US food robotics company Soft Robotics Inc has announced a $10m Series B funding extension, with the capital raised going towards the launch of its SoftAI™ powered robotic solution that layers 3D vision and AI on top of the company’s patented ‘mGrip’ IP69K-rated, soft grasping technology to give industrial robots the hand-eye coordination of human beings.
The Massachussetts-based firm says this combination of robotic ‘hands’, ‘eyes’ and ‘brains’ heralds the automation of bulk picking processes (for example, bin picking) in the food supply chain.
The round was co-led by Material Impact, Scale Venture Partners, and Calibrate Ventures and sees Tyson Ventures (the VC arm of Tyson Foods) become a new investor. ABB Technology Ventures and Tekfen Ventures also participated to complete the round.
“Today’s industrial robots are unable to deal with product variability or unstructured environments typically found across the labour challenged food supply chain in areas such as agriculture, food processing, and logistics,” said Mark Chiappetta, COO at Soft Robotics.
“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.”
Tyson Foods, which was already using Soft Robotics technology before its investment, says it sees the adoption of robotic automation as essential in helping to improve safety and productivity in their facilities, to meet the demand for high quality, safe and nutritious protein products. Tyson Foods is a leading producer of chicken, beef, and pork, and has invested about US$500 million in new technology and automation in the last three years.
“At Tyson Ventures, we are continually exploring new areas in automation that can enhance safety and increase the productivity of our team members,” said Rahul Ray, senior director of Tyson Ventures. “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.”
The global COVID-19 pandemic has ratcheted up the pressure to automate to alleviate workforce challenges and increase operational and food safety in factory environments. Soft Robotics has experienced a rapid increase in demand for its products and has delivered the two largest sales quarters in the company’s seven-year history.
“This is an exciting time at Soft Robotics,” said Jeff Beck, CEO at Soft Robotics. “The vulnerabilities of the food supply chain were illuminated by the pandemic making it clear that automation has graduated from a nice-to-have to a must-have across all large scale food production operations. Soft Robotics patented technologies are ready and being used today to enable automation in the processing and packaging of proteins, produce and bakery products. Demand for both our hardware and SoftAI software solutions are increasing at an unprecedented pace. This new capital will support Soft Robotics’ exponential growth thereby ensuring automation plays a major role in safeguarding the food supply against future disruptions.”
“We’ve been an investor in Soft Robotics since the very early stages and their progress in the last 18 months has been phenomenal,” added Kevin Dunlap, managing partner at Calibrate Ventures. “Their SoftAI solution, combining patented soft robotic grippers, ultra-fast 3D vision, and sophisticated AI that evaluates a scene to autonomously choose the optimal grasping solution, is the future of robotics and an absolute game-changer for the food and logistics industries. Companies in these sectors are rapidly adopting SoftAI in their factories to automate picking and sorting of fragile or irregularly-shaped products such as meats, produce, and seasonal items that previously had to be hand-sorted.”