SoftBank-Led $114M Round Puts Qualcomm’s Brain Corp. on New Path
San Diego’s Brain Corp., founded in 2009 as a Qualcomm-incubated startup to develop software and computer systems that emulate the human brain, seems to have found a new path forward. SoftBank’s new Vision Fund has led a $114 million investment to advance the company’s artificial intelligence technology.
Qualcomm Ventures, which previously invested about $11 million in Brain Corp., was the only other investor in the Series C funding round.
SoftBank’s share of the funding (the split was not disclosed) came from what has been described as the biggest tech fund in history. In May, SoftBank revealed the first close in its Vision Fund—a $93 billion commitment in what is expected to be a $100 billion fund. Investors include the Softbank Group, San Diego-based Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM), Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), Foxconn, Sharp, Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund, and the United Arab Emirates Mubadala Investment Company.
The Brain Corp. deal represents a big vote of confidence in the founder and CEO, Eugene Izhikevich, a prominent computational neuroscientist, and opens the way for the company to pursue a strategy that has evolved over the last eight years. After shedding many scientists who were recruited to work on Izhikevich’s initial vision for brain-based technology, the company has narrowed its focus in recent years to technology that enables robots to navigate in complex physical spaces. Last October, Brain Corp. rolled out its first commercial product —a self-driving commercial floor scrubber for use in grocery stores and big box retailers.
Still, the Series C funding announcement came as a surprise to some robotics insiders, whose reaction might be summarized as: “$114 million! For self-driving floor scrubbers?”
In a statement Wednesday, however, Brain Corp. explains that it has developed artificial intelligence and self-driving technology “to enable robots to perceive their environment, learn to control their motion, and navigate using visual cues and landmarks while avoiding people and obstacles.”
The company says the foundation of its technology is BrainOS, a proprietary operating system that integrates with off-the-shelf hardware and sensors to provide a “brain” that serves the same role for robots that Android plays for some smartphones. The operating system includes computer vision and A.I. libraries “that enable quick and efficient development of smart systems that learn and adapt to people and environment. Its navigation stack provides advanced self-driving capabilities for cluttered and dynamic indoor environments.”
Brain Corp. noted that it also plans to install its BrainOS on Qualcomm’s suite of proprietary Snapdragon processors, designed for use in smartphones and other mobile devices.
Brain Corp. marketing vice president Phil Duffy said the company plans to use the funding to advance its A.I. technology and extend its autonomous navigation capabilities into other commercial and consumer applications. Brain Corp. currently has about 50 employees, and is looking to expand its capabilities in engineering development, product management, marketing, and other areas, Duffy said.
When asked if Brain Corp. plans to extend its technology into self-driving cars, Duffy said it is not a priority. “There are a lot of people in that space,” he said. “We’re solving different problems. We focus mainly on indoor navigation, and navigating in complex spaces.”
It was unclear, though, what prospective commercial or consumer applications Brain Corp may be targeting, or whether Brain Corp. will be working with any of SoftBank’s recent robotics acquisitions.
Just last month, for example, SoftBank acquired two robotics companies from Google’s parent company Alphabet—Waltham, MA-based Boston Dynamics and Tokyo-based Schaft. Boston Dynamics may be best known for developing robotic animals that can walk or run like dogs and horses. Schaft specializes in two-legged humanoid robots.
Izhikevich was unavailable for comment; Duffy said the Brain Corp. CEO is in Tokyo presenting as part of the SoftBank World conference. In the press release, Izhikevich is quoted as saying, “We believe tomorrow’s robots will be intelligent autonomous machines that take care of us. Such robots will be as commonplace as computers and mobile phones are today.”