Ten years ago this December, Bot & Dolly became one of a dozen or so robotics companies snapped up during Google’s robotics acquisition spree. The San Francisco-based firm, best known for its special effects work on films like “Gravity,” was folded into a new portfolio with ambitious plans to shake up the industry. For a lot of reasons we won’t go into here, however, things didn’t work out that way.
After a few years heading up robotics for Google and then Alphabet X, Bot & Dolly co-founder Jeff Linnell launched Formant. Among the insights gained during his time at the company, he tells TechCrunch, “is that hardware is not the problem. It’s software. The second insight is that there are so many applications that are 95% happening or 95% possible and that humans might pick up the slack for that.”
Linnell clearly wasn’t alone in such realizations. Google’s robotics history since those salad days have also largely found the company pivoting to software. Much of the Everyday Robotics team was absorbed into the Google DeepMind project, while Alphabet X has since graduated Intrinsic.
Rather the sort of no-code robotic programming/deployment companies like Intrinsic and Viam are aiming for, Formant is best understood as a data collection and assessment platform for the complex swaths of information on-board sensors are able to collect.
“In the last couple years, people realized they can buy infrastructure and a data platform. It’s not something they have the experience to build or that they’re expert in, so that’s what we’re doing,” says Linnell. “We’re really bringing humans into the equation to managing field-deployed assets. Ideally those assets are deployed at scale. We’ve got folks on the platform with tens of thousand of robots. That wasn’t the case three or four years ago.”
Today Formant is announcing a $21 million funding round led by BMW i Ventures and featuring Intel Capital, GS Futures, SignalFire, Hillsven, Pelion Ventures, Holman, Ericsson, Goodyear Ventures, PICUS Capital and Thursday Ventures. The round follows an $18 million Series A announced last January.
This most recent round of funding will go toward accelerating the company’s go to market. Formant has already had success on that front. The company began by focusing on relatively underserved sectors like agriculture, rather than more mature categories, including warehouse and manufacture (though those are also on the horizon). Clients Include the John Deere-owned Blue River and security robotics firm Knightscope, as well as BP.
“We’re radically hardware agnostic,” says Linnell. “We’ve got flying robots, underwater robots, mowing robots, delivery robots, quadrupeds, bipeds. You name it, there’s something on the platform that represents it. To us they all look the same. Somewhere in the chain, there’s a Linux computer that you can install a piece of software on. We haven’t met a robot yet that we haven’t been able to play with.”