Self-driving vehicle startup Argo AI completes $2.6B deal with Volkswagen, expands to Europe

Volkswagen Group finalized Tuesday its $2.6 billion investment into Argo AI, the Pittsburgh-based self-driving car startup that came out of stealth in 2017 with $1 billion in backing from Ford.

The deal turns Argo into a global company with two customers — VW and Ford — as well as operations in the U.S. and Europe and an instant jump in its workforce. Autonomous Intelligent Driving, the self-driving subsidiary that was launched in 2017 to develop autonomous vehicle technology for the VW Group, will be absorbed into Argo AI. AID’s Munich offices will become Argo’s European headquarters.

That integration, which can begin now that the deal has closed, will expand Argo’s workforce to more than 1,000 people. Argo also has offices in Detroit, Palo Alto, and Cranbury, New Jersey. The company has fleets of autonomous vehicles mapping and testing on public roads in Austin, Miami and Washington, D.C.

Argo AI is developing the virtual driver system and high-definition maps designed for Ford’s self-driving vehicles. That mission now expands to VW. Ford and VW will share the cost of developing Argo AI’s self-driving vehicle technology under the terms of the deal.

“Building a safe, scalable and trusted self-driving service, however, is no small task. It’s also not a cheap one,” Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC CEO John Lawler said in a blog post.

Two years ago, Ford said it would spend $4 billion through 2023 in a newly created LLC dedicated to building out an autonomous vehicles business. Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC houses the company’s self-driving systems integration, autonomous-vehicle research and advanced engineering, AV transportation-as-a-service network development, user experience, business strategy and business development teams.

Lawler emphasized that “sharing development costs” doesn’t mean Ford is reducing its overall spend in autonomous vehicles. Instead, the company said it will reallocate money towards development of transportation as a service software and fleet operations for its eventual self-driving service.

Despite this shared investment, Ford and VW will not collaborate on the actual self-driving vehicle service.

Lawler, who is also vice president of mobility partnerships at Ford, said the U.S. automaker “will remain independent and fiercely competitive in building its own self-driving service.”

Argo’s board will now be comprised of two VW seats, two Ford seats and three Argo seats.

Jeremy Conrad left his own VC firm to start a company, and investors like what he’s building

When this editor first met Jeremy Conrad, it was in 2014, at the 8,000-square-foot former fish factory that was home to Lemnos, a hardware-focused venture firm that Conrad had cofounded three years earlier.

Conrad —  who as a mechanical engineering undergrad at MIT worked on self driving cars, drones and satellites — was still excited about investing in hardware startups, having just closed a small new fund even while hardware was very unfashionable. One investment his team had made around that time was in Airware, a company that made subscription-based software for drones and attracted meaningful buzz and $118 million in venture funding before shutting down in 2018.

By then, Conrad had already moved on, deciding in late 2017 that one of the many nascent teams that was camping out at Lemnos was onto a big idea relating the future of construction. Conrad didn’t have a background in real estate or, at the time, a burning passion for the industry. But the “more I learned about it — not dissimilar to when I started Lemnos — It felt like there was a gap in the market, an opportunity that people were missing,” says Conrad from his home in San Francisco, where he has hunkered down throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

Enter Quartz, Conrad’s now 1.5-year-old, 14-person company, which quietly announced $7.75 million in Series A funding earlier this month, led by Baseline Ventures, with Felicis Ventures, Lemnos and Bloomberg Beta also participating.

What it’s selling to real estate developers, project managers and construction supervisors is really two things, which is safety and information. Using off-the-shelf hardware components that are reassembled in San Francisco and hardened (meaning secured to reduce vulnerabilities), the company incorporates its machine-learning software into this camera-based platform, then mounts the system onto cranes at construction sites. From there, the system streams 4K live feeds of what’s happening on the ground, while also making sense of the action.

Say dozens of concrete pouring trucks are expected on a construction site. The cameras, with their persistent view, can convey through a dashboard system whether and when the trucks have arrived and how many, says Conrad. It can determine how many people on are on a job site, and whether other deliveries have been made, even if not with a high degree of specificity. “We can’t say [to project managers] that 1,000 screws were delivered, but we can let them know whether the boxes they were expecting were delivered and where they were left,” he explains.

It’s an especially appealing proposition in the age of coronavirus, as the technology can help convey information that’s happening at a site that’s been shut down, or even how closely employees are gathered. Conrad says the technology also saves on time by providing information to those who might not otherwise be able to access it. Think of the developer who is on the 50th floor of the skyscraper he or she is building, or even the crane operator who is perhaps moving a two-ton object and has to rely on someone on the ground to deliver directions but can enjoy far more visibility with the aid of a multi-camera set-up.

Quartz, which today operates in California but is embarking on a nationwide rollout, was largely inspired by what Conrad was seeing in the world of self-driving. From sensors to self-perception systems, he knew the technologies would be even easier to deploy at construction sites, and he believed it could make them safer, too. Indeed, like cars, construction sites are astonishingly dangerous. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, of the worker fatalities in private industry in 2018, more than 20% were in construction.

Conrad also saw an opportunity to take on established companies like Trimble, a 42-year-old, publicly traded, Sunnyvale, Ca.-based company that sells a portfolio of tools to the construction industry and charges top dollar for them, too. (Quartz is currently charging $2,000 per month per construction site for its series of cameras, their installation, a livestream and “lookback” data, though this may well rise at its adds additional features.)

It’s a big enough opportunity in fact, that Quartz is not alone in chasing it. Last summer, for example, Versatile, an Israeli-based startup with offices in San Francisco and New York City, raised $5.5 million in seed funding from Germany’s Robert Bosch Venture Capital and several other investors for a very similar platform,  though it uses sensors mounted under the hook of a crane to provide information about what’s happening. Construction Dive, a media property that’s dedicated to the industry, highlights many other, similar and competitive startups in the space, too.

Still, Quartz has Conrad, who isn’t just any founding CEO. Not only does he have that background in engineering, but having founded a venture firm and spent years as an investor may serve him well, too. He thinks a lot about the payback period on its hardware, for example.

Unlike a lot of founders, he also says he loves the fundraising process. “I get the highest quality feedback from some of the smartest people I know, which really helps focus your vision,” says Conrad, who says that Quartz, which operates in California today, is now embarking on a nationwide rollout.

“When you talk with great VCs, they ask great questions. For me, it’s best free consulting you can get.”

TinyML is giving hardware new life

Aluminum and iconography are no longer enough for a product to get noticed in the marketplace. Today, great products need to be useful and deliver an almost magical experience, something that becomes an extension of life. Tiny Machine Learning (TinyML) is the latest embedded software technology that moves hardware into that almost magical realm, where machines can automatically learn and grow through use, like a primitive human brain.

Until now building machine learning (ML) algorithms for hardware meant complex mathematical modes based on sample data, known as “training data,” in order to make predictions or decisions without being explicitly programmed to do so. And if this sounds complex and expensive to build, it is. On top of that, traditionally ML-related tasks were translated to the cloud, creating latency, consuming scarce power and putting machines at the mercy of connection speeds. Combined, these constraints made computing at the edge slower, more expensive and less predictable.

But thanks to recent advances, companies are turning to TinyML as the latest trend in building product intelligence. Arduino, the company best known for open-source hardware is making TinyML available for millions of developers. Together with Edge Impulse, they are turning the ubiquitous Arduino board into a powerful embedded ML platform, like the Arduino Nano 33 BLE Sense and other 32-bit boards. With this partnership you can run powerful learning models based on artificial neural networks (ANN) reaching and sampling tiny sensors along with low-powered microcontrollers.

Over the past year great strides were made in making deep learning models smaller, faster and runnable on embedded hardware through projects like TensorFlow Lite for Microcontrollers, uTensor and Arm’s CMSIS-NN. But building a quality dataset, extracting the right features, training and deploying these models is still complicated. TinyML was the missing link between edge hardware and device intelligence now coming to fruition.

Tiny devices with not-so-tiny brains

SoftBank led $500M investment in Didi in China’s biggest autonomous driving round

The race to automate vehicles on China’s roads is heating up. Didi, the Uber of China, announced this week an outsized investment of over $500 million in its freshly minted autonomous driving subsidiary. Leading the round — the single largest fundraising round in China’s autonomous driving sector — is its existing investor Softbank, the Japanese telecom giant and startup benefactor that has also backed Uber.

The proceeds came through Softbank’s second Vision Fund, which was reportedly lagging in fundraising as its Fund I recorded massive losses in part due to the collapsing valuation of WeWork.

As China’s largest ride-hailing provider with mountains of traffic data, Didi clearly has an upper hand in developing robotaxis, which could help address driver shortage in the long term. But it was relatively late to the field. In 2018, Didi ranked eighth in kilometers of autonomous driving tests carried out in Beijing, far behind search giant Baidu which accounted for over 90% of the total mileage that year.

It’s since played aggressive catchup. Last August, it spun off its then three-year-old autonomous driving unit into an independent company to focus on R&D, building partnerships along the value chain, and promoting the futuristic technology to the government. The team now has a staff of 200 across its China and U.S. offices.

As an industry observer told me, “robotaxis will become a reality only when you have the necessary operational skills, technology and government support all in place.”

Didi is most famous for its operational efficiency, as facilitating safe and pleasant rides between drivers and passengers is no small feat. The company’s leadership hails from Alibaba’s legendary business-to-business sales team, also known as the “Alibaba Iron Army” for its ability in on-the-ground operation.

On the tech front, the subsidiary is headed by chief executive Zhang Bo, a Baidu veteran, and chief technology officer Wei Junqing, who joined last year from self-driving software company Aptiv.

The autonomous segment can also benefit from Didi’s all-encompassing reach in the mobility industry. For instance, it’s working to leverage the parent company’s smart charging networks, fleet maintenance service and insurance programs for autonomous fleets.

The fresh capital will enable Didi’s autonomous business to improve safety — an area that became a focal point of the company after two deadly accidents — and efficiency through conducting R&D and road tests. The financing will also allow it to deepen industry cooperation and accelerate the deployment of robotaxi services in China and abroad.

Over the years, Didi has turned to traditional carmakers for synergies in what it dubs the “D-Alliance,” which counts more than 31 partners. It has applied autonomous driving technology to vehicles from Lincoln, Nissan, Volvo, BYD, to name a few.

Didi has secured open-road testing licenses in three major cities in China as well as California. It said last August that it aimed to begin picking up ride-hailing passengers with autonomous cars in Shanghai in a few months’ time. It’s accumulated 300,000 kilometers of road tests in China and the U.S. as of last August.

The headline of this article was corrected on May 29, 2020.

Where these 4 top VCs are investing in manufacturing

Even though it’s a vast sector in the midst of transformation, manufacturing is often overlooked by early-stage investors. We surveyed top VCs in the industry to gather their perspectives on the challenges and opportunities facing manufacturing.

Traditionally, manufacturing companies are capital-intensive and can be slow to implement new technology and processes. The investors in the survey below acknowledge the long-standing barriers facing founders in this space, yet they see large opportunities where startups can challenge incumbents.

These investors noted that the pandemic is bringing overnight change in the manufacturing world; old rules are being rewritten in the face of worker safety, remote work and the need for increased automation. According to Eclipse Ventures founder Lior Susan, “COVID-19 has exposed the systemic vulnerabilities inherent to manufacturing and supply chain and, as such, significant opportunities for innovation. The market was lukewarm for a long time — it’s time to turn up the heat.”



Lior Susan, Eclipse Ventures

What trends are you most excited about in manufacturing from an investing perspective?

Digital solutions that offer manufacturers greater agility and resilience will become major areas of focus for investors. For example, manufacturers still reliant on manual assembly were unable to build products when factories closed due to the coronavirus lockdown. While nothing would have kept production at 100%, the ability to quickly pivot and engage software-defined processes would have allowed manufacturing lines to continue building with a skeleton crew (especially important for any facility required to implement social distancing). Such systems have remote monitoring capabilities and computer vision systems to flag defeats in real-time and halt production if necessary.

R&D Roundup: ‘Twisted light’ lasers, prosthetic vision advances and robot-trained dogs

I see far more research articles than I could possibly write up. This column collects the most interesting of those papers and advances, along with notes on why they may prove important in the world of tech and startups.

In this edition: a new type of laser emitter that uses metamaterials, robot-trained dogs, a breakthrough in neurological research that may advance prosthetic vision and other cutting-edge technology.

Twisted laser-starters

We think of lasers as going “straight” because that’s simpler than understanding their nature as groups of like-minded photons. But there are more exotic qualities for lasers beyond wavelengths and intensity, ones scientists have been trying to exploit for years. One such quality is… well, there are a couple names for it: Chirality, vorticality, spirality and so on — the quality of a beam having a corkscrew motion to it. Applying this quality effectively could improve optical data throughput speeds by an order of magnitude.

The trouble with such “twisted light” is that it’s very difficult to control and detect. Researchers have been making progress on this for a couple of years, but the last couple weeks brought some new advances.

First, from the University of the Witwatersrand, is a laser emitter that can produce twisted light of record purity and angular momentum — a measure of just how twisted it is. It’s also compact and uses metamaterials — always a plus.

The second is a pair of matched (and very multi-institutional) experiments that yielded both a transmitter that can send vortex lasers and, crucially, a receiver that can detect and classify them. It’s remarkably hard to determine the orbital angular momentum of an incoming photon, and hardware to do so is clumsy. The new detector is chip-scale and together they can use five pre-set vortex modes, potentially increasing the width of a laser-based data channel by a corresponding factor. Vorticality is definitely on the roadmap for next-generation network infrastructure, so you can expect startups in this space soon as universities spin out these projects.

Tracing letters on the brain-palm

Sphero appoints new CEO, spins off robotics startup for first responders

Sphero just announced that it has spun off another company. Once again, the new startup has a decidedly different focus from its parent company’s core of education-focused products. While still a robotics company at its heart, the underwhelmingly named Company Six will create robotic systems designed for first responders and other humans whose work requires them to put themselves in harm’s way.

Also snuck into the press into the press release almost as an an after thought, is the appointment of Paul Copioli as the new CEO of Sphero, effective immediately. The executive is an industry veteran, who has worked at VEX Robotics, industrial robotics giant Fanuc and Lockheed Martin. Most recently, he was the President and COO of LittleBits when the startup was acquired by Sphero.

Copioli takes over after the company’s exit from the consumer space. Sphero has pivoted almost entirely into the educational market, with the LittleBits acquisition making up an important piece of the puzzle.

“It’s an honor to lead the Sphero team as we continue to pave the way for accessible robots, STEAM and computer science education for kids around the world,” he says in a release “With our focus on education and our mission to inspire the creators of tomorrow, Sphero has a long-standing place in our school systems and beyond.”

Spinning Company Six off as its own independent entity is seemingly part of the new focus. The seeds of the startups were formed by former CEO Paul Berberian’s Public Safety Division within Sphero. He has since shifted to become Chairman of both companies, while former Sphero COO Jim Booth will head Company Six as COO. Got all that?

Company Six has already closed a $3 million seemed round, lead by Spider Capital, with Sphero investors Foundry Group and Techstars also on-board. Like previous Sphero spinoff Misty, information about Company Six is minimal at the time of its announcement. The new company’s site is essentially bare. We only know it will be focused on creating robotic systems for first responders, defense workers and other dangerous jobs. The news echoes iRobot’s 2016 spinoff of its military wing, Endeavor. 

Sphero explains,

By applying the experience used to bring more than 4 million robots to market at Sphero, the Company Six team believes it can create products that are not only robust and feature-rich enough for professional applications, but also affordable enough to be adopted by the majority, rather than the minority, of civilian and military personnel.

More news to follow soon, no doubt.

China’s Geek+ brings warehouse robots to US via Conveyco partnership

Chinese robots will soon be seen roaming a number of warehouse floors across North America. Geek+, a well-funded Chinese robotics company that specializes in logistics automation for factories, warehouses and supply chains, furthers its expansion in North America after striking a strategic partnership with Conveyco, an order fulfillment and distribution center system integrator with operations across the continent.

Geek+ is seizing a massive opportunity in replacing repetitive warehouse work with unmanned robots, a demand that has surged during the coronavirus outbreak as logistics services around the world face labor shortage, respond to an uptick in e-commerce sales, and undertake disease prevention methods.

The partnership will bring Geek+’s autonomous mobile robots, or ARMs, to Conveyco’s clients in retail, ecommerce, omnichannel and logistics across North America. The deal will give a substantial boost to Geek’s overseas distribution while helping Conveyco to “improve efficiency, provide flexibility, and reduce costs associated with warehouse and logistics operations in various industries,” the partners said in a statement.

Beijing-based Geek+ so far operates 10,000 robots worldwide and employs some 800 employees, with offices in China, Germany, the U.K, the U.S., Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Some of its clients include Nike, Decathlon, Walmart and Dell.

Since founding in 2015, the company has raised about $390 million through five funding rounds, according to public data collected by Crunchbase, including a colossal $150 million round back in 2018 which it claimed was the largest-ever funding round for a logistics robotics startup. It counts Warburg Pincus, Vertex Ventures and GGV Capital among its list of investors.

Robotic exosuits show ‘immediate improvements’ to walking speeds of stroke survivors

A new small study out of Harvard and Boston University is targeting the use of soft robotic exosuits among stroke survivors. The aim is to demonstrate how such technologies could impact the rehabilitation of patients suffering hemiparesis, a kind of paralysis that impacts muscles and limbs on one side of the body.

The results so far seem promising. Among the six patients involved in the study, walking speed has been improved by an average of 0.14 meters a second. The patients are also able to walk 32 meters further on average during a six minute interval, with one walking more than 100 meters further.

The suit itself is small and soft, weighing around 11 pounds, including battery. Electronics aside, it’s largely fabric-based, with actuators mounted on the wearer’s hip. Those are used to assist movement in the ankles by way of attached cables. The system can be worn on either side of the body.

“The vast majority of people who have had a stroke walk slowly and cannot walk very far. Faster and farther walking after physical therapy are among the most important outcomes desired by both, patients and clinicians. If neither speed nor distance are changed by a therapy, it would be difficult to consider that therapy to be effective,” study co-author and Harvard Wyss faculty member Lou Awad says in a release.“The levels of improvement in speed and distance that we found in our exploratory study exceeded our expectations for an immediate effect without any training and highlight the promise of the exosuit technology.”

Awad says the team is “eager” to explore the results in settings outside of the lab. The team’s findings were published in IEEE Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology (OJEMB)

This flexible robot is a speedy runner — and not a bad swimmer

Soft robots have been a booming category for research and manufacturing in recent years, due to a number of beneficial characteristics. The field has become increasingly important to things like robotic graspers, which rely on their compliance to pick up fragile objects like fruit.

Speed, on the other hand, doesn’t tend to be a word that comes up often when discussing the category. But a team a North Caroline State is demonstrating that quick movements and soft materials need not be mutually exclusive.

The researchers have designed a quadrupedal robot that utilizes a compliant center to gallop forward, two legs at a time. It’s a fascinating bit of locomotion, as evidenced by the below video.

According to the team, LEAP can ran at speeds of 2.7 body lengths per second — that makes it around three times faster than speeds hit by the fastest soft robots. What’s more, by attaching a fin, it’s capable of swimming 0.78 body lengths a second, versus the 0.7 achieved by the last soft robot to claim top speed.

The team took inspiration from cheetahs — because what else are you going to take inspiration from when attempting to build a fast robot?

“We were inspired by the cheetah to create a type of soft robot that has a spring-powered, ‘bistable’ spine, meaning that the robot has two stable states,” assistant professor Jie Yin says in a release tied to the news. “We can switch between these stable states rapidly by pumping air into channels that line the soft, silicone robot. Switching between the two states releases a significant amount of energy, allowing the robot to quickly exert force against the ground. This enables the robot to gallop across the surface, meaning that its feet leave the ground.”

As for the part of the conversation where the researchers state real-world possibilities for the technology, that bit is still a little hazy. It’s not entirely sure how such a strange little robot could find a place for itself in the real world; the team has suggested search and rescue, along with manufacturing.

Yin adds, “We’re open to collaborating with the private sector to fine-tune ways they can incorporate this technology into their operations.”