How applications for robotics technologies are gaining momentum
Manufacturers have traditionally been considered the primary drivers of new robot technology investment. Robots are now infiltrating other business sectors. The robotics industry gained new momentum in 2017 with total venture capital (VC) investment reaching $2.7 billion, according to the latest worldwide market study by ABI Research.
"While the growth in investment from 2016 to 2017, at 23.2 percent, slowed from growth between 2015 and 2016, this was affected by applying a narrower understanding of robotics, leaving out categories like autonomous cars," said Rian Whitton, research analyst at ABI Research.
Robotic technology market development
Had the same definition of robotics been used as in previous years, total investment would have exceeded $5 billion. Given the narrower definition, the sizeable increase in investment is a further indication of the growing confidence in the robotics industry, and the sense of urgency investors have in funding these key technologies.
That being said, the robotics market is still evolving. In analyzing the geography of the 152 companies that received VC investment, there were striking differences to 2016.
While in terms of the number of investments were largely similar, with the United States retaining over half the number of individual investments and China following a distant second, when cumulative investment was considered, the United States had lost significant market share, accounting for 49.4 percent of funding ($1.4 billion) as opposed to 63 percent in the previous year.
Moreover, despite accounting for only 11 percent of the individual investments, Chinese companies took 37 percent of total funding.
When breaking down the regional and municipal locations of companies that attract investment, they are heavily centralized in both the United States and China. In the former, California (the San Francisco Bay area, in particular) and to a lesser extent, Massachusetts, dominate.
In China, investments are moving primarily to Shenzhen and Beijing, the two centers of the China robotics industry.
"Perhaps the most exciting news from the 2017 investment is what it reaffirms. Not only is interest in robotics growing, but funding is being directed to areas of nascent development, rather than comparative safe bets in process and discrete manufacturing," Whitton noted.
Over $500 million was invested into commercial and consumer health robotics, while close to $500 million went to autonomous mobile robots specifically designed to function outdoors, a major expansion on the increasing popularity of Automated Mobile Robots (AMRs) in indoor locations like warehouses.
Among the market verticals of the AMR’s that received funding included construction, a currently untapped market for robotics. Other areas of outside investment included agriculture and last-mile delivery -- including companies like Starship Technologies and Nuro.
Outlook for robotics technology investment
Although often overlooked in market analyses, consumer robotics saw significant investment, with over $800 million worth of funds directed to companies designing products for the home. Seventy-five percent of these were directed to toy robots and personal ‘smart’ robots. This was impacted heavily by a choice number of significant investment into Chinese consumer robotics companies such as UB Tech.
According to the ABI assessment, venture capital investment in robotics has accelerated since 2015, and 2017 will not be the end of this trend, with current evidence already suggesting 2018 will represent another year of success for robotics companies seeking funding.