

Porter did share a few details with SiliconANGLE, saying his team has developed a “truly novel cobot” that doesn’t yet exist in the commercial robotics marketplace. The reason for the secrecy is that the company wants to protect the novelty of its design as it begins to scale up its manufacturing operations.

“We’re not showing images of the robot yet, but we can say that it is similar in dimensions to a human, and can fit through a typical doorway and is not quite six feet tall,” Porter said. “The robot sees the world through sensors placed at the same height as humans see the world, at about five-foot-eight-inches. It has four wheels and can move in any direction.”

According to Porter, it’s also extremely capable, able to grab boxes, totes and carts using a proprietary loading, unloading and attaching mechanism that ensures the robot remains centered on its four wheels at all times. The advantage of this design, he said, is that there’s no need to worry about the complex balancing act that’s necessary when building truly humanoid robots that walk on two legs.

Porter didn’t dismiss the need for humanoid robots, noting that they have the advantage of being able to work in rough terrain, meaning they can be useful for missions like disaster recovery. But he said his company’s design is superior for most commercial settings.

“We think humanoid robots and mobile cobots will co-exist in the future, but there will be far more mobile cobots,” he insisted. “Humanoid robots are expensive and complicated, and they can’t move as quickly or as fluidly as a wheeled robot in commercial spaces. They have a greater risk of falling over too. We believe we have designed a more trustworthy, more reliable and lower-cost robot that performs the tasks of moving boxes, totes and carts better than humanoids would.”

Porter said today’s round is a major milestone for the company in its mission to bring cobots with human-level capabilities to key industries. “We see a virtuous cycle where more robots in the field lead to improved AI and a more cost-effective supply chain,” he said. “This funding will help us accelerate getting more robots into the real world.”

Collaborative Robotics believes that cobots will transform industries such as manufacturing, healthcare, retail and e-commerce, and more by enhancing efficiency, increasing workplace safety and ultimately, boosting return on investment. It sees its cobots being used in many more settings besides logistics warehouses. For instance, they could be deployed in offices, sports stadiums, hotels and more, performing tasks such as cleaning and guiding visitors around.

Holger Mueller of Constellation Research Inc. said Collaborative Robotics is pursuing a proven strategy with its cobots, which will work alongside humans and learn from them. “To address the lack of resources and skilled works, enterprises need to change their hands-to-machine ratio, and robots such as “cobots” are one way to do this,” he said. “Today’s funding should be just what the company needs to take its first customers live and show us what it can do in this new category of robotics.”

General Catalyst Managing Director Paul Kwan said the startup is “spearheading the future of human-robot interaction,” with a pragmatic approach based on the development of highly versatile and capable cobots.

In addition to today’s funding, which will be used to expand the startup’s team and advance its commercial deployments, it also secured the services of well-known technology industry executive Teresa Carlson, who has taken on an advisory role.

Carlson previously led digital transformation at Amazon Web Services Inc. as its head of Worldwide Public Sector and Regulated Industries. Prior to that, she served as senior vice president and executive in residence at Microsoft Corp. She has also worked as the operations, president and chief growth officer at Splunk Inc.

“During my time at Amazon, I had the opportunity to partner with Brad on several transformative initiatives,” she said. “I’m excited to work with Brad again at General Catalyst to transform and scale industrial automation for industries worldwide.”

Image: Cobot

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