For decades, robots have been taking over jobs once done by humans. Typically, however, their output has been behind-the-scenes, in factories and warehouses that few consumers visit.
That’s changing. In startup-land, robot labor is getting a lot more visible. Droids are showing up to work at restaurants, coffee shops, hospitals, and offices. They’re toiling as window-washers, cooking up healthy food bowls, steaming lattes, and shoveling snow.
In the process, these bot-centric startups are generating attention and capital from seed and early-stage investors.
Funding for robot labor startups comes amid a surge in investment for the sector. So far in 2018, North American robotics startups have raised more than $2.3 billion in early-stage funding, according to Crunchbase data.
Last week, we looked at one of big areas for funding activity: companies deploying robots for last-mile delivery. This week, we’ll look at investment in a broader medley of labor-replacing droids.
Dangerous, Dirty, And Dull
We’ll start with the so-called dirty job, a popular focus for robotics startups. Their thinking is that humans are better off outsourcing to machines a lot of work that entails risk, physical discomfort and tedium.
New York- and Tel Aviv-based Skyline Robotics is an up-and-comer in this category. The company raised $3 million in October to build out bots around a mission statement to “automate all tasks that are dangerous, dirty and dull.” Its first invention is a window-cleaning robot named OZMO that’s adept at learning and maneuvering in high rise environments.
Left Hand Robotics, the developer of a self-driving, snow-clearing robot, is also looking to automate one of the least favorite tasks of humans in wintry places. The Longmont, Colo.-based company raised $3.7 million in seed funding in August to initiate production of its $33,00 “SnowBot Pro” robot. Left Hand claims the bot can complete the work of 14 shovelers in the same amount of time.
On the security front, there’s Cobalt Robotics, developer of bots that can patrol buildings and report suspicious findings. In March, the Silicon Valley company closed a $13 million Series A round led by Sequoia Capital.
Of course, outsourcing dirty jobs to robots isn’t a new phenomenon. Bots are already gainfully employed at tasks from vacuuming floors to connecting pipes for oil rigs, as well as jobs humans simply can’t do safely, like nuclear waste cleanup.
On the other end of the spectrum are early stage bot startups targeting a job that has long been wholly associated with humans: caring for other humans.
The value proposition in this area isn’t that robots will surpass people as caregivers, but rather that they can make their jobs a bit easier.
Towards this end, Austin-based Diligent Robotics has raised close to $3 million to combine artificial intelligence and robotics in the design of what it calls socially intelligent robots. Its firsts prototype, Moxi, is a healthcare robot intended to carry out tasks like fetching supplies or setting up rooms for new patients. The aim, Diligent says, is to provide more time for staff to focus on direct patient care.
Pasadena-based Embodied is a more heavily funded player in the space. The company, which closed a $22 million Series A round in June, wants to create companion robots for individuals and families.
Food service is another enormous target area. In the United States alone, an estimated 12 million people work in the food services industry. That means there are a lot of jobs, or at least repetitive tasks, that robots could conceivably take over.
Startups have taken note. At least four North American companies that are working on robotic food service technology secured seed or early-stage rounds so far this year, according to Crunchbase data. That’s in addition to later-stage companies, including the most heavily funded player, robotic pizza maker Zume, which has raised $400 million to date.
Whose jobs are they taking? Cafe X Technologies, which raised $9 million in August, has its sights set on baristas, rolling out micro-sized coffee bars that serve up espresso drinks prepared by a robotic arm.
Cooks might be next, judging by Spyce Foods, a restaurant launched by MIT students that serves up healthy bowls largely prepared on-the-spot by robots (humans do the saucing and plating). Two-year-old Miso Robotics is also targeting the space with a robot assistant called Flippy that can flip burgers and work deep fryers.
And don’t forget food servers. Silicon Valley newcomer Bear Robotics raised a seed round in January to build robots that do table service.
A Robotic Future
If history is any guide, robots doing more traditional human jobs will produce some early shocks but eventually look like business as usual.
For now, the economics seem to make sense. Founders of robotic restaurant Spyce, for instance, were motivated to launch the startup because they couldn’t find fully staffed local eateries offering the kinds of nutritious, tasty meals they wanted at prices they could afford. And CafeX, which currently operates in pricey downtown San Francisco, has the benefit of taking up just 40 square feet, saving on commercial rent costs.
Agriculture, plagued by chronic labor shortages, meanwhile, seems to be the most common focus area for “dirty job” bots. At least six companies in the space (see list) have raised sizable seed or early-stage rounds this year, according to Crunchbase data.
It’s also worth noting that labor-saving robot startups are scaling up during a period of low U.S. unemployment. Businesses in the expensive cities where tech startups cluster, in particular, are often struggling to fill lower-wage positions at prevailing prices. That’s allowing robots to make their workforce debut in welcoming economic conditions.
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