Toyota’s First Venture Arm Gets $100M for AI, Robotics, Mobility Startups

Toyota Research Institute, the Toyota R&D unit that has parked branches near Stanford and two other top U.S. research universities, is now spinning out a corporate venture capital arm that will finance and incubate startups in artificial intelligence, robotics, and autonomous mobility.

The research institute, also known as TRI, is devoting at least $100 million to the new venture unit, Toyota AI Ventures, which is Toyota’s first formal venture capital entity. The separate investment arm will manage investments TRI has already made in three startups since mid-2016.

Those startups were chosen with TRI’s vision of technology’s future in mind, and that mission strays beyond just making cars that incorporate frontier capabilities such as autonomous navigation. The Toyota research subsidiary is looking at safety, AI, robots, data crunching, and cloud technology to enhance mobility, both for cars on the streets and for individuals at home.

TRI’s most recent investment, in May, went to Intuition Robotics, a developer of robot companions for the elderly that is based in Israel, with offices in San Francisco. Co-founder and CEO Dor Skuler says the company’s tabletop robot, ElliQ, is designed to ease loneliness and depression in older adults, who often live by themselves. ElliQ, (pictured) whose “head” looks sort of like an inverted lampshade, encourages her human host to do things like get outside for a walk, or trade selfies online with the grandkids. TRI led Intuition Robotics’s $14M Series A financing round, joined by OurCrowd, iRobot, and seed investors Maniv Mobility, Terra Venture Partners, Bloomberg Beta, and others.

Toyota Research Institute also participated in the March seed financing round for U.K.-based SLAMcore, a developer of mapping and navigation algorithms for cars, drones, and virtual or augmented reality systems.

In August 2016, TRI joined in a $12 million Series A financing round for Nauto, a Silicon Valley startup with a device that uses AI-enhanced sensors to monitor driver behavior and road conditions to improve safety for cars and vehicle fleets.

Those three startups now belong to the stable of Toyota AI Ventures, which will invest in other startups and incubate them at TRI’s site in Los Altos, CA. The investing unit is headed by managing director Jim Adler, a former Lockheed Martin engineer and entrepreneur who is TRI’s vice president of data and business development.

In a Medium post, Adler drew the connection between Toyota’s longstanding automotive mission and its current interest in assistive technologies for the elderly.

“Much of the world’s industrial population is aging disproportionately. By 2050, 21 percent of the U.S. population will be 65-plus, a 60 percent increase from 2010. In Japan, 40 percent of Japan’s population will be 65-plus by 2050,” Adler wrote. “Freedom of mobility, enabled with self-driving cars, could provide self-reliance and self-esteem for those who cannot drive, like seniors and people with special needs.”

Meanwhile, TRI, which invested $50 million in five-year research collaborations with Stanford and MIT when it was formed in 2015, continues to work with universities worldwide on basic and applied research. Its Los Altos branch is close to Stanford, and its location in Kendall Square, in Cambridge, MA, is close to MIT. TRI’s third U.S. branch, in Ann Arbor, MI, is close to the University of Michigan.

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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