Robots were first conceived as an idea just over a century ago, not by scientists but courtesy of the Czech playwright Karel Capek. In his 1920 drama Rossum’s Universal Robots, Capek conjured up a world where “workers who lack nothing but a soul” are created to take up chores that humans dread.
Helpful initially, the robots turn rebellious, unleashing a ferocious uprising that ends up killing all but one of the humans on Earth.
The trope of framing these machines as not-to-be-trusted continues into the present day. Such fears haven’t deterred forward-looking enterprises from ploughing investment into the booming field of robotics, however. Companies as different as Bytedance, which operates short-video app TikTok (known locally as Douyin) and Meituan, an on-demand services platform, are two of the frontrunners trying to stake early claims through frenetic dealmaking. The two internet giants crossed paths last month when they both joined a financing round for a robotics start-up of a little less than a year-old. A subsidiary of Infore, a Shunde-based conglomerate, the company is positioning itself as a platform-based solution provider for robo applications in urban governance, intelligent manufacturing and emergency situations.
Despite the rather vague description of the company’s business focus, Infore Robotics has already closed three fundraisings since its establishment last March, which helped push its valuation to $500 million (Rmb3.3 billion), according to PE Daily, a local media outlet.
Among its other backers are GSR Capital, Panda Capital, Shenzhen-listed Meijin Energy, and Wang Gang (best known for being an early backer of Didi Chuxing). It has also signed contracts worth more than Rmb50 million with local governments and listed companies, including China Resources Group, despite being yet to publicise any product prototypes.
Much of the investor interest in Infore Robotics is linked to the involvement of its CEO, Shen Gang. Graduating from Japan’s Tokyo Institute of Technology with a doctorate in mechanical engineering, Shen had spent nearly 18 years of his career at FANUC, the world’s largest industrial robot maker, before heading up Bozhilin, the robotics arm of Guangdong-based property giant Country Garden, two years ago (see WiC481).
It is worth noting too that Infore is a financial holding company controlled by He Jianfeng (see WiC369), whose father founded Midea, a white goods giant from Guangdong province that took over Kuka, a pioneer in industrial robots from Germany, in 2016 (see WiC329).
It is not the first time that Bytedance and Meituan have invested in robot production. Last year Bytedance joined Tencent and Infore in funding Narwal Robotics, another Guangdong start-up best known for its self-cleaning mop and vacuuming robot. Previously Bytedance had put money into Origitech, a developer of collaborative robots for manufacturing based in Hangzhou, and Yuanzhi Ruantong, a cloud robotic solutions provider from Beijing. With a different focus, Meituan punted $15 million into Pudu Robotics, which specialises in food service and delivery robots. The Shenzhen-based company’s first automated waiter PuduBot can be found in restaurants and hospitals in over 50 countries, including in Australia and South Korea.
Demand for automation has surged on the back of the Covid-19 pandemic, triggered by a new focus on contactless services (from delivering meals and medical supplies to spraying disinfectant). MarketsandMarkets, a research firm, reckoned that sales of mobile robots generated revenues of $1 billion last year, up from its estimate of $800 million pre-pandemic. Shortages of manpower due to lockdowns and social distancing have also spurred manufacturers to increase their investments in automated production lines.
Last year there were 242 deals for robotics assets worth a total of Rmb27 billion in China, estimates Shanghai Securities Times. Almost a third of the funding flowed into industrial robotics, followed by logistics and healthcare applications, which made up 22% and 16% of the pie respectively. The surgical robotic unit of Hong Kong-listed medical device firm MicroPort boasted the largest investment round, fetching Rmb3 billion from Hillhouse, Citic, and E Fund (an affiliate of Infore) on a valuation of Rmb22.5 billion.
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