With a massive infusion of capital, Agility Robotics is ramping up its search for an Oregon site for a 200,000-plus-square-foot robotics factory. The company is also looking to expand in Pittsburgh, where its CEO Damion Shelton is based, as it looks to move from one side of the city to the other in pursuit of more space.
The company would like to have its Oregon site ready no later than 2024, said Shelton.
Agility Robotics announced Friday it raised $150 million largely from existing investors. The seven-year-old company makes a two-legged robot called Digit that is designed to move more like a human. The technology has roots at Oregon State University and the company now employs 100 people.
That is up from 37 employees at the end of 2020, when the company raised its last round of capital, said Shelton. The majority of employees are in Oregon at the company’s headquarters in Corvallis, but this capital will help it grow an office in Palo Alto, California, as well as establish one in Pittsburgh.
“Moving forward, we plan to double (headcount) by the end of this year. We are on track for that, the hiring team is going gangbusters,” Shelton said, joking that the hiring strategy right now is the same as a recently released movie title: “Everything, everywhere, all at once.”
Jackie Bezek, a vice president for JLL who represents the Chocolate Factory in Lawrenceville, which is owned by the Regional Industrial Development Corporation of Southwestern Pennsylvania, said the facility there will offer Agility Robotics the “best of both worlds” in terms of the space.
It’s a location in the middle of Robotics Row just across the street from the National Robotics Engineering Center.
“The Chocolate Factory is kind of the perfect fit for them because the first floor is great for that research and development light industrial use with access to loading docks,” she said. “And then they can put their office space on the second floor.”
It’s a building on which RIDC has also added a rooftop deck as well as showers and locker rooms for bike commuters.
The company is taking a little more than 13,500 square feet in the building, joining other firms such as Helomics, Setex Technologies and the Microbial Genome Sequencing Center, also known as MiGSCenter.
The building is now about 85% leased, she added.
The Chocolate Factory, which has hosted autonomous vehicle companies and a host of other tech firms, has had some vacancies to backfill after Red Zone Robotics moved out of the building in 2019 to expand into a larger RIDC facility at the Thorn Hill Industrial Park in Cranberry Township.
Agility is moving from the Empire on Liberty development in Bloomfield where it opened a small office in 2018.
As for its Oregon plant, the company is still finalizing the size and location of its planned factory. It is working with local economic development organizations and there are arguments to be made both for locating it near Corvallis or closer to the Portland or Salem, Shelton said.
The company uses local Oregon machine shops and other suppliers and does all of its own final assembly. This has been a good strategic move, especially as supply chains are strained coming out of the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Shelton said the company has not run into the same level of supply and logistics issues as other manufacturers.
This deal started coming together earlier this year. Though the round was largely existing investors it does include one new backer that is notable: Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN). Agility Robotics is one of the first investments made by the new $1 billion Amazon Industrial Innovation Fund.
“The purpose of the Amazon Industrial Innovation Fund is to support emerging technologies through direct investments, designed to spur invention and solve for the world’s toughest problems across customer fulfillment operations, logistics, and supply chain solutions,” said Katherine Chen, head of Amazon Industrial Innovation Fund, in a written statement. “Agility’s approach to designing robotics for a blended workforce is truly unique and can have a significant ripple effect for a wide range of industries, and we hope others follow suit to accelerate innovation in this way.”
Getting in front of a high-profile investor like Amazon isn’t something that happened in a one-and-done intro. In fact, the company has been connected to Amazon’s innovation folks for years, said Shelton. It started when co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Jonathan Hurst, who is also a professor and researcher at OSU, was invited to present his work at the MARS conference, an annual invitation-only gathering organized by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
“Jonathan was at the MARS conference in his professor hat. The company was only 4 months old,” Shelton said. “We’ve known people there (at Amazon) for a while. The lesson I’ve learned with VC interactions is you should never pitch. (Deals happen) as a conversation with people you know.”
Agility expects to ship the latest version of Digit to customers later this year. In 2020, its launch customer was Ford Motor Co., Shelton said. As the company gets its robots to more customers it will work with those customers to iterate design and uses for these robots.
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