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SoftBank Vision Fund to join $300M round in robot startup

(Bloomberg) --SoftBank Vision Fund is joining a $300 million investment in Cloudminds, helping the Chinese robotics and artificial intelligence startup ramp up production capacity with the goal of tripling its revenue this year.

Cloudminds, which last raised money in 2017 at a $440 million valuation, aims to sell half a million of its robots this year to Chinese customers from banks and malls to hospitals, Chief Financial Officer Richard Tang said in an interview. The latest funds will bankroll, among other things, the expansion of a $20 million production line it’s building in Shanghai that should kick off output in June or July, he said during the Credit Suisse Asian Investment conference.

The latest funding, which Tang disclosed and hasn’t been previously reported, is in its initial stages and subject to change, he said. Representatives for the Vision Fund, its largest external backer with nearly 30 percent of the company, weren’t immediately available for comment.

Four-year-old Cloudminds hopes to capitalize on a growing mania for robots across a swathe of industries from restaurants and retail to hotels. Its signature machine is the XR1, which for nearly $50,000 comes equipped with voice, motion and vision as a platform that other developers can then write software to customize. It’s planning to expand into the U.S. in a small way this year, selling several hundred robots, then Japan in 2020, Tang added.

Robots have so far failed to fire the public’s imagination outside of factories and warehouses. Boston Dynamics, a much-ballyhooed firm started by engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, spent more than a dozen years developing four-legged automatons but still hasn’t proven they can be commercialized. Most of the $2.1 billion spent by consumers in 2017 on household robots was for automated vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers -- not exactly cutting-edge.

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A humanoid robot called 'Cathy' serves a cup of coffee on the CloudMinds Technology Inc. stand on the opening day of the MWC Barcelona in Barcelona, Spain, on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019. At the wireless industry’s biggest conference, over 100,000 people are set to see the latest innovations in smartphones, artificial intelligence devices and autonomous drones exhibited by more than 2,400 companies. Photographer: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg

Cloudminds builds robots with dexterity and versatility, Tang said. Its XR1 can hold an egg, sew with a needle and pour water, he said. Its machines, which can function as guards in a residential complex or as service droids, combine internet computing power with in-device processing, Tang added.

The startup intends to further ramp up its in-house production in coming years. The Shanghai line it’s building will produce 100,000 joints for robots this year once it’s up and running, a key component for mobility (every XR1 needs 34). That’s roughly 3,000 XR1 droids in 2019, Tang said.

While the XR1 and its ilk can record images and sound, Tang says it needs user-permission to collect and store information such as facial data. It’s deepening its footprint in America but Tang said any U.S. data it collects will be stored locally, not transmitted overseas.