In the crowded enterprise robotics space, the ability to acquire key customers is a key differentiator for the company. In the case of Hong Kong-based Rice Robotics, the big order came from SoftBank.
Since January 2021, Rice’s robot, with its cute cartoon winking eyes, has been delivering 7-Eleven products to SoftBank employees at the company’s new headquarters in Takeshiba, Tokyo. The robots are capable of carrying a payload of 30 kg and have a storage space of 39 x 27 x 34 cm.
Rice effectively allows delivery workers to simply drop customer orders off at designated locations for their robots to pick them up, eliminating the need for them to enter and leave office buildings. These robots can run continuously for 12 hours and can be recharged in 1 hour.
Endorsements from SoftBank and other clients have convinced several investors to back Rice’s latest $7 million Series A round. These include Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund, Soul Capital, Audacy Ventures, Sun Hung Kai and Hong Kong Cyberport. There were no lead investors in this round.
Rice said the financing will enable it to further expand into Japan, which is currently the company’s largest source of revenue. In addition to SoftBank, Rice’s Japanese clients include Toyota, Japan Post and Mitsui Group.
Given its aging population and openness to new technologies, Japan has been a top destination for Chinese robotics companies looking to expand internationally. For example, ByteDance-backed warehouse robot maker Syrius Robotics made an early foray into Japan.
South China is undoubtedly home to the world’s leading hardware supply chain. Counterintuitively, Rice produces its robots in Hong Kong, rather than in mainland China, where factories are plentiful and labor costs are lower.
Rice founder and CEO Victor Lee told TechCrunch that the four-year-old company previously used an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in the mainland to manufacture its robots, but later found that manufacturing in its home city significantly lowered the unit cost of its robots.
It is more economical to manufacture in batches in mainland China, while Rice’s production scale is too small to achieve economies of scale, Li explained. Additionally, the Hong Kong government is actively trying to attract advanced manufacturing to diversify an economy that is losing its appeal as an Asian financial center.
A portion of Rice’s new funding has been used to set up a production facility in Hong Kong. The 13,000-square-foot facility has quadrupled the company’s annual production capacity from 500 to 2,000 robots.
Rice’s robot, which starts at $9,000, uses popular simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) technology for navigation. One of the great benefits of SLAM is that it continuously compares sensor data to a given map, allowing the system to build an accurate model of the dynamic environment and estimate the precise location of the robot.
In addition to service robots, Rice offers a line of sanitizing robots whose demand has spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, as has been the case with many other robotics companies.
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