Not only has the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated e-commerce demand, but it has also increased awareness of the need for safe and efficient food-handling automation. Soft Robotics Inc. today said it has raised a $10 million Series B extension to further expand its commercial operations.
“Today's industrial robots are unable to deal with product variability or unstructured environments typically found across the labor-challenged food supply chain in areas such as agriculture, food processing, and logistics,” stated Mark Chiappetta, chief operating officer 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.”
The Bedford, Mass.-based company said the latest capital will also support the launch of its SoftAI system. Soft Robotics claimed that SoftAI layers 3D vision and artificial intelligence on top of its patented, IP69K-rated, soft grasping to give industrial robots human-level hand-eye coordination.
“This unprecedented combination of robotic 'hands,' 'eyes,' and 'brains' enables, for the first time ever, the automation of bulk-picking processes (e.g. bin picking) in the food supply chain,” said the company.
Pandemic reveals need for more, better robots
In addition to SoftAI, Soft Robotics provides mGrip, a proprietary, modular soft robotic gripping system, and 3D machine perception. The company said it has hundreds of system installations, running billions of successful picks, in 24/7 production.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has increased the pressure to automate to alleviate workforce challenges and increase operational and food safety in factory environments. Soft Robotics said has experienced a spike 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,” he added. “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.”
Tyson joins Soft Robotics investors
The round was co-led by Material Impact, Scale Venture Partners, and Calibrate Ventures. Tyson Ventures, the venture capital arm of Tyson Foods, joined participants including ABB Technology Ventures and Tekfen Ventures. Past investors include FANUC, Honeywell Ventures, Hyperplane Venture Capital, Material Impact, and Yamaha Motor Co., Ltd.
Companies such as Tyson Foods are betting on adoption of robotic automation to help improve safety and increase production in their facilities to meet the demand for high quality, safe and nutritious protein products, said Soft Robotics. Tyson Foods is a leading producer of chicken, beef, and pork, and it has invested about $500 million in new technology and automation in the past three years. The company is an existing user of Soft Robotics.
“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.”
“We've been an investor in Soft Robotics since the very early stages, and their progress in the last 18 months has been phenomenal,” said 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,” Dunlap said.
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