CHICAGO—At ProMat 2023 here last week, Plus One Robotics Inc. demonstrated its parcel-handling robots for warehouses, as well as an opportunity for attendees to “race the robot” in a pick-and-place process in virtual reality.
The materials handling conference came after an eventful time for technology startups like Plus One, with layoffs and the failure of Silicon Valley Bank.
Robotics 24/7 sat down with Erik Nieves, the founder and CEO of Plus One Robotics, to discuss his observations about ProMat and how the San Antonio, Texas-based company has weathered recent economic challenges.
Plus One Robotics at ProMat
How have ProMat attendees responded to the increasing number of robotics exhibitors?
Nieves: In the past, robots have come and gone from the show, but attendees are now seeing robots sticking and solving real problems. We wouldn't be here if they weren't.
Many processes in the warehouse are some combination of mobility and manipulation. We see some new entrants, like Brightpick.
How has picking changed in terms of demonstrations?
Nieves: Plus One is focused on parcel picking, not eaches, like RightHand Robotics.
There are a lot of different material handling applications today, like induction and depalletizing. There are other applications at the show this year, like truck loading and unloading.
What are your plans for expansion?
Nieves: One important way that picking has changed is that it is now a global solution. In the two years since the last ProMat [DX], we have deployed scores of systems in Europe. We eventually had to establish a subsidiary in the Netherlands to support the business.
We'll go where our customers take us, just like we were pulled into Europe. It's all about the application, product, and market.
Does the “Amazon effect” still apply? Amazon helped create the mobile robot category with its purchase of Kiva Systems in 2012, and its picking challenges advanced the state of the art for that task.
Nieves: In addition to supporting their own operations, Amazon's advances serve to describe to the broader industry the art of the possible. For example, with its Cardinal project, Amazon showed loading and unloading of roller carts, which are like pallets with three walls.
We're seeing a lot of interest in truck unloading at this ProMat, with four or five companies showing different approaches.
Surviving SVB's failure
Plus One Robotics recently raised $50 million in Series C funding. How did the failure of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) this month affect you?
Nieves: We announced the close of that fundraise on a Tuesday, and two days later, we couldn't touch it!
On Sunday, March 12, I had to e-mail the entire team to apprise them of the situation. I told them that our funds would ultimately be fine but that there might be a timing issue in accessing them.
The feds did the right thing by stepping in. Most startups are small or midsize enterprises, with less than 200 employees.
It was a 72-hour problem; by Monday [March 13], we had our money back and moved it to JPM [JPMorgan Chase & Co.].
This was a cautionary tale. Treasury management is still important. The SVB failure was a stark reminder to spread it around rather than putting all accounts in one bank.
Setting the record straight on layoffs
Numerous high-tech companies have laid off employees over the past few months. You posted on LinkedIn in January about Plus One's layoffs:
Why did you choose to make such a public announcement, and how was this different than other companies?
Nieves: As part of our annual planning back in November, we had asked, “What functions do we need in the year to come?” We knew we wouldn't need a full-time recruiter or two engineers for our expo hall in 2023.
Ten percent of our staff was eight roles, out of whom five are already working again. We wanted to help them find new jobs.
It was also to frame the context for our customers so they knew our support would continue. Plus One was and is in a strong financial position, so the RIF [reduction in force] was never about jumping on the layoffs bandwagon or cutting costs for impatient shareholders.
Editor's note: For more around ProMat 2023, visit Robotics 24/7's special coverage page.