Calibrate Doubles Down on Soft Robotics: The Future of Food Handling

/ Kevin Dunlap

If you’re not vegetarian, chances are, you ate some chicken in the past week. Poultry is the most popular protein in the world, and to keep up with increasing demand, producers are struggling to find enough workers to staff processing and packaging plants. Sorting chicken all day long is a dangerous and strenuous job, causing turnover rates of more that 70%. 

People’s insatiable taste for chicken is just one of the reasons we see so much potential in Soft Robotics, a fast-growing company that designs and builds automated picking solutions that provide human hand-like dexterity to robots. After investing in Soft Robotics’ $23 million Series B round in January 2020, we recently co-led a $10 million Series B extension investment alongside Material Impact and Scale Venture Partners, with participation from Tyson Ventures, the venture capital arm of Tyson Foods. 

Soft Robotics will use the capital to continue rolling out its SoftAI platform—which layers 3D vision and AI on top of a patented soft-grasping robotic hand to give industrial robots the hand-eye coordination and tactile touch of human beings—into food production facilities. The system is already in use at several Tyson chicken, pork, and beef processing plants. Soft Robotics’ gripper is intelligent in that it can tell the difference between a chicken breast or leg, understands how to sort pieces that might be heaped on top of one another in an irregular array, and adapts the right grip strength for each item. This unprecedented combination of robotic hands, eyes, and brains enables, for the first time ever, the automation of bulk-picking in the food supply chain, handling everything from meat to produce and baked goods. With a Soft Robotics gripper system to help with sorting, food production facilities can free up workers to focus on higher-value, less physically demanding tasks, making jobs at their plants more desirable. At Calibrate, we’re always looking to invest in automation and AI companies like Soft Robotics that empower people to do safer and more fulfilling work. 

Tyson Foods, the second-largest meat processing company in the world, valued at over $27 billion, understands the key importance of automating some of the more dangerous, repetitive, and undesirable tasks at its factories. The Covid pandemic shined a spotlight on long-existing challenges in the meat-processing industry, including labor shortages, high turnover, and sub-optimal working conditions, ushering in a new urgency for automation solutions. Tyson has invested over $500 million in new technology and automation in the last three years alone and Rahu Ray, senior director of Tyson Ventures, called Soft Robotics a “best-in-class robotic technology, computer vision, and AI platform that has the potential to transform the food industry.”

But, of course, Soft Robotics could be used in many other non-structured environments. Because its gripper is able to identify and manipulate irregularly-shaped objects--the hardest piece of the supply chain for robots to tackle--Soft Robotics also has clear applications in logistics, agriculture, and manufacturing. The sky’s the limit for Soft Robotics and we couldn’t be more thrilled to invest in such a visionary team.