There are many reasons robotics companies fail. From an ill-conceived idea to poor execution or the inability to raise funding, building and running a sustainable robotics company is challenging.
This is never a fun recap to write. We don’t want to see startups fail, but inevitably many do. The last couple of years have been especially difficult thanks to a global pandemic, economic uncertainties and ongoing supply chain issues. But perhaps some lessons can be learned from those that couldn’t survive a global pandemic or supply chain issues.
Here are some of the robotics companies we’ll, unfortunately, remember losing in 2022.
Argo AI (2016-2022)
Argo AI, the self-driving company previously backed by Ford and Volkswagen, abruptly closed its doors in October. For most, this will be the most surprising shutdown on the list. When news broke about the shutdown, Ford said its plan was to shift its focus away from funding Argo AI’s development of Level 4 autonomous driving technology and towards creating its own Level 2 and Level 3 driving systems.
“We still believe in Level 4 autonomy that it will have a big impact on our business of moving people,” Ford’s CEO and President Jim Farley said at the time. “We’ve learned though, in our partnership with Argo and after our own internal investments, that we will have a very long road. It’s estimated that more than $100 billion has been invested in the promise of Level 4 autonomy. And yet no one has defined a profitable business model at scale.”
Farley continued, “Deploying L4 broadly, perhaps the toughest technical problem of our time, will require significant breakthroughs going forward in many areas: reliable and low-cost sensing, it’s not the case today; algorithms that can operate on limited compute resources without constraining the operating time and domain of an electric vehicle; breakthroughs in neural networks that can learn to operate a car more safely than a human, even in very complex urban environments.”
“We’re optimistic about a future for L4 ADAS, but profitable, fully autonomous vehicles at scale are a long way off and we won’t necessarily have to create that technology ourselves.”
Argo AI spun out of Carnegie Mellon in 2016 and came out of stealth in 2017 with a $1 billion investment from Ford. Since then, it raised another $2.6 billion, primarily from Ford and VW, and secured partnerships with Walmart and Lyft.
Kitty Hawk (2010-2022)
After more than a decade of trying to make autonomous flying cars, Kitty Hawk closed its doors in September. The company was founded in 2010 by Sebastian Thrun, who previously founded and led Google’s self-driving car project, which we now know as Waymo.
Kitty Hawk built a number of different aircraft, and in 2021 demonstrated a beyond-visual-line-of-sight flight in Ohio. In June 2021, Kitty Hawk acquired 3D Robotics, a drone company that was once a competitor to DJI. As part of the acquisition, 3D Robotics co-founder Chris Anderson became Kitty Hawk’s chief operating officer. Kitty Hawk said at the time its new focus was on developing a remote-piloted electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.
After the company shut down, Thrun said that “no matter how hard we looked, we could not find a path to a viable business.”
Local Motors (2007-2022)
Local Motors, which was building Olli the autonomous shuttle, shut down in early January. Local Motors was founded in 2007, but didn’t start dipping its toes into the world of autonomous vehicles until 2016 when it launched Olli. The company closed due to a lack of funding.
Olli 1.0 was a low-speed pod that could drive for 60 miles on a single charge. The shuttle was designed for environments like hospitals, military bases and universities. In 2019, Local Motors upgraded to Olli 2.0 with a top speed of 25 miles per hour and the ability to run for 100 miles on a single charge.
In October 2020, the company announced it would be testing Olli on the streets of Toronto. Olli hit the streets in 2021, but would only carry out tests until December, when an Olli 1.0 shuttle collided with a tree, resulting in the attendant being critically injured. After the collision, the City of Toronto stopped its trials of the self-driving shuttles. An investigation by the Durham Regional Police Service found that the shuttle was being operated manually during the accident.
Perceptive Automata (2015-2022)
Perceptive Automata was a Boston-based developer of human behavior understanding AI for autonomous vehicles and robots. According to co-founder and CTO Sam Anthony, Perceptive Automata went “kablooey” after it failed to close Series B funding.
Anthony said that the shutdown snuck up on him and the staff. “The part that was lousy was how it went down for the staff. There was a sense that we were blindsided by it falling apart,” he said. “That said, I’m not sure we should’ve been blindsided by it. Part of being a VC-funded company is that you have fairly specific marks you have to hit. If you don’t hit them, the path is cloudy at best. Combined with other factors outside of our control, we were in a tough spot.”
Perceptive Automata raised $20 million since it was founded in 2015.
Skyward built a software platform that helped customers manage drone workflows, including training crews, planning missions, accessing controlled airspace and more. It was acquired by Verizon in 2017 before being shut down in May. At the time of the acquisition, Verizon said it planned to use the company’s technology to streamline drone operation management through one platform.
Skyward sent its customers an email to announce the closure, which came as a surprise to many. Verizon said the decision to shutter Skyward “was about market agility and ensuring that Verizon continues to focus on areas that provide both near and mid-term growth opportunities.”
DoorDash shut down its subsidiary Chowbotics less than 1.5 years after acquiring the business. Chowbotics built Sally, a vending machine-like robot that made salads and other fresh meals. It should be noted many folks in the industry have questioned whether Sally is a robot, but nevertheless.
“At DoorDash, we create an environment to build new products and set high standards to determine when to scale, continue, or cut back investments,” a DoorDash spokesperson said. “We’re always looking for new ways to serve our merchants, exceed consumers’ increasingly higher expectations, and complement our logistics infrastructure.”
Chowbotics was founded in 2014 and acquired by DoorDash in February 2021 for an undisclosed amount. At the time of the acquisition, DoorDash wanted to explore how to deploy Chowbotics’ technology across restaurants. It hoped Sally could help restaurants expand their menu or allow salad bars to pop up in more locations without needing more manpower.
Fifth Season (2016-2022)
Fifth Season was a Pittsburgh-based company that used robotics to grow and harvest various leafy vegetables that were then packaged and sold as salads, mixed greens or in variety packs. It shut down in October. A Carnegie Mellon University spinout founded in 2016 and raised more than $75 million in investment.
Fifth Season had about 100 employees, including about 20 or so that worked shifts at a 60,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Braddock, Pa.
Rovenso was a Switzerland-based company developing autonomous robots for security and safety monitoring of industrial sites. The company was founded in 2016 and raised $2.8 million in funding, according to Crunchbase.
Thomas Estier, co-founder and CEO of Rovenso, posted about the shutdown on LinkedIn, saying he and the team didn’t understand the impact of COVID on business development and components sourcing.