Growing Confidence in Robotics Led to US$2.7 Billion in VC Funding in 2017, With Appetite for More

LONDON — The robotics industry continued to go from strength to strength as 2017 represented the largest year of investment, with the total amount adding up to US$2.7 billion, announced ABI Research, a market-forecast advisory firm providing strategic guidance on the most compelling transformative technologies.

“While the growth in investment from 2016 to 2017, at 23.2%, 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. “Had the same definition of robotics been used as in previous years, total investment would have exceeded US$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.

In analyzing the geography of the 152 companies that received 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% of funding (US$1.4 billion) as opposed to 63% in the previous year. Despite accounting for only 11% of the individual investments, Chinese companies took 37% 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 monitor is what it reaffirms. Not only is interest in robotics is growing, but funding is being directed to areas of nascent development, rather than comparative safe bets in process and discrete manufacturing,” Whitton noted.

Over US$500 million was invested into commercial and consumer health robotics, while close to US$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.

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. 75% 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.

Robotics investment 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.

These findings are from ABI Research’s Robotic Investment Monitor 2017 report. This report is part of the company’s Robotics, Automation & Intelligent Systems research service, which includes research, data, and Executive Foresights.