The pandemic was a moment of truth for Amazon Robotics. After years of work, numerous acquisitions and millions spent, could the retail giant’s massive investment in automation help keep things running amid the biggest pandemic in a century? The answer was, decidedly, yes. The company’s deployment of hundreds of thousands of robotics systems across American fulfillment centers has become a gold standard for industrial automation — and a model of disruption that’s helped fuel an industry of like-minded startups.
If anything, COVID-19 and its fallout have accelerated the category. But after 13 years of rising in the ranks to become the vice president and distinguished engineer of Amazon Robotics, Brad Porter opted to step away in August 2020. In a discussion with TechCrunch, the executive cited his young family and wanting to be closer to his wife’s relatives in the Bay Area as factors. Porter spent just under 2 years as the CTO of Scale AI, before launching his own venture this March.
The project — which has, thus far, been listed as “More to Come” on his LinkedIn profile — comes out of stealth today, alongside a $10 million raise, led by Neo and featuring Khosla Ventures, Calibrate Venture Capital and 1984 Ventures. Based in Santa Clara, California, the brand-new startup managed to snag the extremely simple name Collaborative Robotics and the accompanying URL, co.bot — a reference to the commonly used portmanteau abbreviation, cobot.
Both point to the HRI (human-robot interaction) at the center of the company’s mission. Porter mentions the six-degrees-of-freedom robotic arm as being the closest industrial robotics have to a universal and versatile piece of hardware.
“We don’t think that there is an equivalent capability to the six-degree-of-freedom robotic art that’s generally collaborative, works with humans and can meet a wide variety of use cases,” Porter said on a call with TechCrunch. “So we’re starting a company to build that.”
As it’s only 3 months old at the moment, Collaborative isn’t quite ready to discuss what such a piece of hardware might practically look like. What it definitely won’t look like, however, is Tesla’s theoretically forthcoming Optimus robot.
“I’m intentionally not really wanting to talk more about the company than the specific robot,” says Porter. “The way I tend to describe it is, if you’ve got Elon Musk’s Tesla bot on one end of the spectrum, and you’ve got these low-profile AMR (autonomous mobile robot) purpose-built robots that just move a pallet around on the other, we think there’s something much more pragmatic in the middle. We think the Tesla bots are hard and a long ways off.”
As companies have looked to eke out a competitive edge against the Amazon behemoth, microfulfillment — which places warehouses even closer to consumers for faster delivery — is becoming an increasingly important topic.
“Amazon has the advantage of putting things into 800,000-square-foot buildings,” says Porter. “We could design the square footage, we can put fences up, we could customize the process paths around the robots. I think what’s needed now to be competitive is something that’s much more flexible, that can go into odd-shaped buildings without a huge amount of infrastructure.”
Given the extremely early stage, Collaborative is referring to the funding as a seed round, though Porter’s involvement certainly brings some immediate clout out of the gate. The $10 million will be used to grow head count — current at five — to around 20 to 25, almost exclusively engineers.
“Brad’s leadership and track record spans large tech companies and Silicon Valley startups, where he built great teams and moved quickly to seize big opportunities,” Khosla Ventures’ Sven Strohband says in a release. “Collaborative Robotics is a prime example of an industry veteran with the vision to recognize a huge opportunity and the ability to assemble a world class team to go after it.”
While the fulfillment category already has several large players, like Locus, Berkshire Grey, Symbotic and Zebra/Fetch, Porter believes that there’s still plenty of market left to address.
“The concept we’ve developed comes from the experience of having seen almost everything that’s out there and realizing that none of it fits the gap. The reality is there’s just a huge number of cases that are movements of human-scale things, from place to place — totes, boxes. It’s very general, but there isn’t a robotic system that’s very general in its ability to do that.”