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Any port in a storm – TechCrunch

We have a big one Event on July 22nd. This means, among other things, that we have been working diligently on the programming for several months. Honestly, the hardest part of the process for me so far is not being able to come straight out and tell you about all the people we’ve signed up for so far. Luckily, we started guest announcements earlier this week and will continue to do so over the coming months.

This is an exciting event for me for several reasons. The first is easy: In 2021, we skipped TC Sessions: Robotics for the first time since 2017. The previous event made it just under the wire in March 2020 on the Berkeley campus. It was the last in-person event we ran before going without in-person events for a while.

While our events team did a commendable job in transitioning to the online setting, we made the collective decision that a virtual robotics event didn’t make much sense. What’s special about a robotics event is that people want to see robots. I mean, people also want to hear other people talking about robots, provided that that’s punctuated by the presence of actual robots.

The general nervousness I feel after a year’s absence is compounded quite intensely by all the things that have happened in the industry during my absence. I’ve written a lot on these pages about how transformative the pandemic era has been for robotics and automation. It’s a feeling I really hope to illustrate with the conversations we’ve curated. Categories such as fulfillment, risk, work, education and human-robot interaction are at the top of the agenda. And honestly, the only major limitation I feel about all of this is the tight stage time – I would have loved to have planned a multi-day event.

The other big reason I’m looking forward to the show is geographically. We are returning to Boston for the first time since our inaugural event in 2017. I love Berkeley, but it’s exciting to be back on the East Coast in a city so densely populated with some of the world’s top universities – and to bring our programming to new audiences.

In this sense, Dean Kamen will be from New Hampshire For the event. We had a fascinating conversation with the Segway/iBOT/AutoSyringe inventor here at Actuator back in February. We spoke about his work with STEM-focused youth organization FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and talked about things like education and preparing the workforce for an automated future. I am pleased that in July we will have an opportunity to expand on these topics – and more.

Speaking of segues, something I keep coming back to goes beyond the sheer amount of VC funding currently being pumped into the category. The range of automation challenges is fascinating. I think that’s well illustrated by two funding news stories that we released this week. One company makes recycling robots and the other cleans the front of ships.

Both startups share a climate angle (as, frankly, all new technology should do in 2022), although in this case they are much more distinct of the glacier. It joins a growing number of companies building recycling robots. AMP is arguably the biggest name in this category, but there’s still a lot of room here if we’re serious about recycling. Glacier wants to benefit from advances in technology that have made the dirty work of identifying recyclable materials automatable through machine learning and computer vision. The founders say the key differentiators of the technology are size and pricing.

Photo credit: glacier robotics

“To ensure we can offer a unique value proposition, we surveyed over a dozen recycling facilities to understand the industry’s take on existing robotic solutions,” co-founder Rebecca Hu told TechCrunch. “The feedback we received was shockingly unanimous. Everyone knew about AI-enabled robotics and its potential to improve profitability and sort consistency. However, every facility we spoke to also had concerns that existing robots were too expensive and too big for their jobs. Remember that recycling facilities are space constrained, which means every square foot counts.”

In addition to emerging from stealth, Glacier also announced a $4.5 million seed round led by New Enterprise Associates. The money will be used to increase headcount and accelerate commercial deployment.

Neptune Robotics The climate angle is a little less simple. The company builds robots that clean ship hulls. Biofouling (the accumulation of plant and plant matter such as algae and barnacles) increases fuel economy by about 15% on average. The Hong Kong-based company has piloted some of the best ports in the world (all in Asia at the moment) and plans for broader global expansion. This will be achieved in part thanks to a new $17.25 million round of funding.

Photo credit: Neptune Robotics

“We started as a threesome in November 2018, grew to 18 in 2020 and now [we’re] at 60,” co-founder and CEO Elizabeth Chan told TechCrunch. “Some of the funding will be used to attract engineering talent, industry experts and marine biologists. With around 120 employees in 2023, we will expand Neptune’s robot offering, expand into more ports and increase our customers’ fuel efficiency in an environmentally friendly way. Broad port coverage is essential to better serve our customers in the maritime industry.”

Considering pandemic-driven trends, sterilizing robots really have had their moment in the sun. I’ve seen many of these hype cycles die down as health officials became more focused on respiratory transmission versus surfaces, but there will always be a market for robotic cleaners. This week, SoftBank Robotics announced that it has acquired a minority stake in Hong Kong-based Avalon SteriTech (subject to regulatory approval).

“SoftBank Robotics continues to identify innovative business approaches that allow us to stay at the forefront of delivering robotics solutions. Equity investments are a capital-efficient way for us to increase our exposure to the ever-evolving competitive landscape of robotics,” SoftBank Robotics’ Kenichi Yoshida said in a press release. “This opportunity to increase our stake and commitment will strengthen our disinfection robot category. We are pleased to have found a like-minded partner like Avalon SteriTech who, with their extensive knowledge of the biomedical field, will be instrumental in the success of this joint venture.”

Meanwhile, over in Japan, Rapyuta Robotics scored a beefy $51 million in funding led by Goldman Sachs. Series C brings the Tokyo-based company’s total funding to $81 million. Rapyuta specializes in picking robots for logistics. Of course, investors cite bottlenecks in the supply chain as a major driver.

Photo credit: Rapyuta robotics

“As the global logistics industry expands rapidly due to rising demand for e-commerce, it faces a wave of digitization and the challenge of labor shortages,” says Goldman’s Stephanie Hui. “As the industry looks to automation solutions to improve efficiency, we are optimistic about Rapyuta Robotics’ growth as a pioneer in cloud robotics platforms.”

Photo credit: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

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