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Toyota's Startup Bets

Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda

image: Toyota

A previous article from The Techie shed light on Daimler's bets on several startups. If you're not familiar with Daimler, it's the German automotive multinational behind the Mercedes-Benz, Mercedes-AMG and Freightliner Trucks [among several other] brands. Daimler has invested in several transportation and automotive startups, some of which are valued in the billions.

Just like Daimler, another popular automaker, Toyota has backed several startups through its VC arm, Toyota AI Ventures. That arm recently closed a $100 million second fund to invest in robotics and self-driving startups. Before that, its first fund [also a $100 million fund] invested in several startups in the robotics and automotive scene. Below, we examine some of those investments.

Joby Aviation: Toyota AI Ventures participated in a $100 million round for Santa Cruz, California-based Joby last year. Joby is a quite secretive startup that's developing electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) vehicles, what we may know as air taxis [or flying vehicles]. Joby Aviation is backed by other blue-chip VCs like Intel Capital, AME Cloud Ventures and 8VC, and individual investors like Ron Conway and Pinterest co-founder Paul Sciarra. Sciarra serves as Executive Chairman at the startup.

Pinterest co-founder and Joby Aviation Executive Chairman Paul Sciarra

image: Conor McCabe Photography/Web Summit

Nauto: Toyota AI Ventures participated in a $159 million round for Nauto in 2017. The Japanese automaker had already invested in the company prior to that round, which Softbank and Greylock Partners led. Nauto is a Palo Alto, California-based company that works on solutions to make driving safer. The company develops software that assesses how drivers interact with the vehicle and on roads and then harnesses its assessment to reduce distracted driving and prevent collisions.

Nauto is staffed by engineers and Ph.Ds from with data science and machine learning backgrounds alongside insurance and fleet industry veterans who work together to deploy its products to professional fleets and insurance industry customers.

(Right) Nauto co-founder and CEO Stefan Heck

Photograph by Stuart Isett/Fortune Brainstorm E

Apex.AI: Toyota AI Ventures invested in Apex.AI earlier this year. Apex.AI is a startup that develops software for self-driving vehicles. Apex.AI's self-driving software stack is built on the open-source Robot Operating System (ROS). The startup recently hit headlines after adding Karl-Thomas Neumann, a veteran auto executive, to its board.

Apex.AI board member Karl-Thomas Neumann. Neumann currently serves as Chairman at German automobile manufacturer Opel. He was previously CEO of Continental AG and also once led Volkswagen's China business

image: Opel Group

Blackmore: Toyota AI Ventures participated in an $18 million round for Blackmore last year. Blackmore is a Bozeman, Monta-based startup that makes lidars, the sensors that enables self-driving vehicles to create 3D models and maps of objects and environments. Blackmore was recently acquired by Aurora, an Amazon-backed self-driving company valued at more than $2.5 billion.

Cobalt Robotics: Toyota is an investor in Cobalt Robotics, a San Mateo, California-based startup that makes indoor security robots. Cobalt's robots complement physical security at facilities. The robots can autonomously patrol facilities to detect security risks like unlocked doors, environmental risks or malicious intruders, and then report live to human security personnel.

Bloomberg Beta, Sequoia Capital and Coatue Management [three blue-chip VCs] are also investors in Cobalt.

Cobalt Robotics co-founder and CEO Travis Deyle

Photo by Cody Glenn/Collision via Sportsfile

Elementary Robotics: Toyota AI Ventures invested in Elementary Robotics December last year. Toyota's investment was part of a $3.6 million seed round for the startup. Elementary Robotics is a startup founded in 2017 that develops human-assistive robots. The Los-Angeles based startup was launched by veterans from the IOT, wearables, augmented reality and robotics fields.

Boxbot: Toyota AI Ventures participated in a $7.5 million seed round for Oakland, California-based Boxbot last year. Boxbot works on self-driving delivery vehicles. The startup's founders previously worked as engineers at Tesla and Uber. Alumni from the likes of Amazon, Getaround and Northrop Grumman are also members of its team.

Boxbot has raised $9 million in total funding.

Intuition Robotics: Toyota led a $14 million round for Intuition Robotics in 2017. Intuition Robotics is an Israeli-based startup that develops digital companion technologies. Intuition works on an AI platform that assists devices to learn to interact and engage with humans. Samsung and popular robot maker iRobot are also investors in Intuitive Robotics.

The ElliQ, a digital companion for older adults developed by Intuition Robotics

image: Intuition Robotics

Other startups Toyota has invested in include Connected Signals, Embodied, May Mobility, Metawave, Parallel Domain, Perceptive Automata, Realtime Robotics, Sea Machine Robotics, Third Wave Automation and SLAMcore. The Japanese automaker's investments are centered on AI, robotics and self-driving technologies.


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