Years of frantic activity in the self-driving car industry has stalled somewhat more recently, but a handful of the most promising companies continue to see their businesses grow, attracting investment in the process. In one of the more recent developments, Oxbotica, an English start-up developing software to power autonomous vehicles, has closed a $140 million Series C round, money it will use to expand services continue for existing customers and drum up new business in this wake.
The size of the round is big by any measure, bull or bear market, but it’s a signal of how AI startups in particular continue to thrive at the moment, and what types of companies want to partner with and support breaking startups as they break new ground in the market field of autonomous driving.
The basic model for Oxbotica — eight years old and based in Oxford, England — is B2B: it sells and customizes its autonomous software, which it calls “Universal Autonomy,” for a range of enterprise clients. Its premise is that its flexible technology can support anything a customer needs: navigation, perception, user interfaces, fleet management, or any other functionality required to operate self-driving vehicles in multiple environments, regardless of the hardware used and when integrated with any other software that its customers use.
This latest funding underscores its traction with this premise and comes from a mix of investors that includes some of these strategic backers and clients. New investors include Japan’s Aioi Nissay Dowa Insurance Co., Ltd and ENEOS Innovation Partners, the corporate VC of mining conglomerate Eneos; Previous backers in this round include BGF, security equipment group Halma, hospitality and leisure investor Hostplus, climate fund Kiko Ventures (IP Group), online shopping company Ocado Group, internet giant Tencent, Venture Science and automotive supplier ZF, some of which also invested in its latest round, a $47 million Series B in January 2021.
This round brings the total raised by Oxbotica to $225 million. The startup doesn’t disclose its valuation, but Paul Newman, the company’s CTO and co-founder, noted that the fact that it was one of the autonomous startups currently growing rapidly and the current appetite for artificial intelligence startups developing applications around their innovations, have contributed to an impressive number.
“You should assume it’s in an area that investors really appreciate,” he said. At a moment when companies, consumers, investors and start-ups themselves are reassessing things like self-driving technology through more pragmatic and less rose-colored lenses, asking questions about piece economics and commercial and technical feasibility, Oxbotica was born, he said, leading the ” Applying autonomy where the world needs it”.
It also led to much shorter discussions with investors, not generally found in other technology sectors. “It didn’t take that long to show that you can solve what’s really needed versus what’s not a problem at all,” added CEO Gavin Jackson. “It was an award that investors quickly understood in the first 30 seconds we spoke to them.”
While some of the more ambitious consumer self-driving vehicle efforts have been shelved or faced some tragic mishaps; It turns out that closed campus-style environments, where it is either more dangerous and/or less efficient to use humans to navigate vehicles, have emerged as some of the most popular use cases for it, and others building autonomous systems.
Aside from the industries of its strategic investors, other use cases where Oxbotica provides services are agriculture, airports, energy and shared passenger transportation.
All this is not to say that things are perfect. Some (and perhaps all) of his actual commercial endeavors appear to be fairly medium-term. One of the big milestones that year was in May 2022 when it conducted Europe’s first zero occupancy trial (note the word trial) on a public road. It also worked on “metaverse-based testing” and forged alliances with insurance companies.
Newman admits what he described in our interview as “sticking points” that still need to be addressed in the very complex world of building autonomous vehicles and systems.
“It’s exciting when we can connect fleet management to our operating system,” he told me. In his favour, as soon as something is solved, it is solved for everyone. A mining company’s need to integrate Oxbotica into its system to dispatch drivers into mines is the same that Ocado will have to connect its delivery vehicles.
The amount it has since proven has convinced customers and supporters that it’s no longer a question of “if” but of when it bears fruit.
“Oxbotica truly differentiates itself from its peers with its ambitious vision to unlock universal autonomy,” said Mitsuru Yamaguchi, senior managing executive officer at Aioi Nissay Dowa Insurance Co., Ltd, in a statement. “We are excited to combine Oxbotica’s best-in-class AI and robotics techniques with our own pioneering expertise in the telematics insurance space. This positions us well to develop innovative insurance products and services that create a safer, greener and more secure society for all.”
“We are pleased to expand our investment in Oxbotica, which has grown into a global leader in autonomous vehicle software,” added Erin Hallock, Managing Partner at bp Ventures. “Our continued support is an excellent example of bp ventures’ continued investment in pioneering technology companies. By leveraging automation and digital technology, we believe the team can improve safety and increase efficiency across a variety of vehicles and support bp’s quest to accelerate the global mobility revolution.”