Sony is back in the ven­ture cap­i­tal game

The Welland Tribune - - Business - MIKE FREE­MAN

self-driv­ing de­liv­ery vans ever hit the road, how is the pack­age go­ing to get from the truck at the curb to your doorstep?

An em­ployee rid­ing along could do it, or maybe a drone. But Agility Ro­bot­ics thinks it has a bet­ter way — Cassie.

Named af­ter the os­trich-like Cas­sowary bird of New Guinea, Cassie is a biped ro­bot that ac­tively bal­ances like hu­mans, is ca­pa­ble of nav­i­gat­ing un­even ground and can re­cover from a stum­ble, said Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Damion Shel­ton.

“If your UPS truck is self-driv­ing, then your driver is not a driver. They are a rider to run back and forth to the door,” he said. “So at that point the com­mer­cial de­mand (for Cassie) be­comes pretty ex­treme be­cause there is al­ways pres­sure to au­to­mate when you can.”

Shel­ton brought Cassie to Sony Elec­tron­ics’ San Diego cam­pus last week for a show­case of com­pa­nies re­cently backed by the Sony In­no­va­tion Fund — a rel­a­tively new US$100-mil­lion cor­po­rate ven­ture ve­hi­cle from the Ja­panese con­sumer elec­tron­ics gi­ant.

Launched in 2016, the In­no­va­tion Fund tar­gets early stage com­pa­nies in ro­bot­ics, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, vir­tual re­al­ity, video, mu­sic, en­ter­tain­ment and other tech­nolo­gies.

It has in­vested in around 25 com­pa­nies in the U.S., Ja­pan and Eu­rope so far. The av­er­age in­vest­ment is a few mil­lion in each com­pany.

“We are fo­cused on early stage star­tups, so each in­vest­ment is rel­a­tively small,” said Toshi­moto Mit­omo, se­nior in­vest­ment ex­ec­u­tive for the fund.

“But our plan is to stay with the com­pany, and when they grow and need ad­di­tional fund­ing, we are open-minded de­pend­ing on the sit­u­a­tion.”

While Sony has made cor­po­rate ven­ture in­vest­ments in the past, it took a hia­tus in re­cent years as it re­struc­tured amid strug­gles with its core elec­tron­ics busi­ness. Now that the com­pany is prof­itable again, it’s re­newed ef­forts to in­vest in star­tups.

“In the ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence area, for ex­am­ple, we do have a strong, deep learn­ing re­search team, but at the same time, the field is mov­ing so fast,” said Hiroaki Ki­tano, who over­sees Sony’s Com­puter Sciences Lab­o­ra­to­ries. “The op­por­tu­nity is so im­mense. So we can work with all these star­tups and ex­plore more.”

Ki­tano led the team that de­vel­oped Sony’s Aibo ro­botic dog and is co-founder of RoboCup, an an­nual ro­bot­ics com­pe­ti­tion with the long-term goal of cre­at­ing a team of soc­cer-play­ing ro­bots that can beat the reign­ing World Cup cham­pi­ons.

In ad­di­tion to new tech­nolo­gies, the Sony In­no­va­tion Fund also aims to help the com­pany bet­ter un­der­stand new busi­ness mod­els.

“The tech­nol­ogy is im­por­tant, but the tech­nol­ogy is not the main thing for us,” added Mi­toIf mo. “What kind of value can the al­ter­na­tive busi­ness mod­els pro­vide to the end users is the ul­ti­mate goal.”

Novel busi­ness mod­els were easy to spot among the 14 port­fo­lio com­pa­nies show­ing off their ideas in San Diego. Theta Net­work, based in the Bay Area, is build­ing a de­cen­tral­ized peer-topeer con­tent-de­liv­ery plat­form pow­ered by Blockchain tech­nol­ogy.

Born out of the Sliver.tv es­ports streaming net­work, Theta’s plat­form would tap pow­er­ful gam­ing com­put­ers to stream 360-de­gree vir­tual re­al­ity video, mu­sic, movies, ed­u­ca­tional pro­gram­ming, peer-to-peer to con­sumers, who could pay for both con­tent, and streaming via vir­tual Theta tokens.

Another Sony-backed startup, Shim­mur, is build­ing an easy-touse text mes­sag­ing man­age­ment plat­form ini­tially for mu­si­cians. It en­ables di­rect texts to and from fans. The mes­sag­ing can be tai­lored based on lo­ca­tion, get­ting the word out about nearby con­cert dates and other news.

While start­ing with mu­si­cians, Shim­mur’s plat­form trans­lates to many other in­dus­tries, said Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Matthew Peltier.

Fo­tokite, a teth­ered drone, does not re­quire a pi­lot, can fly for hours and has un­lim­ited band­width to de­liver streaming video.

“We put the drone in a box that gets mounted on top of a fire truck,” said Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Christo­pher McCall. “A fire­fighter pulls up to an emer­gency scene, pushes a sin­gle but­ton and the Fo­tokite flies up and starts streaming ther­mal video down to fire­fight­ers.”

Per­spec­tive Ro­bot­ics, the Swiss com­pany which makes Fo­tokite, is work­ing with a large fire truck man­u­fac­turer in the U.S. The drone also has been used by CNN to shoot news footage.

“Sony is very ac­tive in the public safety space, the broad­cast space and the sports space, and those are the mar­kets we are go­ing af­ter,” said McCall.

Cassie, the walking ro­bot, was de­vel­oped at Ore­gon State Univer­sity with fund­ing from a De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Projects grant.

Six have been sold so far, mostly to universities. The com­pany de­clined to dis­close what Cassie costs, but the goal is to get the price low enough to spark wide­spread adop­tion.

MIKE FREE­MAN SAN DIEGO UNION-TRI­BUNE/TNS

Cassie, a biped ro­bot, can nav­i­gate un­even ground and re­cover from a stum­ble. It can po­ten­tially be used to de­liver goods to homes.

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