Damion Shelton brought Cassie to Sony Electronics’ San Diego campus this month for a showcase of companies recently backed by the Sony Innovation Fund — a relatively new, $100 million corporate-venture vehicle from the Japanese consumer- electronics giant.
If self-driving delivery vans ever hit the road, how is the package going to get from the truck at the curb to your doorstep?
A worker riding along could do it, or maybe a drone. But Agility Robotics thinks it has a better way — Cassie.
Named after the ostrichlike Cassowary bird of New Guinea, Cassie is a biped robot that actively balances like humans, is capable of navigating uneven ground and can recover from a stumble, said Chief Executive Damion Shelton.
“If your UPS truck is self-driving, then your driver is not a driver. They are a rider to run back and forth to the door,” he said. “So at that point the commercial demand (for Cassie) becomes pretty extreme because there is always pressure to automate when you can.”
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Cassie was developed at Oregon State University. Six have been sold so far, mostly to universities.
Agility Robotics was co-founded by Jonathan Hurst, associate professor of mechanical engineering, with Oregon State graduate Mikhail Jones and Hurst’s graduate-school classmate, Shelton.
Shelton brought Cassie to Sony Electronics’ San Diego campus this month for a showcase of companies recently backed by the Sony Innovation Fund — a relatively new, $100 million corporate-venture vehicle from the Japanese consumer- electronics giant.
Launched in 2016, the Innovation Fund targets early-stage companies in robotics, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, video, music, entertainment and other technologies. It has invested in around 25 companies in the U.S., Japan and Europe so far. The average investment is a few million in each company.
“We are focused on early-stage startups, so each investment is relatively small,” said Toshimoto Mitomo, senior investment executive for the fund. “But our plan is to stay with the company, and when they grow and need additional funding, we are open- minded depending on the situation.”
While Sony has made corporate venture investments in the past, it took a hiatus as it restructured amid struggles with its core electronics business. Now that the company is profitable again, it’s renewed efforts to invest in startups.
“In the artificial-intelligence area, for example, we do have a strong deep-learning research team, but at the same time, the field is moving so fast,” said Hiroaki Kitano, who oversees Sony’s Computer Sciences Laboratories and led the team that developed Sony’s Aibo robotic dog. “The opportunity is so immense. So we can work with all these startups and explore more.”
In addition to new technologies, the Sony Innovation Fund also aims to help the company better understand new business models.
“The technology is important, but the technology is not the main thing for us,” added Mitomo. “What kind of value can the alternative business models provide to the end users is the ultimate goal.”
Novel business models were easy to spot at the San Diego event.
Theta Network, based in the Bay Area, is building a decentralized peer-to-peer content delivery platform powered by blockchain technology.
Born out of the Sliver.tv esports streaming network, Theta’s platform would tap powerful gaming computers to stream 360-degree virtual-reality video, music, movies and educational programming peer-to-peer to consumers, who could pay for both content and streaming via virtual Theta tokens.
Fotokite, a tethered drone made by Swiss company Perspective Robotics, does not require a pilot, can fly for hours and has unlimited bandwidth to deliver streaming video.
“We put the drone in a box that gets mounted on top of a firetruck,” said Chief Executive Christopher McCall. “A firefighter pulls up to an emergency scene, pushes a single button and the Fotokite flies up and starts streaming thermal video down to firefighters.”
Perspective Robotics is working with a large firetruck manufacturer in the U.S.
“Sony is very active in the public-safety space, the broadcast space and the sports space, and those are the markets we are going after,” McCall said.
That’s where Sony’s history with robotics comes in, Shelton said. “In order to make an impact, you need the technology to be approachable enough, low-cost enough and safe enough to get out there in volume,” he said. “Sony is the only company that has ever done that.”