Third Wave Automation raises $40M to bring its autonomous forklifts to warehouses

Fresh off a strategic partnership with Toyota Industries Corporation to build an autonomous forklift, Third Wave Automation has snagged another $40 million from investors.

The California-based startup, which was founded in 2018, has raised $40 million in a Series B round led by Norwest Venture Partners, including participation from prior investors Innovation Endeavors and Eclipse, along with Toyota Ventures, according to a Form D filed with regulators. Matt Howard, general partner at Norwest Venture Partners, will join Third Wave’s board of directors.

The injection of capital came after Howard learned of Third Wave’s partnership with Toyota Industries Corporation, which builds a third of the world’s forklifts, Third Wave CEO Arshan Poursohi told TechCrunch. Under that deal, which was announced in May, Third Wave and Toyota Industries (TICO) will develop an autonomous forklift together. The machine will be manufactured at a TICO factory and be equipped with Third Wave’s sensors and compute stack. Third Wave will support the software side.

Third Wave’s three co-founders — including Mac Mason, who is chief roboticist, and James Davidson, who is no longer with the company — have long backgrounds in robotics, oftentimes working together at places like Google’s robotics program and Google Research and Toyota Research Institute.

“We’ve covered just about every kind of robot there is,” Poursohi said. “But all of these robots that we built ended up, you know, sitting in a closet somewhere because ultimately, Google or, in my case, Sun Microsystems, would decide it’s not worth scaling it out because it’s not the core business, or some other reason.”

The co-founders struck out to form their own company to focus on robots that would be used and would meet an immediate need.

“When we looked at forklifts, it’s this beautiful manipulation problem, so it’s a robot that actually touches the world on purpose,” Poursohi said. “And it’s a thing that we can actually build and ship on a time horizon that is not measured in decades.”

The forklifts they have developed operate under what is called shared autonomy. This means the forklift, which can lift pallets and move them around, will operate on its own 90% of the time. However, every robot can also be controlled remotely if the need arises. The robots are easy to operate, meaning the customer, not Third Wave, can have on-site employees to provide assistance remotely if the robot encounters something that prevents it from operating.

“There’s a big impact we can make on logistics and supply chain, just by moving pallets around, and that’s where we’ve been concentrated. The key to our technology is that it’s very fast to set up and it works in brownfield [environments],” Poursohi said.

Third Wave is still at an early stage in its development, but it’s making progress. The momentum from the funding and the recent completion of technical trials will allow the company to speed up its hiring effort and focus on commercialization, Poursohi said. He noted that Third Wave is in active conversations with 20 third-party logistics operators and retailers in the industry.

“We’ve tackled and have solid answers on all the technical fronts,” Poursohi said. “The next year and a half to two years is about is scaling out our operations team. And the market demand for this right now is massive.”

The target is to have 100 units in the field — meaning warehouses and other indoor locations — by the end of 2022 and scaling to 350 to 400 by the end of 2023.