Industrial robotics has become one of the hottest technology sectors in China in recent years, with the country promoting the use of cutting-edge technologies to improve production efficiency.
VisionNav Robotics, which specializes in autonomous forklifts, stacker vehicles and other logistics robots, is the latest Chinese industrial robot maker to be funded. The Shenzhen-based automated guided vehicle (AGV) startup landed 500 million yuan (about $76 million) from a Series C expansion round led by Chinese food delivery giant Meituan and 5Y Capital, a leading venture capital firm in the country. Its existing investors IDG, TikTok parent company ByteDance and Xiaomi founder Lei Jun’s Shunwei Capital also joined the round.
Founded in 2016 by a group of PhDs from the University of Tokyo and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, VisionNav’s valuation has grown to over $500 million this round, from $393 million a year ago. was barely six months old when she recovered 300 million yuan ($47). million) in a Series C funding, he told TechCrunch.
The new funding will allow VisionNav to invest in R&D and expand its use cases, shifting from a focus on horizontal and vertical movement to other functions like stacking and loading.
The key element in adding new categories is training and improving the startup’s software algorithms, less developing new hardware, said the company’s vice president of global sales Don Dong. “From control, dispatch to detection, we will need to improve our software capabilities as a whole.”
A major challenge for robots, Dong said, is effectively perceiving and navigating the world around them. The problem with a camera-powered self-driving solution like Tesla’s is that it can be easily affected by bright light. Lidar, a sensing technology heralded for its more accurate distance sensing, was still too expensive for mass adoption a few years ago, but has seen its price cut drastically by Chinese players like DJI-affiliated Livox and Robosense.
“Before, we mainly provided interior solutions. Now that we are expanding into unmanned truck loading, which is often semi-outdoor, it is inevitable that we are operating under bright light. That’s why we’re adapting a combination of vision and radar technologies to direct our robots,” Dong said.
VisionNav sees Pittsburg-based Seegrid and France-based Balyo as its international rivals, but thinks it has a “price advantage” for being in China, which is home to its manufacturing and R&D operations. The startup is already sending robots to customers in Southeast Asia, East Asia, as well as the Netherlands, the UK and Hungary. It is in the process of creating subsidiaries in Europe and the United States.
The startup works with system integrators to sell its robots, which means it doesn’t collect detailed customer information, which simplifies data compliance in foreign markets. It is expected to derive 50-60% of its revenue from overseas over the next few years, up from 30-40% currently. The United States is one of its main target markets, Dong said, because the forklift industry there generates “greater gross revenue than China despite fewer forklifts.”
Last year, VisionNav achieved total revenue of between $200 million ($31 million) and 250 million yuan ($39 million). It currently operates a team of around 400 people across China and is expected to grow to 1,000 employees this year by aggressively hiring overseas.