Written by Josh O'Kane, Technology Reporter via The Globe and Mail
August 18, 2020
The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan is leading a US$50-million investment into warehouse robotics company Attabotics Inc. to help the Calgary firm build out its client roster and technology – vertical storage structures inspired by ant colonies that it claim scan reduce warehouse footprints by as much as 85 per cent.
Attabotics has redesigned the traditional warehouse from horizontal to vertical and works with a growing number of brands, including the department store chain Nordstrom Inc. Rather than running around endless aisles, Attabotics’s robots scour a single vertical structure to store and move goods to workers who handle packing and shipping.
Going vertical can lower rent costs and can allow for more centrally located warehouses – a crucial factor in urban centres that reduces both the financial and environmental cost of delivery.
“The system allows for smaller but more numerous sites, and packages can be located much closer to customers from the outset,” said Olivia Steedman, who leads the pension plan’s tech-investment wing, Teachers’ Innovation Platform. “Warehouse operations are ripe for disruption.”
Attabotics’s new financing is rounded out by industrial conglomerate Honeywell International Inc., which is are turning investor. The raise brings Attabotics’ total funding toUS$82.7-million, the company says.
Scott Gravelle and several partners launched Attabotics in 2015, naming it after Atta, one of the groups of species of leafcutter ants. After watching a documentary in which a scientist poured molten aluminum into an ant habitat, Mr. Gravelle realized that ants’ networks of tunnels and chambers took advantage of vertical pathways and storage.
“With very few exceptions, all the automated systems out there were automated based off of human centric environments,” Mr. Gravelle told The Globe and Mail. “Human beings are two-dimensional: We walk on the ground, we drive on the ground. Everything for us has to be accessed from the floor.”
When seeking ways to make the systems more efficient, he said, “I thought nature probably had this figured out.”
Attabotics translated this to warehouses and fulfillment by designing vertical structures with robots that move along planes at the top of the structure and underneath the storage area.
Canadian robotics and automation companies have seen significant increases in attention since the start of the pandemic. Demand for floor-scrubbing robots made by Kitchener,Ont.‘s Avid bots Corp. has doubled since COVID-19 lockdowns began. Clearpath Robotics Inc. in neighbouring Waterloo has seen a 50-per-cent increase in inbound calls about its warehouse-roaming robots. Mr. Gravelle estimates that Attabotics’s inbound inquiries have increased fourfold.
Attabotics’s new funding will help it expand its technology to what it calls “networked microfulfillment” –ware housing centres that can store and move goods from multiple sellers. Much like shopping malls, Mr. Gravelle said, this would allow smaller sellers to get access to important infrastructure on a collective basis – making fulfillment more efficient without requiring a warehouse of their own.
“Shared infrastructure is the only way to be competitive against some of the big kids that seem to be running away with the market,” he said.
Before pandemic lockdowns hit this year, Mr.Gravelle told The Globe that he’d like to see Attabotics list as a public company in three to five years. He said this month that the pandemic hasn’t changed that timeline. “The plan is to grow Attabotics into being a huge Canadian company,” he said.
Attabotics is the first direct Canadian investment for Teachers’ Innovation Platform, the pension fund’s dedicated technology arm that launched in April, 2019, Ms. Steedman said.
Since its launch, the innovation wing has made investments in Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. –better known as SpaceX – and the New York financial-crime-detection company ComplyAdvantage.
The pension fund also partnered with the Alphabet Inc. urban-planning firm Sidewalk Labs for a dedicated company that invests in technology-laced infrastructure. Sidewalk had previously spent 2½ years developing a plan to build a technology-first neighbourhood in Toronto, but it was cancelled in May. Earlier this month, the Sidewalk-Teachers’ partnership, Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, announced plans for an autonomous vehicle transportation corridor in Michigan.