10 Interesting Chinese Robotic Startups
The United States can still claim to be the largest economy in the world, at an estimated $18 trillion. For now. It’s no secret that the People’s Republic of China is gunning to be No. 1. Boasting an $11 trillion economy and 6.7 percent growth in 2016 (against 1.6 percent in the United States), it’s not inconceivable that China could pull ahead in the next decade. China has made no secret of its plans to dominate in artificial intelligence, a technology that is rewriting the rules of more than a few industries. We recently told you about its push into genomics. Now let’s talk about the rise of Chinese robotic startups.
About three-quarters of global robotics sales are from five countries, according to the trade organization International Federation of Robotics: China, the Republic of Korea, Japan, the United States, and Germany. Since 2013, China has been the biggest robot manufacturer in the world, with a 30 percent share in the industrial robot market as of last year. In 2016, China sold nearly as many robots (87,000 units) as Europe and the Americas combined (97,300 units). China itself is automating quickly, nearly tripling industrial robotic installations between 2013 and 2016, from 25 units to 68 units per 10,000 workers. Forbes reported that there are at least 800 robotic startups in China, many taking advantage of government subsidies as part of a Made in China 2025 initiative to reboot the country’s manufacturing facilities.
We’ve already told you about some of China’s biggest robotics startups, like Ubtech, which develops robots in the services end of the market, and Ninebot, which acquired Segway in 2015. Other Chinese robotic startups that have come onto our radar include Roobo, Horizon Robotics and Ehang. Apparently, just 795 more to go. For now, we’ll highlight 10 of some of the more quirky but well-funded of the bunch that we’ve recently found.
Tetris for Warehouses
Founded in 2015, Beijing-based Geek+ claims to be China’s leading logistics robot manufacturer. The robotics startup has raised about $82 million, including a $60 million Series B in July. Its fleet of Roomba-sized robots are tireless warehouse workers, capable of doing everything from sorting to moving inventory, in what looks like in this video a life-size Tetris game:
Geek+ says it has delivered nearly 1,000 units of robots in warehouses for more than 20 customers including China retail giant Suning. It expects to finish deliveries of 2,000 robots by the end of this year. As we discussed before, industrial robots for warehouses is a highly competitive area, so it will be interesting to see how Geek+ competes.
Alexa in an Egg
Ostensibly calling itself a robotics company, Rokid has offices in San Francisco and Beijing. The company, with $50 million in disclosed funding, boasts a self-proclaimed valuation of $450 million as of November 2016. The robotics startups has produced what looks like an egg-shaped smart tablet that uses artificial intelligence to help run your life and home as an Internet of Things hub in the mold of an intelligent assistant like Amazon’s Alexa. Melody, as it’s called, can display content like the weather (below) through an internal DLP projector.
Melody uses AI and deep learning to proactively deliver information and entertainment to users, and performs household chores via voice and visual interactions. The company claims its staff of more than 90 includes about 15 PhDs and more than 30 with master’s degrees in areas like robotics and AI.
Robots for Kids
Founded in 2011, Shenzhen-based Makeblock offers a range of educational robotic kits, including instructions on how to program their creations. The company has raised $36 million and its investors include top tech VC firms like Sequoia Capital. Below is the basic 40-piece kit for the mBot, which comes with programming software that kids can use by just dragging and dropping code to bring the robot alive.
The robotics startup claims to have more than one million users worldwide and last year its revenue increased to $17.5 million from just $435,000 in 2013 when Makeblock began production, according to the website This Week in Asia.
Our next company is so new that we couldn’t even locate a web presence for them. Founded in 2015, Beijing-based Kuaile Zhihui, which means “happiness and intelligence,” develops educational robots for kids using speech recognition, big data and deep learning (ie, artificial intelligence). The company raised about $10 million in July. Its founder, Lei Ming, is former chief architect at China tech giant Baidu. The startup’s robots can teach math, Chinese and English, adjusting course content by evaluating a child’s learning ability using data and algorithms, China Money Network reported.
Watch These Drone Startups
Another robotics startup out of Shenzhen, Flypro Aerospace Technology has raised $35.5 million since its founding in 2012. The company offers a small range of drones, including its most recent addition—the XJaguar. The XJaguar is a souped-up UAV intended to compete in the drone racing circuit. The XJaguar claims a thrust-to-weight ratio of 10-1:
The company’s XEagle model, introduced a couple of years ago, includes features like voice control and automatic obstacle avoidance. This drone can also be used with a dedicated smart watch, which displays data such as flight height and remaining flight time.
Another Shenzhen-based drone company, SimToo, has raised about $14 million for its foldable Dragonfly Drone platform. Like FlyPro’s XEagle, the Dragonfly can be operated with a specialized watch. Its flight modes include auto takeoff and auto return home, and a stick on the watch provides easy maneuverability for the novice pilot.
You are Here
Founded in 2013, Shanghai-based Slamtec has raised $32 million, including $22 million in July for its robotic localization and navigation technology. The company has developed an algorithm that enables a robot to map an unknown environment while simultaneously tracking its location, a technique known as simultaneous localization and mapping, or SLAM. In addition to marketing LIDAR hardware and its SLAM navigation system, the robotics startup has also developed Zeus, a multifunctional robot that looks like the bottom half of a Dalek, the arch nemesis of sci fi hero, Dr. Who.
Instead of attempting to exterminate you, Zeus is now an innocuous bartender. Or roving billboard. Or mobile video monitor. It comes with the company’s high-tech nav system and can be operated remotely from the cloud.
Hovering Selfie Stick
In answer to the question, “can we get any more narcissistic?” comes the Hover Camera from Beijing-based Zero Zero Robotics. The robotics startup has pulled together $25 million for a GoPro meets drone concept. Admittedly, it’s pretty slick:
The rumor mill had Snap in discussions of snapping up Zero Zero Robotics for a reported $150 million to $200 million as recently as August, according to TechCrunch. However, a more recent report said that deal had died, much like the Snap Spectacles rollout.
In the Driver’s Seat
Founded in 2013, Shanghai-based ZongMu Technologies has raised about $14 million in disclosed funding for its self-driving technology from a Series B in February. The robotics startup develops “advanced driver assistance systems, including 2D and 3D panoramic vision systems, self-parking solutions, and driving recording systems”. ZongMu says its revenues rose 400-fold between 2014 and 2016 which could mean something or nothing, depending of course on the starting point.
Um, Define Robot
Founded in 2014, Beijing-based AI Nemo has raised $10 million in funding for what it calls a robot companion, in the same mold as the robots we recently highlighted for helping take care of the elderly. As Tech in Asia reported, the “robot” is in reality more like a smart tablet with a webcam and some automated panning abilities. It can also read aloud text messages and send emergency notifications, according to Tech in Asia, all in an effort to bring families closer together.
Our latest roundup of Chinese robotic startups shows that China isn’t just interested in dominating in industrial robotics. These companies are pushing into consumer spaces with drones and education, even producing cute robots in an effort to compete with the Japanese on the adorable scale. Frankly, we were a little surprised by the level of investment in some of these companies—a hovering camera at $25 million!?!—but it may be a sign of the confidence investors have right now in the unstoppable machine that is China.
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