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German Bionic raises $20M led by Samsung for exoskeleton tech to supercharge human labor

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Exoskeleton technology has been one of the more interesting developments in the world of robotics: instead of building machines that replace humans altogether, build hardware that humans can wear to supercharge their abilities. Today, German Bionic, one of the startups designing exoskeletons specifically aimed at industrial and physical applications — it describes its Cray X robot as “the world’s first connected exoskeleton for industrial use,” that is, to help people lifting and working with heavy objects with more power, precision and safety — is announcing a funding round that underscores the opportunity ahead.

The Augsburg, Germany-based company has raised $20 million, funding that it plans to use to continue building out its business, as well as its technology, both in terms of the hardware and the cloud-based software platform, German Bionic IO, that works with the exoskeletons to optimize them and help them “learn” to work better.

The Cray X currently can compensate up to 30 kg for each lifting movement, the company says.

“With our groundbreaking robotic technology that combines human work with the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), we literally strengthen the shop floor workers’ backs in an immediate and sustainable way. Measurable data underscores that this ultimately increases productivity and the efficiency of the work done,” says Armin G. Schmidt, CEO of German Bionic, in a statement. “The market for smart human-machine systems is huge and we are now perfectly positioned to take a major share and substantially improve numerous working lives.”

The Series A is being co-led by Samsung Catalyst Fund, a strategic investment arm from the hardware giant, and German investor MIG AG, one of the original backers of BioNtech, the breakthrough company that’s developed the first Covid-19 vaccine to be rolled out globally.

Storm Ventures, Benhamou Global Ventures (founded and led by Eric Benhamou, who was the founding CEO of Palm and before that the CEO of 3com), and IT Farm all also participated. Previously, German Bionic had only raised $3.5 million in seed funding (with IT Farm, Atlantic Labs, and individual investors participating).

German Bionic’s rise comes at an interesting moment in terms of how automation and cloud technology are sweeping the world of work. When people talk about the next generation of industrial work, the focus is usually on more automation and the rise of robots to replace humans in different stages of production.

But at the same time, some robotics technologists have worked on another idea. Since we’re still probably still a long way away unable to make robots that are just like humans but better in terms of cognition and all movements, instead, create hardware that doesn’t replace, but augments, live laborers, to help make them stronger while still being able to retain the reliable and fine-tuned expertise of those humans.

The argument for more automation in industrial settings has taken on a more pointed urgency in recent times, with the rise of the Covid-19 global health pandemic: factories have been one of the focus points for outbreaks, and the tendency has been to reduce physical contact and proximity to reduce the spread of the virus.

Exoskeletons don’t really address that aspect of Covid-19 — even if you might require less of them as a result of using exoskeletons, you still require humans to wear them, after all — but the general focus that automation has had has brought more attention to the opportunity of using them.

And in any case, even putting the pandemic to one side, we are still a long way away from cost-effective robots that completely replace humans in all situations. So, as we roll out vaccinations and develop a better understanding of how the virus operates, this still means a strong market for the exoskeleton concept, which analysts (quoted by German Bionic) predict could be worth as much as $20 billion by 2030.

In that context, it’s interesting to consider Samsung as an investor: the company itself, as one of the world’s leading consumer electronics and industrial electronics providers, is a manufacturing powerhouse in its own right. But it also makes equipment for others to use in their industrial work, both as a direct brand and through subsidiaries like Harman. It’s not clear which of these use cases interests Samsung: whether to use the Cray X in its own manufacturing and logistics work, or whether to become a strategic partner in manufacturing these for others. It could easily be both.

“We are pleased to support German Bionic in its continued development of world-leading exoskeleton technology,” says Young Sohn, Corporate President and Chief Strategy Officer for Samsung Electronics and Chairman of the Board, Harman, in a statement. “Exoskeleton technologies have great promise in enhancing human’s health, wellbeing and productivity. We believe that it can be a transformative technology with mass market potential.”

German Bionic describes its Cray X as a “self-learning power suit” aimed primarily at reinforcing lifting movements and to safeguard the wearer from making bad calls that could cause injuries. That could apply both to those in factories, or those in warehouses, or even sole trader mechanics working in your local garage. The company is not disclosing a list of customers, except to note that it includes, in the words of a spokesperson, “a big logistics player, industrial producers and infrastructure hubs.” One of these, the Stuttgart Airport, is highlighted on its site.  

“Previously, efficiency gains and health promotion in manual labor were often at odds with one another. German Bionic Systems managed to not only break through this paradigm, but also to make manual labor a part of the digital transformation and elegantly integrate it into the smart factory,” says Michael Motschmann, managing partner with MIG in a statement. “We see immense potential with the company and are particularly happy to be working together with a first-class team of experienced entrepreneurs and engineers.”

Exoskeletons as a concept have been around for over a decade already — MIT developed its first exoskeleton, aimed to help soldiers carrying heavy loads — back in 2007, but advancements in cloud computing, smaller processors for the hardware itself, and artificial intelligence have really opened up the idea of where and how these might augment humans. In addition to industry, some of the other applications have included helping people with knee injuries (or looking to avoid knee injuries!) ski better, and for medical purposes, although the recent pandemic has put a strain on some of these use cases, leading to indefinite pauses in production.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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‘Flying taxi’ startup Volocopter picks up another $241M, says service is now two years out

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In a year where mass transit on airplanes, trains and buses has had lower traveler numbers in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, one of the startups hoping to pioneer a totally new approach to getting individuals from A to B — flying taxis — has raised some significant funding.

Volocopter, a startup out of southern Germany (Bruchsal, specifically) that has been building and testing electric VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft, has picked up €200 million (about $241 million) in a Series D round of funding. Alongside its aircraft, Volocopter has also been building a business case in which its vessels will be used in a taxi-style fleet in urban areas. CEO Florian Reuter tells us that live services are now two years out for the two vehicle models it has been developing.

“We are actually expecting to certify our VoloCity in around two years and start commercial air taxi operations right after,” he said. “Paris and Singapore are in pole position [as the first cities], where Paris wants to get have electric air taxis established for the 2024 Olympics. With our VoloDrone we expect first commercial flights even earlier than with our VoloCity.”

To date, Volocopter has shown off its craft in flights in Helsinki, Stuttgart, Dubai, and over Singapore’s Marina Bay. In addition to Europe and Asia, it also wants to launch services in the U.S..

For some context, this is basically on track with what the company had previously projected: in 2019 — when Volocopter raised an initial $55 million in funding for its Series C (finally closed out at €87 million, around $94 million) — the company said it was three years away from service.

This latest (oversubscribed) Series D includes investments from a mix of financial and strategic backers. Funds managed by BlackRock; global infrastructure company Atlantia S.p.A.; Avala Capital; automotive parts behemoth Continental AG; Japan’s NTT via its venture capital arm; Tokyo Century, a Japanese leasing company; multiple family offices are all new investors, among others. Volocopter also said that all of its existing investors — that list includes Geely, Daimler, DB Schenker, Intel Capital, btov Partners, Team Europe, and Klocke Holding and more — also contributed to the round.

If that sounds like a big list, it’s somewhat intentional, as the task of what Volocopter is complex and requires a wide ecosystem of other players, said Rene Griemens, the company’s CFO.

“Getting urban air mobility off the ground requires a full ecosystem that we are developing right now. Many of our strategic partners will support us on different aspects of the supply chain, scaling components, entering markets, improving operations amongst others. Most of them know certain aspects of our business model really well (eg. Japan Airlines for aviation, Atlantia for infrastructure),” he said. “Their investment is a reflection of their excitement about Volocopter as a leader in building the entire ecosystem of UAM, thereby giving credibility and comfort for purely financial investors.”

He added that many of these companies have a very “hands-on partnership” with Volocopter. “DB Schenker, for example, is rolling out leading-edge heavily-load electric logistics drones together with us around the globe.”

The company has now raised nearly $390 million. We’re asking for an updated valuation, but for some context, PitchBook data estimates its valuation now at $624 million.

Moonshots and sunsets

Founded in 2011, Volocopter has now been working on its idea — distinctive for its very wide circular design that sits where the rotor on a helicopter would be — for a whole decade, and in many regards it’s the classic idea of a moonshot in action.

It has yet to make any money, and the product that it’s building to do so is very groundbreaking — flying into completely unchartered territory, so to speak — and therefore ultimately untested.

It’s not the only one working on “flying taxi” concepts — there are other very well-capitalised companies like Lilum, Joby Aviation, Kitty Hawk and eHang.

However, all of these have faced various hurdles ranging from investor lawsuits to bankruptcies, accidents, mothballed projects and divestments (perhaps most notably, Joby scooped up Elevate last year as Uber stepped away from costly moonshots).

And most importantly, none of them are flying commercially yet. With Volocopter (as with the others), investors have taken a long-term bet here on a concept and a team it believes can deliver.

For now, the company says that technology is no longer the barrier, and neither it seems are regulators, who are, in the pandemic, more focused on considering new approaches to old problems to improve efficiency and acknowledge that we might have to do things a little differently from now on, in the wake of new demands from public health, and the public.

In the case of VTOL craft, the promise has always been that they could bypass a lot of the issues with street congestion in urban areas, and provide a more environmental alternative to gas-guzzling, present-day transportation modes.

The challenge, on the other hand, has been determining the safety both of completely new devices, and also of the traffic and other systems that they would operate under. With the idea being that ultimately these craft would be autonomous, that adds another complex twist.

Interestingly, regulators in different markets that might have been more skeptical of new concepts seem to be more open to considering them differently now with the pandemic at hand. This has played out in other arenas, too, such as the electric scooter market in the UK, which saw a bump in activity after regulators long skeptical gave them a provisional nod last year, citing the need for more individualized transportation options in a pandemic-hit country.

Volocopter’s model is based around transporting one person or small parties, so in a sense might be attractive here too.

“There aren’t any major hurdles anymore in terms of the technology as such,” said Retuer. “It is now all about execution. EASA has defined what is necessary to get electric air taxis certified to the highest safety level in aviation. We have the best technology in the market to certify to EASA’s high safety standards and will keep our heads down to finalize the few remaining steps to certification.”

In contrast, he said the other challenges that remain are those of any highly technical startup: “Our largest challenge right now is talent acquisition,” he said. “We are looking for the best talents worldwide and growing our team quickly now, so that we can accelerate on the technical and market development sides. Especially in the markets where we will open early routes, such as Paris, Singapore, China and Japan, we are going full speed in preparing everything necessary from digital infrastructure to landing sites, city approvals and more.”

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Indonesian supply chain startup Advotics raises $2.75M led by East Ventures

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The rapid growth of e-commerce in Indonesia, especially during the pandemic, is placing increasing demands on its supply chain infrastructure. But the country’s logistics industry is highly fragmented, with companies usually relying on multiple providers for one shipment, and many warehouses are still concentrated around major cities. Advotics wants to help with software to make the whole supply chain easier to track, and recently closed a $2.75 million funding round led by East Ventures.

Founded in 2016 by Boris Sanjaya, Hendi Chandi and Jeffry Tani, Advotics currently counts more than 70 clients, ranging from individual resellers to large corporations like Exxonmobil, Danone, Reckitt Benckiser, Sampoerna, Kalbe and Mulia Group.

According to research institution Statistics Indonesia, there are about 5 million small and medium-sized manufacturers in Indonesia. They use a supply chain with 15 million small to mid-sized distributors and about 288,000 large distribution companies. This fragmentation means higher expenses, with Report Linker estimating that logistics costs range between 25% to 30% of Indonesia’s gross domestic product.

To help make logistics more efficient for its clients, Advotics offers SaaS solutions to monitor almost their entire supply and logistics chain, from warehouse inventory to generating delivery routes for drivers. It includes a product digitalization feature that uses QR codes to track products and prevent counterfeiting. The company’s new funding will be used to launch a online-to-offline system for SMEs and grow its sales team.

Advotics is among several tech startups that are taking different approaches to tackle Indonesia’s logistics infrastructure. For example, Shipper wants to give sellers access to “Amazon-level logistics,” while Logisly is focused on digitizing truck shipments. Waresix recently acquired Trukita to connect businesses to shippers and truck shipment platform Kargo’s backers include Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick.

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Atomic, which only funds the startups it launches, just closed its newest fund with $260 million

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Jack Abraham has a lot of confidence in what he’s building. Then again, you can’t be immodest or unsure of yourself if you’re going to bet exclusively on your own startups as an investor, which is precisely the model that Abraham’s San Francisco-based venture studio, Atomic, has followed since it was launched nine years ago.

It all started with $10 million of Abraham’s own money, capital he amassed by selling his first startup, a local shopping engine called Milo, to eBay in 2010, for $75 million. Abraham had dropped out of Wharton as an undergrad with $500,000 from a professor who believed that Abraham — whose father founded ComScore — would himself be a company-building machine.

The professor had good instincts. After selling Milo at age 24, Abraham spent more than three years building products inside of eBay and learning how to lead multiple teams before beginning to look outward, making angel bets, including on Uber and Pinterest, and, he says, spreading around some of his ideas. (Among these, he says, he “invented Postmates. I gave the founders literally the idea for the company; they were working on a B2B company at the time. I was fairly early on there; that helped spawn the whole food delivery thing.”)

He had so many ideas — hundreds, he says — that not long afterward, he created Atomic with cofounder Andrew Dudum, a Wharton peer who is also the son of entrepreneurs and who also dropped out of college to join the startup world. (Dudum’s first stop was a then-nascent startup backed by Sequoia Capital.)

At first, Atomic worked on one company. The following year, it worked on two. By 2018, the outfit had built out a team that could handle many of the back-end functions that startups need to thrive, from recruiting to accounting, and launched 10 companies. Impressed investors gave the firm $150 million to create even more startups.

By then, Abraham and Dudum had brought in two other general partners: Chester Ng and Andrew Salamon. Salamon left in 2019 to launch his own venture studio, Material, with Blue Apron founder Matt Salzberg. The same year, JD Ross, one of a handful of cofounders of the newly public company Opendoor, joined Atomic as a general partner.

The firm has only picked up speed since. Indeed, at this point, Atomic has created “dozens” of startups — including roughly one per month last year, says Abraham. It also just closed on $260 million in new capital commitments, including from a prominent university that now serves as its anchor investor but would prefer not to be named publicly.

Citing “proprietary aspects” to the model, Abraham declines to explain how Atomic’s economics work, except to acknowledge that it operates in “more of a fund context instead of a holding company” where investors would essentially be buying stakes in Atomic itself.

Certainly, it’s easy to appreciate the enthusiasm of Atomic’s investors, including early backers like Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen. Abraham and Dudum are both compelling storytellers, as we’ve witnessed first-hand in interviewing them at different times. The firm is also starting to see some exits.

One of Atomic’s creations, the telehealth company Hims, was taken public in January through a blank-check company in a deal that valued the company at $1.6 billion, and its shares have been rising since. As of this writing, the three-and-a-half-year-old outfit — run by Dudum, who is doing double-duty as Hims’s CEO and a general partner with Atomic — boasts a market cap of $2.9 billion.

Atomic also sold a voice-powered sales startup, TalkIQ, to the company Dialpad in 2018 for what Forbes reported at the time to be a “little under $50 million.” TalkIQ had raised $22 million altogether.

More exits are coming, suggests Abraham. “There many companies we have that are now approaching the sort of growth and run rate where they have the ability to go public, even as soon as in the next year,” he says.

One of those eventual prospects is Replicant, an autonomous call center startup that has raised $35 million since its 2017 founding, including a $27 million Series A round led by Norwest Venture Partners back in September. Another Atomic startup, Homebound, a three-year-old home-building outfit that handles everything from financing to construction, has also enjoyed some momentum, as well as attracted $53 million from investors.

Though Atomic prides itself on “pressure testing” its ideas, not every startup has been a hit with users. A photo-sharing app called Ever was quickly shut down after NBC reported that the photos people shared were used to train a facial recognition system — tech the company offered to sell to private companies, law enforcement and the military. A sleep-tracking specialist, Rested, was also shut down.

Meanwhile, ZenReach, a Wi-Fi marketing company that had collected at least $94 million from investors through 2018, laid off 20% of its employees that same year. A CEO who’d been brought aboard by Abraham and who was previously an operating partner with Atomic, has since moved on to a role elsewhere.

If not all of its ideas set the world on fire, Atomic has no shortage of others.

Asked about some of the areas where he sees the most opportunity to innovate, Abraham quickly ticks off “healthcare, finance, education, real estate, and other large industries where truthfully, when you’re inside them, you understand how broken they are, and they are broken up and down the entire stack.

“You study them,” he says, “and then you wonder how is this possible this happened.”

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