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Belgian computer vision startup Robovision plans to expand in U.S. to address labor shortage

Faced with labor shortages, industries such as manufacturing and agriculture are increasingly adopting artificial intelligence in automation.

Computer vision startups are looking to seize this opportunity, offering a range of point solutions for both industries. From data collection to crop monitoring and harvesting, robots with eyes are making their way into the fields.

However, a big challenge that remains is implementation: if such solutions are not easy to use, they will not be used.

Belgian startup Robovision believes it has found a solution to this problem. The company hopes to industrialize deep learning tools and make them more accessible to non-tech companies. It builds a “no-code” computer vision AI platform that doesn’t require software developers or data scientists to be involved in every step of the process. Robovision doesn’t make robots, but as its name suggests, it’s also targeting robotics companies that want to develop new machines that support artificial intelligence automation.

In practice, this means Robovision customers can use its platform to upload data, label it, test models and deploy them into production. The company says its model can be used in a variety of use cases, such as identifying supermarket-scale fruit, identifying faults in newly manufactured electrical components, and even cutting rose stems.

Robot vision platform

Image Source: Robot Vision

Robovision CEO Thomas Van den Driessche said in an interview with TechCrunch that based in Belgium, Robovision has provided services to customers in 45 countries. Now, thanks to its latest sizable funding round, the company is expanding into the United States, banking on interest from industrial and agribusiness customers in this huge market.

The US$42 million Series A round of financing was co-led by Belgian agricultural technology investors Astanor Ventures and Target Global. The latter is a Berlin-based investor whose involvement in the financing marks a departure from some of its other recent reports: controversy over its ties to Russian funding. Red River West, a French venture capital firm focused on funding European startups looking to break into the North American market, also participated in the round.

The new round of financing, which values ​​the company at $180 million, brings the total equity funding raised by Robovision to $65 million, including two conversion notes. This leaves founders and employees still owning more than 50% of Robovision, Robovision chief growth officer Florian Hendrickx told TechCrunch via email.

What’s the point?

One challenge Robovision faces as it expands is that working with different industries complicates messaging and its go-to-market strategy. On the plus side, learning and experimentation in one application can be applied to another. For example, during the coronavirus crisis, Robovision was able to apply some of the 3D deep learning it developed for tulip disease detection to human lung disease detection.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” founder Jonathan Berte told TechCrunch. “Robovision’s DNA is all about striking a delicate balance between variety and focus.”

This DNA comes from Robovision’s history: it was founded in 2012 as a consulting studio, only to shift to a B2B platform approach a few years later, which also made it more attractive to venture capital.

Van den Driessche said Robovision’s initial traction came from agricultural technology, which accounts for 50% of its business. Agtech is also the source of its Series A co-lead investor Astanor: the company focuses on so-called “impact agri-food”.

Agritech is a huge opportunity, given the labor shortage and Robovision’s track record – it helps its partner ISO Group grow 1 billion tulips a year. But Vandendriesche said Robovision’s other verticals are growing faster.

Van den Driessche said Robovision has received strong interest in the life sciences and technology sectors. For example, Hitachi uses its platform to produce semiconductor wafers. “I don’t think agriculture will be the largest industry,” said Bao-Y Van Cong, a partner at Target Global. “I think it will be industrial manufacturing.”

Apple’s recent decision to acquire DarwinAI, an artificial intelligence startup that oversees parts manufacturing, is a sign of growing interest in this area. For Robovision founder Jonathan Berte, this also shows that a toolbox that can support a variety of different industrial applications makes more sense. “Apple will never [have bought that] If only this was a point solution. “

From Ghent to the world

The convertible notes that Robovision will raise in 2022 and 2023 after its transformation come mainly from Dutch and Belgian investors, but it will have to look further afield to raise the capital it needs. The amount of capital Robovision raises in this round will be more difficult to obtain from the Benelux, or may require more dilution.

Robovision’s Belgian roots are paying off in other ways. “The whole early team was made up of very smart people from Ghent University,” Belter said. Van den Driessche becomes Robovision’s CEO in 2022, and Berte turns his focus to fundraising, partnerships and global expansion.

Robovision’s technology evolution has expanded into rethinking the architecture of its computer vision tools to meet customer needs. Robovision Edge was launched due to the need for low latency and delivery speed in certain environments.

In today’s market, doing more with less has become the key to global competition. “I think the only way to do this is to innovate and increase productivity,” Fan Cong said.

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