5 autotech start-ups with mega investment backing

29 Jan 2021

Nuro’s R2 self-driving delivery vehicle. Image: Nuro

Mega funding rounds for these five companies represented 95pc of all autotech funding in the US in Q4 2020.

According to the MoneyTree report for Q4 2020, three sectors in the US saw investments more than double in the last three months of the year: supply chain tech, smart cities, and autotech.

The report, compiled by PwC and CB Insights, highlights trends in venture capital funding across the US and globally.

In the case of autotech, overall deal volume dropped in 2020 on a continued decline since 2017. However, investment is up substantially since that time to $3.3bn – although not quite the 2019 peak of $4.4bn.

US autotech funding in 2020 was strongest in the fourth quarter of the year, reaching $2.5bn across just 17 deals.

In this flush period for autotech funding, five companies reported mega rounds in the hundreds of millions. Between them, these five companies represent 95pc of all autotech funding in the US for Q4 2020.

Reef Technology

The biggest deal in autotech clocked by CB Insights data for this period is perhaps not on the sexy side of autonomous driving and in-car software. Headquartered in Miami, Reef Technology operates mobility and logistics hubs in the US and Canada, with a growing presence in Europe. It started out as ParkJockey, focused on providing hardware, software and management services for car parks, and this is still part of the business.

Reef’s technology stack offers insights into the patterns and mechanics of car parks, combining kiosks, cameras, mobile applications and more into one frictionless system. TechCrunch reports that the bulk of the company’s revenue still comes from its parking business, but its scope has stretched far beyond this to include infrastructure for cloud kitchens, healthcare clinics, logistics and last-mile delivery. It has even branched into experiential retail spaces and is looking to launch its first open-air entertainment venues this year.

In November 2020, this multifaceted company secured $700m in funding from SoftBank Group, Oaktree Capital Management and others.

Nuro

Robotics company Nuro is currently focused on developing a self-driving vehicle for local goods transportation. In November, it reached a $5bn valuation following a $500m Series C round led by T Rowe Price Associates, with participation from investors new and old, including Fidelity Investments, SoftBank Group and Greylock Partners.

The following month, Nuro’s home state of California gave it the green light to become the first driverless delivery service in the state. Nuro’s R2 vehicles were already tested in California in April, but the new permit will allow the company to charge people for the service.

Nuro was founded in 2016 by former Google engineers Jiajun Zhu and Dave Ferguson. Its R2 vehicle uses radar, thermal imaging and 360-degree cameras to direct its movement.

Aurora Innovation

Aurora also has its sights set on a self-driving future, though it intends to transport both people and goods.

In December, Aurora acquired Uber’s self-driving vehicle technology unit, while Uber took a 26pc stake in Aurora in exchange for a $400m investment. The partnership formed between the two companies is meant to strengthen and accelerate Aurora’s delivery of autonomous driving across heavy-duty trucks and light vehicles. Sources speaking to CNBC tipped Aurora as a decacorn following the Uber deal.

Earlier this month, as the acquisition closed, Aurora also announced a strategic partnership with Paccar, a major manufacturer of trucks. Aurora has already tested its autonomous vehicle tech on Paccar trucks and is now embarking on an “accelerated development programme” to deliver driverless vehicles.

TuSimple

Another company that saw mega investment in its self-driving truck technology in 2020 is TuSimple. The San Diego-headquartered company secured $350m in December from a range of investors including Volkswagen subsidiary Traton.

Traton took a minority stake in TuSimple back in September 2020, when it announced a global partnership to develop an autonomous hub-to-hub route in Sweden using Scania trucks. An earlier partnership between TuSimple and commercial truck producer Navistar forecast production of autonomous vehicles by 2024.

Just this week, TuSimple also announced a partnership with Aeva, a company founded by former Apple engineers which is building sensing and perception technology for autonomous vehicles. TuSimple plans to bring Aeva’s 4D lidar technology to self-driving trucks.

Pony.ai

Autonomous driving company Pony.ai had a massively successful 2020, topping and tailing the year with mega funding rounds. In February, it raised $400m from Toyota Motor Corporation, deepening a partnership first forged between the two in 2019.

Pony.ai then closed the year with a $267m Series C round and a $5.3bn valuation in November. This made it one of the world’s most valuable independent autonomous driving start-ups, according to Pitchbook data.

Pony.ai already tests vehicles in Fremont, the site of its California HQ, as well as the Orange County city of Irvine. It also has an operation site in Shanghai and has tested vehicles in Guangzhou and Beijing.

Its focus is on PonyPilot, a pilot robotaxi service offering self-driving transport to the general public. In 2019, it was the first company to roll out a public-facing robotaxi pilot in California.

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com