From burritos to biotech: How robotics startup Cartken found its AV niche

Cartken and its diminutive sidewalk delivery robots first rolled into the world with a narrow charter: carrying everything from burritos and bento boxes to pizza and pad thai that last mile to hungry customers. 

But the vision — thanks to the startup’s approach to autonomous vehicle technology — was always broader, according to Cartken co-founder and CEO Christian Bersch. From its earliest days, Bersch and the rest of the founding team saw an opportunity for its robots to navigate the outdoor environment of pedestrian-filled sidewalks and the indoor world of factories, labs, industrial buildings and even airports. 

The ability for a robot to move between indoors and outdoors seems simple enough. And yet, Bersch says it’s not. It’s here that Cartken and its 30-person team is carving out a niche in the ever-evolving autonomous vehicle industry. 

Investors appear sold on the possibilities. Cartken has raised $22.5 million in aggregate with $10 million in its latest funding round led by 468 Capital, TechCrunch has exclusively learned. Incubate Fund, deep tech and AI funds LDV Partners and Vela Partners as well as strategic funds from Magna International, Mitsubishi Electric, Shell Ventures and Volex also participated. 

cartken bot outside
Image Credits: Cartken

The startup, founded in 2019 by former Google engineers behind the Bookbot project, operates a sidewalk delivery bot business on various college campuses in Miami, Fairfax, Virginia and Tokyo through partnerships with Uber Eats, Grubhub and Mitsubishi Electric. Cartken robots average 36,000 deliveries per month.

Now, it’s bringing the bots inside biotech, pharmaceutical and automotive campuses, including a factory operated by Germany-based ZF. Some of that newly raised capital will be used to scale its more mature sidewalk delivery bot business, which Bersch said is profitable today. The bulk of the funds will be used to “unlock these new (indoor) use cases,” he added. 

Cartken co-founder and COO Anjali Jindal Naik noted in a recent interview that they were surprised by the number of companies that have approached the startup in search of robots that can move between indoor and outdoor environments. 

“They’ve looked for other solutions, especially ones that go indoor and outdoor, and weren’t really finding them,” she added. 

Cartken uses what it describes as a hardware agnostic AI-first approach to autonomy. What that means is a self-driving system that uses a camera-based system — no lidar — that uses AI models, trained on hundreds of thousands of images, to detect objects, as well as software algorithms to perceive and navigate the environment. Unlike some other outdoor robots used for delivery, Cartken isn’t reliant on GPS, allowing it to operate indoors. And the robots are made to handle sunlight and rain, pedestrians and uneven ground, all the requirements needed to handle outdoor environments. The self-driving system can also be transferred to different robot form factors and sizes.

The technology is much closer to what you would have in self-driving cars than what you would have in a traditional factory robot, according to Bersch. 

In practice, the robots at the ZF factory carry parts that a human technician would previously shuttle via bicycle to other parts of the vast campus. 

“That was time lost at the line, Bersch said, noting that it has translated to immediate savings. In 2023, Cartken robots operating at labs and factories in the  biotech, pharmaceutical, chemical and automotive sectors saved employees more than 10,000 hours in transportation, according to the company.

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