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AI Robotics Startup Covariant Automates Apparel Warehouses

Covariant has raised $40 million in Series B funding to expand its artificial intelligence-based robotics platform to new industries.

With the global supply chain facing unprecedented pressure to deliver orders quickly, Covariant aims to automate complex and unpredictable tasks often carried out by human labor by creating more systems capable of picking, placing and unloading objects in warehouses.

In January, Covariant emerged from stealth to reveal that its robotics stations were running consistently at customer facilities in North America and Europe in the apparel, pharmaceutical and electronics industries, and now operate under autonomous live production, with an average unassisted operating time greater than one hour.

“As the coronavirus crisis has exposed serious frailty in the global supply chain, we’re seeing more demand than ever for our AI robotics solutions,” said Peter Chen, Covariant CEO and co-founder. “Our customers are eager to invest in AI and scale it across their supply chains to meet growing demands and more stringent requirements. This latest funding round, along with our recent partnerships, will allow us to scale quickly across multiple industries.”

Founded in 2017 and previously known as Embodied Intelligence, Covariant is developing a universal AI called the Covariant Brain, which is designed to enable robots to see, reason and act autonomously. Covariant robots learn capabilities such as 3D perception, physical affordances around different objects, few-shot learning and real-time motion planning, which affords the intelligence to learn how to manipulate new objects they’ve never seen before in environments where they’ve never operated.

A series of studies MIT economists released this week found that robotics are most prevalent in four manufacturing industries, with none of them being apparel, making it a good target for growing entrants in robotics. In the U.S., these manufacturing industries account for 70 percent of robots: automakers (38 percent of robots in use), electronics (15 percent), plastics and chemicals (10 percent) and metals manufacturers (7 percent).

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The study also found that robots replace  3.3 jobs on average but businesses that move quickly to adopt robots can also add employees to their payroll in other capacities. While a 20-percentage point increase in robot use in manufacturing from 2010 to 2015 led to a 3.2 percent decline in industry-wide employment, employee hours worked rose by 10.9 percent for the firms adopting robots during that time span, and wages rose modestly as well.

Soon after launching from stealth, Covariant invested in strategic partnerships to accelerate the deployment of robotic stations to customers. In February, Covariant announced a partnership with ABB, an industrial robotics supplier. In March, Covariant joined forces with Knapp, a supplier of intralogistics systems.

The round, which brings its total funding to $67 million, was led by Index Ventures, along with AI-focused Radical Ventures and participation from existing investor Amplify Partners and others. As a part of the investment, Mike Volpi, partner at Index Ventures, will be joining Covariant’s board. The company will use the funding to accelerate its partnerships, introduce its technology to new industries with low rates of automation, and grow its research, engineering and commercial teams.