Soft Robotics, which is best known for making octopus-like grippers for robots, announced today that it has raised a $10 million extension to the $23 million Series B round it raised in January 2020. The round was co-led by Material Impact, Scale Venture Partners and Calibrate Ventures, and adds Tyson Ventures (the venture arm of Tyson Foods) to the syndicate. ABB Technology Ventures and Tekfen Ventures participated as well. This brings the total amount of funding raised by Soft Robotics to $58 million.
Soft Robotics uses rubber tipped grippers with “air actuated soft elastomeric end effectors” that mimic an octopus, allowing robotic arms to pick up odd-shaped and delicate items like eggs and bread without crushing them. The company says the new capital will help Soft Robotics launch its new SoftAI technology, which adds layers of 3D vision and artificial intelligence to its gripping solution.
According to Soft Robotics’ website, “SoftAI will evaluate the pick scene and automatically choose the best grasp and ideal robot trajectory to optimize rate and reduce product damage.” It’s easy to see how this type of automated discernment would come in handy for a company like Tyson Foods (which was already using Soft Robotics before it invested), which needs to pick up and pack all different types of animal products of varying shapes and sizes.
In addition to its new technology, Soft Robotics said its new funding will go towards commercial expansion to keep up with pandemic-driven demand. Last year COVID-19 exposed shortcomings in our food supply chain, with meatpacking facilities, which were already a dangerous place to work, becoming hot spots for the virus. Implementing robots in a meatpacking or other food-related factory can help add additional safety and social distancing to the work environment. Robotic arms can work all day without fatigue or injury, and placing robots on a line can help space out workers, so people aren’t working right next to each other.
During our first ArituclATE food conference back in 2019, a robotics researcher told me that robotic “grippers all suck.” But that appears to be changing. In addition to Soft Robotics’ octopus approach, new technologies based on origami (paper folding) and kirigami (paper cutting) are creating entirely new types of gripping technology that can be used for odd-shaped and delicate items. The combination of the pandemic and investor interest could help fuel accelerated development and implementation of this new gripper technology and unlock new areas and uses for robots in food production.