Soft Robotics gets $3 million amid demand for its octopus-inspired grippers

Soft Robotics' grippers can pick up a variety of shapes.
Soft Robotics' grippers can pick up a variety of shapes.

Robots can perform an astonishing number of tasks for us, but they’re still not the most graceful machines ever built.

A Cambridge startup trying to solve that conundrum, Soft Robotics, has raised $3 million from venture investors and expects to add another $2 million in the next couple of months, chief executive Carl Vause said.

The money will help Soft Robotics double its five-person company, Vause said, allowing it to handle more customers seeking its octopus-inspired robotic grippers for the manufacturing and food-processing industries.

“It’s been a whirlwind ride,” Vause said. “We’ve really hit on this unmet need of, how do we enable robots to handle things that vary in size and shape and weight? There’s pent-up demand.”

Soft Robotics was born out of research at the lab of George Whitesides, a Harvard chemist and prolific inventor who wanted to help build a new kind of flexible robot after seeing footage of an octopus squeezing through a small opening.

Soft Robotics was founded in 2013, and at first was fueled by money from the Defense Department in hopes of making surgical tools.

The company quickly turned its attention, however, to warehouse and assembly line markets — particularly in the food industry, where robots aren’t typically trusted to handle delicate items like fresh produce. Its fingerlike grippers are made of flexible material, such as silicone, and powered by compressed air.

“There’s a reason the squid, the octopus, and the human hand work so well,” Vause said. “They’re fantastic structures.”

Soft Robotics Kettlebell
Many industries are searching for new ways to use robots, including developing machines that can work alongside humans and those that are more versatile than the single-task assembly line bots of years past.

Earlier this year, for example, Amazon held a “picking challenge” contest offering prize money to robotics researchers who could build robotic hands and grippers that could pick up many different kinds of items, one of the tasks that people do today in the company’s vast distribution centers.

Today, Soft Robotics has four customers that are moving past a pilot-testing phase and starting to implement the company’s gripper systems in their manufacturing and production lines. Vause said he couldn’t name the companies because of agreements with the customers.

One of the new investors in Soft Robotics reflects the company’s promise with food processors: Taylor Ventures, the investment arm of Taylor Farms of Salinas, Calif., which is one of the country’s largest vegetable suppliers.

“They are a driving force in agriculture technology,” Vause said. “To have them come aboard as an investor is an unbelievable vote of confidence that we’re doing the right things and we’re solving the right problems.”

The investment was led by Material Impact Fund, an early stage venture firm. Beijing-based Haiyin Capital also invested.