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Why VCs Are Betting Robots Will Help Build Your Next Home

Illustration of man and robot looking at each other. [Dom Guzman]

If you pass by a construction site today, you’re likely to see humans on the roof, nailing shingles, laying brick or rolling paint.

Time-travel a few years into the future, however, and there’s a pretty good chance robots will be sharing the workload.

That, at least, is the vision startups and their backers are banking on bringing to fruition. Over the past few years, investors have poured hundreds of millions into startups at the intersection of construction and robotics, Crunchbase data shows.

The startup funding comes amid a period of widespread construction labor shortages alongside rising building costs. Against that backdrop, the pitch from startups — that they can save time, money and risk by automating repetitive tasks — seems an easy sell.

If they can deliver, that is.

Monumental, a Dutch startup developing robots for bricklaying and other construction tasks, is the latest to score a round on this promise. The 3-year-old company picked up $25 million last week in a funding round led by European early-stage investors Plural and Hummingbird.

Salar al Khafaji, Monumental’s co-founder and CEO, said investors’ interest was driven largely by the potential for the startup’s technology to reduce reliance on human labor to build homes.

“We’ve heard so many funds say SaaS was the wave of 2010 to 2020, and the opportunity that’s next will be automation of labor,” he said. “We’re seeing labor shortages everywhere in the industrialized world.”

For startups, per al Khafaji, it helps that enabling technologies for labor automation have increased in sophistication and decreased in cost in the past few years. The “autonomy stack” of particular relevance to Monumental, he said, includes computer vision, Meta AI’s SAM segmentation system, new Nvidia chips and high-quality, low-cost sensors.

Early-stage crowd

Much of the funding activity at the intersection of construction and robotics is relatively recent. It also skews to early stage.

To illustrate, we used Crunchbase data to aggregate a list of 17 companies that have raised funding since 2022.

More than three-fourths of the last financings for companies on the list are seed-stage or Series A. Only one, Built Robotics, was Series C or later. Overall, it looks like a startup list with considerable room to scale

Most-recent and largest funding recipients

Quite a bit of funding activity is also pretty recent.

For instance, PaintJet, a Tennessee startup that focuses on robotic painting for large building projects, picked up $10 million in a December Series A. And Promise Robotics, a Toronto AI company working on industrial robotic systems for construction, landed $16 million in October.

However, many of the largest financings tied to construction automation took place a couple years ago. This isn’t surprising, given that overall venture funding was higher then.

Between 2021 and 2022, for instance, Austin, Texas-based Icon, known for its iconic 3D-printed homes, landed nearly $400 million in Series B funding. Since then, the lead backer of its largest round, Tiger Global Management, has dialed back on large deals.

San Francisco-based Built Robotics, which recently introduced an autonomous robotic pile driver, has raised $112 million to date, with its last known funding round in 2022. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley-based Dusty Robotics, which makes a mobile robot to automate layout for construction projects, also raised its last major financing in 2022, a $45 million Series B.

Selling services, not necessarily robots

One advantage for construction robotics companies is the potential to scale up without actually having to sell expensive systems. Because construction projects typically rely heavily on bids from subcontractors, it’s possible for startups to pitch their robotic-enabled services rather than actually selling bots.

This is the path al Khafaji said Monumental is planning to take for its initial robotic bricklaying offering. Builders, he said, will hire the startup to perform brickwork rather than purchase and operate its robots. The hope is that the company will be able to expand quickly so long as its prices and work quality are competitive with nonrobot-enabled services.

For those of us watching from the sidelines, particularly those in the market for a home, it’s easy to root for the robots. While ambitious attempts to reengineer construction haven’t always succeeded — with one-time unicorn Katerra as the most visible cautionary tale — demand for disruptive technologies has not waned.

The cost of building has only been heading higher in the past few years. If robots can play a role in reducing expenses and easing longstanding labor shortages, theirs would be a welcome contribution.

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Illustration: Dom Guzman

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