March 3, 2020

Corporate innovation weekly: robot brains, robot eyes, shapeshifting cars

This is what Europe's largest companies were doing to innovate this week, featuring Bosch, ABB, Santander Commerzgroup, Renault and more

Maija Palmer

5 min read


AI chips

Robert Bosch Venture Capital, BMW iVentures, Microsoft and Samsung are among the corporate backers of Graphcore, the UK-based company making semiconductor chips designed to run artificial intelligence programmes more efficiently. The company raised a $150m extension of its Series D round and is now valued at nearly $2bn.

Edge AI

Robert Bosch Venture Capital is also one of the backers of FogHorn, a Californian company that makes artificial intelligence software for industrial users. FogHorn, which raised a $25m Series C funding round, makes software that allows devices to run artificial intelligence applications locally, without having to send data back and forth to the cloud. Dell, Intel and Saudi Aramco are among the other investors.

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Financial services

FX battle ahead?

Santander is close to launching a money transfer challenger to TransferWise, PagoFX, according to people close to the project. Sifted’s Isabel Woodford takes a look at the project — can a traditional bank launch something that will really disrupt the disruptors? Or will the spinout, built by outside consultants, end up a little underwhelming like many of the big banks’ new flanker brands?  



Munich Re co-led the $34m Series B financing round into At-Bay, a cyber-insurance startup that helps protect smaller companies against hacking attacks.

Auto insurance

CommerzVentures, the venture capital arm of Commerzbank Group, led a $13m extension of the Series A investment round for omni:us, a Berlin-based insurtech startup. Omni:us uses artificial intelligence to automate the insurance claims process — human claims handling is one of the biggest expenses for insurers, says CommerzVentures partner Paul Morgenthaler in this LinkedIn post.


Elderly care consolidation coming

Cera Care, the UK-based elderly-care startup backed by luxury retirement home company Auriens, raised a $70m debt and equity round. Cera Care, which makes software that helps detect and prevent health problems for seniors, says it will use part of the money to acquire other businesses in the home healthcare sector.


Making smarter robots

Robotics-maker ABB announced a partnership with Covariant, a Silicon Valley artificial intelligence company, which only recently emerged from stealth mode. The two companies will develop AI-enabled robots, starting with a system that can autonomously pack online shopping orders. 

There is a race to automate warehouse operations, but many programmed robots still struggle to pick and pack the variety of items that humans can handle. Covariant’s software, however, could allow robots to learn to handle new items using trial-and-error-style reinforcement learning.


Sporting chances

Minute Media, the media startup with a focus on user-generated sports content, raised a $40m funding round. The long list of investors includes ProSieben of Germany.  Techcrunch estimates the company, which owns titles such as, FanSided and Mental Floss, is worth between $400m and $500m.


Shaky scooters?

French electric scooter startup Cityscoot raised $25.6m from investors including Allianz France, Groupe RATP and Banque des Territoires. The scooter rental company, which currently operates in Paris, Nice, Milan and Rome, plans to expand to two new European cities this year, including Barcelona.

Electric scooter startups are an uncertain business, though. Cityscoot’s main competitor Coup — backed by Bosch —  shut down a few months ago saying the business was economically unviable.

Expanding car

I’ve often wished for a way to expand my car after an over-enthusiastic shopping trip, and now Renault has brought out a concept vehicle — the Morphoz — where you can do exactly this, adding extra space to the boot or the back seat at the touch of a button. The actual chassis of the vehicle gets longer. Concept cars rarely, if ever, actually get built but I’d like to personally lobby Renault to get this one on the road. 

Good reads

Should robots have faces?

It started with an employee at one of Ahold Delhaize’s US stores jokingly sticking big googly eyes on a robot that trundled through the store detecting spills and debris. But company bosses liked the idea — making robots look friendly, might make supermarket staff more likely to accept them. So googly eyes are now standard on the machines across all the stores, and many other companies are cottoning onto the trend of making robots look cute and accessible (eyes are good but never put a mouth on, it makes robots look sinister). To misquote Mary Poppins, “a spoonful of sugar makes the robots go down” better (although we are wondering how much comfort “cute” will be if you really are made redundant because of automation). The full New York Times story is here.


Innovation as a verb

We talk a lot about innovation these days but often as a 'thing', a destination rather than the journey. The risk is that 'innovation', thus limited and made static, becomes the property of just one group — the innovation team, “our creative people” — and not a process than anyone can take part in. Bill Fischer’s piece in Forbes has six tips for how to keep innovation accessible to everyone. 

Will self-driving cars ever arrive?

Scepticism about autonomous driving is growing. After the rosy optimism of the last decade, most self-driving car projects seem barely out of first gear and the chief executive of Volkswagen recently said that fully autonomous vehicles may never arrive. This Vox article looks at all the reasons why progress has been much slower than expected, and how many of the promises of self-driving (that it would be greener and safer) look a bit shaky now.