Boxbot pivots from last-mile trucks to robotical parcel storage

I love a good pivot story. It’s something most startups will confront at some point or other, if they’re going to make it long term. In a category where luck, timing and market forces are at least half the battle, you’ve got to be willing to roll with the punches.

Boxbot has been kicking around for a bit. It’s actually been 6.5 years since TechCrunch first covered the Bay Area-based firm, under the headline, “Stealthy Boxbot wins the Pear prize for UC Berkeley with a tech for autonomous last-mile delivery” (aside: we used to have ridiculously long headlines).

The startup has grown decidedly less stealthy in the intervening years, debuting a brightly colored orange and blue van designed for autonomous last-mile delivery. That arrived -- in part -- courtesy of a $7.5 million seed investment from Toyota AI Ventures. Some partnerships followed in 2019.

I briefly caught up with founder and CEO Austin Oehlerking at Automate a few months back for a brief conversation about where things are headed for the firm. I’m happy to announce that Boxbot kept its name, in spite of this change in direction. It’s a very good name and is equally relevant for the startup’s new focus.

Boxes are still very central to the company’s core mission. Now, however, the focus has shifted from curbside to warehouse storage. That arrives in the form of a three-dimensional conveyor system designed to increase storage density inside a significantly smaller footprint. It shares some common DNA with products like Attabotics and Autostore, though Boxbot’s system is designed specifically for parcels.

Oehlerking tells TechCrunch that the decision to pivot came from “surprise” customer enthusiasm about the package retrieval system the company had built, rather than its last-mile robot.

Image Credits: Boxbot

“To be sure, there was plenty of enthusiasm for the long-term potential of autonomous technology, but a lot of the near-term capital investment seemed to be concentrated within warehouse automation tech,” he says. “We saw the opportunity to shift our business, productize the warehouse automation platform, and deliver a solution that could quickly scale into a large market within a few years.”

Playground Global’s Richard Peretz adds, “Start-ups have to make tough decisions about the future of their companies every day. With Austin and Boxbot, we saw a team that had a promising idea around delivery robotics, but had made the right decision and pivoted, using their learnings and relationships to identify an opportunity at the last mile where there was technology that could solve a real problem. Boxbot solves an expensive manual process for parcel companies through an automated solution that solves for the existing infrastructure of hundreds of existing warehouses.”

Image Credits: Boxbot

Playground led Boxbot’s Series A. The $12 million round -- which also features Maersk Growth, Toyota Ventures, Pear Ventures and Artiman Ventures -- brings the Alameda-based startup’s total funding up to $29.5 million.

Boxbot says it’s in talks with partners and had determined a number of sites for testing.

“We’ve also piloted the technology with customers in order to explore particular use cases and environments,” says Oehlerking. “For instance, the same base modules can be deployed in last-mile delivery centers, bonded storage warehouses (for customs control) and customer pickup locations. Our roadmap for the next year includes deploying production-level systems into real-world operating environments across each of these applications, at sites already identified. From there, we plan to scale across multiple facilities and additional customers.”

Image Credits: Boxbot

The company currently has 20 employees and is hiring more. Funding will also go toward accelerating its go to market approach.