Traditionally, few venture capitalists would touch industrial startup companies. Time cycles were too long and clunky hardware complicated things. However, deep digitalization is taking hold, the expectations are that the industrial sector will evolve much faster. What has changed?

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One reason venture capital and corporate investment have shied away from industrial startups is that they have been few and far between. After all, if you cannot find something exciting to invest in, there’s little point having a strong venture activity and a dedicated fund.

Perhaps it is also the case that industrial conglomerates were looking inward to find innovative ways instead of looking outward for it. As a result, venture capitalists considered the manufacturing space the place for incremental innovation, though less interesting.

Augmented Lean: A Human-Centric Framework for Managing Frontline Operations

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In reality, though, the startups have always been around but they were typically swapped up by incumbents before they got to be of a scale that they had true impact on the market. What that also meant is that the overall paradigm in industrial tech remained the same. A bit like a yogurt beyond the expiration date. What seems to have happened now is that some of the “yogurt” culture of industrial startups has become beneficial. Think of it like inserting probiotics into the mix. As a result, some startups have been able to bypass this logic and are spreading a new industrial culture. I think of the phenomenon as a Lean process coupled with a human-centric approach to technology, what my co-author Natan Linder and I call Augmented Lean.

Is there Venture Capital For Industrial Technology?

Conversely, over the past decade, especially in the last three years, venture has discovered industry 4.0. In a note on the Industrial Technology Sector, White Star Capital (2020) points out that industrial technology funding in the period has amounted to more than $160 billion, at a 24% share of VC funding, with 29 VC-backed unicorns. They write that a key driver has been the drastic cost-reduction per unit of necessary devices such as robots, IoT devices, and 3D printers. White Star is “especially interested in businesses democratizing industrial automation in a world where custom products and personalized fulfillment are becoming the standard and consumer demands become more unique,” highlighting its portfolio companies Vention, a cloud based CAD-platform for custom order of industrial equipment with short lead time, Mnubo, and Packhelp, Europe’s leading managed marketplace providing small and medium enterprises with custom packaging. Montreal-based Mnubo, the purpose-built artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics infrastructure for the Internet of Things (IoT) was acquired by Aspen Tech in 2019.

The development of ‘capital light’ manufacturing utilizing robotics and digital design, which is altering thinking. Several new firms have entered the space. Industrial multinationals have redoubled their efforts to track startups and now, many have their corporate venture arms. Still, the main industrial VCs and hardware VCs make up a shortlist: AE Industrial Partners, Bolt, Boost VC, Construct Capital, Eclipse Ventures, Emerald Technology Ventures, Founders Fund, Heartland Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Lemnos Labs, Lux Capital, mHUB, Monozukuri Ventures, New Enterprise Associates (NEA), OSS Ventures, SOSV, Speedinvest, and The Engine.

Industrial VCs: The Top Players

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Heartland Ventures (with Eclipse Ventures, Toyota Ventures, and others) invested in Third Wave Automation, providing cloud robotics and machine learning technology to material handling automation. Third Wave’s autonomous forklift operates independently but can ask for help when encountering a challenge, for example, when stuck, an operator answers the forklift’s questions and trains the forklift through the challenge.

Khosla Ventures has invested in over 1000 startups. Mimica Automation, founded in 2018, stands out. An advanced form of robotic process automation (RPA,) Mimica watches your work and learns to automate your most repetitive tasks, generating blueprints for bots, and slashing deployment times for automation projects. Billions of human creativity hours are arguably wasted on repetitive work, such as data entry, form completion, and claim processing. Entrusting AI with the world’s monotonous digital work is an Augmented Lean approach because humans should be at the center.

Lemnos Labs invested in Pico MES, founded in 2019, a factory operations software platform mitigating operator errors, thus making the job of production managers and supervisors easier. Lemnos also invested in Fort Robotics. Founded in 2018, Fort is building a wireless platform to ensure human safety around dangerous machines in construction, agriculture, manufacturing, warehousing, transportation, mobile robotics, and more. The system helps builders and users of robotic systems accelerate development, mitigate threats, and stay in control, essential features of Augmented Lean.

New Enterprise Associates (NEA) has made over 2000 investments. In terms of augmenting manufacturing, standout investments include its engagement in 3D fabrication systems maker Formlabs, founded in 2011, metal and carbon fiber 3D printing provider Desktop Metal, founded in 2015, the frontline operations platform Tulip, founded in 2014, end-to-end biopharmaceutical manufacturing Resilience, founded in 2020, protecting bio-pharmaceutical supply chains against disruption, and the thought-powered neural interface Whispr, founded in 2021.

France-based OSS Labs is a European standout with its investment in collaborative SaaS platform Fabriq, founded in 2019, built to help manufacturing teams drive improved operational performance, and other software enabled manufacturing startups. Vienna-based Speedinvest also has an extensive industrial tech portfolio with standout company Aucobo, founded in 2019, empowering shop floor workers by connecting them with our smart collaboration software (and wearables) to increase process efficiency and deliver new data insights. Aucobo’s vision is that humans will be at the center of the factory of tomorrow.

Private Equity Enters Manufacturing

Lately, private equity firms have renewed their interests in manufacturing software. Firms such as Insight Partners, GI Partners, OpenView, JMI Equity, Madison Park Group (MPG), and LFM Capital have engaged in transactions over the past few years. Madison Park Group (MPG,) the private equity firm’s Manufacturing Software Market Update states they “believe that cloud platforms which drive productivity gains and shop floor intelligence are the primary mechanisms that will deliver operational change at the required speed in the evolving industrial environment,” and note, the “unprecedented rate of funding and acquisition in 2021.” With 10-15 transactions a year, the manufacturing software sector is experiencing a rapid consolidation. How long will that continue, what will be the result, and what is the outlook in the sector for the long term?

Industrial Private Equity: The Top Players

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In MPG’s view, human-robot collaboration means true collaboration between humans and machines, more personalized production, supply chain resiliency, and no-code platforms. They note that “SaaS is proving to be an attractive business model for complex supply chains and distributed workforce”. Private equity is betting on cloud computing’s influx into manufacturing, enabling startups to enter unpenetrated markets and subsequently scale at high levels beyond the current incumbents due to the network effects of this type of technology.

Corporate Venturing In The Industrial Space

Corporates have a variety of innovation strategies, including strategic bets on internally developed innovations and business models, internal R&D licensing, incubation or acceleration of in-house spinouts or external early-stage startups, technology scouting, external R&D access through university partnerships or open innovation programs. Specific approaches include participating as a judge in third party startup competitions, direct startup engagement, and partnership, direct investment in startups through the balance sheet, startups or competitor acquisitions, by investment in other venture funds, by investing in fund-of-funds, or through a corporate venture fund. To succeed, meaning to survive or thrive as a corporate entity over time, each of these strategies must be well balanced as a portfolio of strategies with independent success and failure rates.

Corporate innovation is complicated to execute over time, as seen by the turnover of Fortune 100 rankings. Yet according to Gulbranson and Mawson, the corporate venturing strategy seems to pay off (see Transformative Innovation: Today’s Capital Drives Tomorrow’s Exponential Growth & Profits To Transform The World), although corporate players typically only invest in startups later in the game, missing out on a lot of the upside.

Nearly every major company has a corporate investment arm;the list is too long to mention. However, notable corporate investors in industrial tech like myself (with Natan Linder) define and care about, for Augmented Lean purposes: Stanley Ventures, Hitachi Ventures, and the automotives (Toyota Ventures, GM Ventures, etc.). ABB Technology Ventures, Husqvarna Ventures, Intel Capital, iRobot Ventures, Next47, Schneider Electric’s SE Ventures, STANLEY + Techstars Accelerator, and TDK Ventures to name a few more. In aerospace, AE HorizonX is a joint venture between AE Industrial Partners and Boeing. A few interesting multi-corporate VCs are also in the industrial space, notably Alliance Ventures (Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi,) a $1 billion fund launched in 2018, although Nissan was widely reported as wanting to jump ship already by 2020 (see Reuters story). They did not in the end, perhaps because of bad press around it, and the emergence of connected and electric mobility. Instead, they have now issued a common roadmap, Alliance 2030: Best of 3 worlds for a new future. The former GE Ventures portfolio, of which 40 North Ventures acquired 11 investments, is also significant. Finally, Rockwell Automation actively invests in startups out of its corporate balance sheet (and is also an active acquirer of industrial automation startups.)

Corporate Industrial VCs: The Top Players

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For more than a decade, the corporations that venture have gathered at the conferences hosted in California, the UK, and later in Israel and in Asia by Global Corporate Venturing (GSV), a global market intelligence and publishing company founded in 2010. It serves as a network of like-minded corporate investors who collaborate quite closely (except when they don’t) and tend to know each other. What’s for certain is that corporate investors have a far bigger role in early investment than they typically get credit for.

Will This Last?

Traditionally, few venture capitalists would touch industrial companies. Time cycles were long, hardware was involved, and each sector grew slowly. This has changed in the last few years, and there is optimism that each industrial sector will evolve much faster as deep digitalization takes hold. Breakout startups in a plethora of fields are paving the way. Four things have changed: The SaaS business model has changed the game for startups entering the field. With that model, pathbreaking products that shape an industry, creating new categories and capabilities, built on social movements to fuel the transformation. The impetus of the pandemic makes change desirable. The transition from mindless automation with scattered machines to careful augmentation with humans in the loop is taking hold. The sustainability imperative is further proof. Change is coming and needed. Investors across VC, corporate venturing, and private equity largely agree.

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In stark contrast, the current geopolitical risk environment has already dampened the enthusiasm for corporate-startup investments. Those who have studied or participated in corporate venturing for a while can see the writing on the wall. There are distinct cycles. Corporates are always slow to enter a trend and the last to get out. But when they do, they march together. This has happened with regularity in 20-year waves, in the end of the 1980s, as well as after the Dotcom bubble in the early 2000s.Because of the new geopolitical risk environment, it will happen again in 2022-23 as surely as it has in the past.

The outliers who push on (and also make decent investments) will reap all the benefits of the exodus. Those few will be the industrial giants of the upcoming manufacturing era, one which will, in my view, be characterized by Augmented Lean management practices with fluid technology interfaces that workers will enjoy far more than the old automation control systems. And as a result, innovative systems will empower workers to make impacts far beyond their expected contributions or the brunt of the automation these systems come with as default.

Exponential improvements don’t often happen from incremental efficiencies, although manufacturing might be the exception. Once increments accumulate in real-world production environments, the impact can be big if the scale is global and the product is a platform. That’s why I say industrial tech startups are starting to act a bit like probiotics.

Disclaimer: I have financial interests in Tulip, a portfolio company of both New Enterprise Associates and Insight Partners, each briefly referred to in this article. I have also done consulting work for Hitachi Ventures, also mentioned. Lastly, there were a few references to an upcoming book, Augmented Lean, which I co-authored.