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Oxbotica raises $47M to deploy its autonomous vehicle software in industrial applications

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While the world continues to await the arrival of safe, reliable and cost-effective self-driving cars, one of the pioneers in the world of autonomous vehicle software has raised some substantial funding to double down on what it sees as a more immediate opportunity: providing technology to industrial companies to build off-road applications.

Oxbotica, the Oxford, England startup that builds what it calls “universal autonomy” — flexible technology that it says can power the navigation, perception, user interfaces, fleet management and other features needed to run self-driving vehicles in multiple environments, regardless of the hardware being used — has picked up $47 million in a Series B round of funding from an interesting mix of strategic and financial investors.

Led by bp ventures, the investing arm of oil and gas giant bp, the round also includes BGF, safety equipment maker Halma, pension fund HostPlus, IP Group, Tencent, Venture Science and funds advised by Doxa Partners.

Oxbotica said it plans to use the capital to fuel a raft of upcoming deployments — several that will be coming online this year, according to its CEO — for clients in areas like mining, port logistics and more, with its lead investor bp an indication of the size of its customers and the kinds of projects that are in its sights.

The question, CEO Ozgur Tohumcu said in an interview, is “Where is the autonomy needed today? If you go to mines or ports, you can see vehicles in use already,” he said. “We see a huge transformation happening in the industrial domain.”

The funding and focus on industry are interesting turns for Oxbotica. The startup has been around since about 2014, originally as a spinout from Oxford University co-founded by academics Paul Newman and Ingmar Posner — Newman remains at the startup as its CTO, while Posner remains an AI professor at Oxford.

Oxbotica has been associated with a number of high-profile projects — early on, it provided sensor technology for Nasa’s Mars Rover, for example.

Over time, it has streamlined what it does to two main platforms that it calls Selenium and Caesium, covering respectively navigation, mapping, perception, machine learning, data export and related technology; and fleet management.

Newman says that what makes Oxbotica stand out from other autonomous software providers is that its systems are lighter and easier to use.

“Where we are good is in edge compute,” he said. “Our radar-based maps are 10 megabytes to cover a kilometer rather than hundreds of megabytes… Our business plan is to build a horizontal software platform like Microsoft’s.” That may underplay the efficiency of what it’s building, however: Oxbotica also has worked out how to efficiently transfer the enormous data loads associated with autonomous systems, and is working with companies like Cisco to bring these online.

In recent years Oxbotica has been synonymous with some of the more notable on-road self-driving schemes in the U.K. But, as you would expect with autonomous car projects, not everything has panned out as expected.

A self-driving pilot Oxbotica kicked off with London-based car service Addison Lee in 2018 projected that it would have its first cars on the road by 2021. That project was quietly shut down, however, when Addison Lee was sold on by Carlyle last year and the company abandoned costly moonshots. Another effort, the publicly backed Project Endeavour to build autonomous car systems across towns in England, appears to still be in progress.

The turn to industrial customers, Newman said, is coming alongside those more ambitious, larger-scale applications. “Industrial autonomy for off-road refineries, ports and airports happens on the way to on-road autonomy,” he said, with the focus firmly remaining on providing software that can be used with different hardware. “We’ve always had this vision of ‘no atoms, just software,’ ” he said. “There is nothing special about the road. Our point is to be agnostic, to make sure it works on any hardware platform.”

It may claim to have always been interested in hardware- and application-agnostic autonomy, but these days it’s being joined by others that have tried the other route and have decided to follow the Oxbotica strategy instead. They include FiveAI, another hyped autonomous startup out of the U.K. that originally wanted to build its own fleet of self-driving vehicles but instead last year pivoted to providing its software technology on a B2B basis for other hardware makers.

Oxbotica has now raised about $80 million to date, and it’s not disclosing its valuation but is optimistic that the coming year — with deployments and other new partnerships — will bear out that it’s doing just fine in the current market.

“bp ventures are delighted to invest in Oxbotica – we believe its software could accelerate the market for autonomous vehicles,” said Erin Hallock, bp ventures managing partner, in a statement. “Helping to accelerate the global revolution in mobility is at the heart of bp’s strategy to become an integrated energy company focused on delivering solutions for customers.”

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

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Will this time be any different for Twitter?

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As Twitter seems to buy its way into competing with Clubhouse and Substack, one wonders whether the beleaguered social media company is finally ready to move past its truly awful track record of seizing opportunities.

Twitter’s pace of product ambition has certainly seemed to speed in the past several months, conveniently following shareholder action to oust CEO Jack Dorsey last year. They’ve finally rolled out their Stories product Fleets, they’ve embraced audio both in the traditional feed and with their beta Spaces feature, and they’ve taken some much-publicized steps to reign in disinformation and content moderation woes (though there’s still plenty to be done there).

In the past few weeks, Twitter has also made some particularly interesting acquisitions. Today, it was announced that they were buying Revue, a newsletter management startup. Earlier this month, they bought Breaker, a podcasting service. Last month, they bought Squad, a social screen-sharing app.

It’s an aggressive turn that follows Twitter’s announcement that it will be shutting down Periscope, a live video app that was purchased and long-neglected by Twitter despite the fact that the company’s current product chief was its founder.

TikTok’s wild 2020 success in fully realizing the broader vision for Vine, which Twitter shut down in 2017, seems to be a particularly embarrassing stain on the company’s history; it’s also the most crystallized example of Twitter shooting itself in the foot as a result of not embracing risk. And while Twitter was ahead of that curve and simply didn’t make it happen, Substack and Clubhouse are two prime examples of competitors which Twitter could have prevented from reaching their current stature if it had just been more aggressive in recognizing adjacent social market opportunities and sprung into action.

It’s particularly hard to reckon in the shadow of Facebook’s ever-swelling isolation. Once the eager enemy of any social upstart, Facebook finds itself desperately complicated by global politics and antitrust woes in a way that may never strike it down, but have seemed to slow its maneuverability. A startup like Clubhouse may once seemed like a prime acquisition target, but it’s too complicated of a purchase for Facebook to even attempt in 2021, leaving Twitter a potential competitor that could scale to full size on its own.

Twitter is a much smaller company than Facebook is, though it’s still plenty big. As the company aims to move beyond the 2020 US election that ate up so much of its attention and expand its ambitions, one of its most pertinent challenges will be reinvigorating a product culture to recognize opportunities and take on rising competitors — though another challenge might be getting its competition to take it seriously in the first place.

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Sila Nanotechnologies raises $590M to fund battery materials factory

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Sila Nanotechnologies, a Silicon Valley battery materials company, has spent years developing technology designed to pack more energy into a cell at a lower cost — an end game that has helped it lock in partnerships with Amperex Technology Limited as well as automakers BMW and Daimler.

Now, Sila Nano, flush with a fresh injection of capital that has pushed its valuation to $3.3 billion, is ready to bring its technology to the masses.

The company, which was founded nearly a decade ago, said Tuesday it has raised $590 million in a Series F funding round led by Coatue with significant participation by funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc. Existing investors 8VC, Bessemer Venture Partners, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, and Sutter Hill Ventures also participated in the round.

Sila Nano plans to use the funds to hire another 100 people this year and begin to buildout a factory in North America capable of producing 100 gigawatt-hours of silicon-based anode material, which is used in batteries for the smartphone and automotive industries. While the company hasn’t revealed the location of the factory, it does have a timeline. Sila Nano said it plans to start production at the factory in 2024. Materials produced at the plant will be in electric vehicles by 2025, the company said.

“It took eight years and 35,000 iterations to create a new battery chemistry, but that was just step one,” Sila Nano CEO and co-founder Gene Berdichevsky said in a statement. “For any new technology to make an impact in the real-world, it has to scale, which will cost billions of dollars. We know from our experience building our production lines in Alameda that investing in our next plant today will keep us on track to be powering cars and hundreds of millions of consumer devices by 2025.”

The tech

A lithium-ion battery contains two electrodes. There’s an anode (negative) on one side and a cathode (positive) on the other. Typically, an electrolyte sits in the middle and acts as the courier, moving ions between the electrodes when charging and discharging. Graphite is commonly used as the anode in commercial lithium-ion batteries.

Sila Nano has developed a silicon-based anode that replaces graphite in lithium-ion batteries. The critical detail is that the material was designed to take the place of graphite in without needing to change the battery manufacturing process or equipment.

Sila Nano has been focused on silicon anode because the material can store a lot more lithium ions. Using a material that lets you pack in more lithium ions would theoretically allow you to increase the energy density — or the amount of energy that can be stored in a battery per its volume — of the cell. The upshot would be a cheaper battery that contains more energy in the same space.

The opportunity

It’s a compelling product for automakers attempting to bring more electric vehicles to market. Nearly every global automaker has announced plans or is already producing a new batch of all-electric and plug-in electric vehicles, including Ford, GM, Daimler, BMW, Hyundai and Kia. Tesla continues to ramp up production of its Model 3 and Model Y vehicles as a string of newcomers like Rivian prepare to bring their own EVs to market.

In short: the demand of batteries is climbing; and automakers are looking for the next-generation tech that will give them a competitive edge.

Battery production sat at about 20 GWh per year in 2010. Sila Nano expects it to jump to 2,000 GWh per year by 2030 and 30,000 GWh per year by 2050.

Sila Nano started building the first production lines for its battery materials in 2018. That first line is capable of producing the material to supply the equivalent of 50 megawatts of lithium-ion batteries.

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Daily Crunch: Calendly valued at $3B

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A popular scheduling startup raises a big funding round, Twitter makes a newsletter acquisition and Beyond Meat teams up with PepsiCo. This is your Daily Crunch for January 26, 2021.

The big story: Calendly valued at $3B

Calendly, which helps users schedule and confirm meeting times, has raised $350 million from OpenView Venture Partners and Iconiq.

Until now, the Atlanta-based startup had only raised $550K, but the company says it has 10 million monthly users, with $70 million in subscription revenue last year.

“Calendly has a vision increasingly to be a central part of the meeting life cycle,” said OpenView’s Blake Bartlett.

The tech giants

Twitter acquires newsletter platform Revue — Twitter is getting into the newsletter business.

TikTok is being used by vape sellers marketing to teens — Sellers are offering flavored disposable vapes, parent-proof “discreet” packaging and no ID checks.

PepsiCo and Beyond Meat launch poorly named joint venture for new plant-based food and drinks — The name? The PLANeT Partnership.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Fast raises $102M as the online checkout wars continue to attract huge investment — The new funding was led by Stripe.

SetSail nabs $26M Series A to rethink sales compensation — SetSail says salespeople should be paid them throughout the sales cycle.

Mealco raises $7M to launch new delivery-centric restaurants — By launching a restaurant with Mealco, chefs don’t sign a lease or pay any other upfront costs.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Ten VCs say interactivity, regulation and independent creators will reshape digital media in 2021 — We asked about the likelihood of further industry consolidation, whether we’ll see more digital media companies take the SPAC route and, of course, what they’re looking for in their next investment.

The five biggest mistakes I made as a first-time startup founder — Finmark CEO Rami Essaid has some regrets.

Does a $27B or $29B valuation make sense for Databricks? — A look at Databricks’ growth history, economics and scale.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

President Joe Biden commits to replacing entire federal fleet with electric vehicles — His commitment is tied to a broader campaign promise to create 1 million new jobs in the American auto industry and supply chains.

Meet the early-stage founder community at TC Early Stage 2021 — Early Stage part one focuses on operations and fundraising and takes place on April 1-2, while Early Stage part two focusing on marketing, PR and fundraising and runs July 8-9.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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