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Toyota's AI-focused Venture Capital Arm Doubles Down on Driverless Tech

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【Summary】For Toyota AI Ventures, the organization’s first task is to allocate $100 million to prolific startups in the auto industry.

Michael Cheng    Jul 26, 2017 1:55 PM PT
Toyota's AI-focused Venture Capital Arm Doubles Down on Driverless Tech

Automakers are taking different approaches to developing smart and autonomous technologies for their cars. While most businesses in the automotive sector are seeking out partnerships to streamline their goals, Toyota is taking a more direct approach to strategic collaboration.

Earlier this month, the global auto manufacturer announced the launch of Toyota AI Ventures, the venture capital arm of Toyota Research Institute (TRI). First introduced in 2016, TRI currently has headquarters in Silicon Valley near Stanford University and Massachusetts near the Institute of Technology. For Toyota AI Ventures, the organization's first task is to allocate $100 million to prolific startups in the auto industry.

"The fund came together roughly over the last year or so with the thinking being there's a tremendous amount of innovation happening around the world in startup companies. We wanted to tap into that cauldron of innovation that's bubbling out there," explained Jim Adler, the managing director of the venture fund, to R&D Magazine in an interview.

AI Startups in Smart Transportation

To kick start the fund, Toyota AI Ventures called on three startups to become part of the organization during its launch. Alder clarified that the establishment isn't your typical research funding business. The organization plans to offer a "founder-friendly" ecosystem for the startups, allowing them to collaborate with other investors along the way. For connections with other companies and research groups, Toyota is opening up its network of partners to the participants.

The three startups include the following: Intuition Robotics, SLAMCore and Nauto. Intuition Robotics is an Israel-based company that specializes in manufacturing robots for elderly assistance. The bots are designed to help senior citizens get familiar with new technology, which could one day include self-driving cars. At the moment, the senior market is being targeted by autonomous vehicle companies and developers. Many groups intend on offering mobility services to the elderly, phasing out the need for a traditional (and costly) driver.

SLAMCore is a London-based startup that focuses on tracking and mapping for augmented reality, virtual reality and robotics. SLAM, which stands for Simultaneous Localization and Mapping, is the technology that makes this all possible. The group is developing SLAM-related solutions for driverless cars and drones. With over 20 years of experience working with mechanical algorithms, the founding team plans to bring its technology to businesses with sensing challenges.

Nauto

The third startup under the Toyota AI Ventures umbrella is Palo Alto-based Nauto. The company develops hardware components for cars, which are designed to make them smarter using artificial intelligence. In order to close the gap between outdated cars without connected or smart capabilities and modern, tech-savvy vehicles, the startup is offering retrofit solutions with minimal installation requirements. Investors, such as Toyota, GM and BMW (under their respective VC funds), are particularly interested in the treasure trove of data that the company will be gathering from its platform.

"What's clear is that the automotive industry, and Toyota in particular, must connect to this ecosystem of startup innovation to compete in this disruptive era," said Adler, in a recent blog post on Medium. "We realize we don't know everything."

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