Bear Robotics, a company making robot waiters, just raised a $32 million round led by SoftBank

Connie Loizos

Back in August, we flagged a filing for you that we found interesting, one for a now 2.5-year-old, 40-person Redwood City, Calif.,-based startup called Bear Robotics that's been developing robots to deliver food to restaurant customers. The filing listed a $35.8 million target; Bear Robotics founder and CEO John Ha now tells us the final close, being announced today, was $32 million in Series A funding.

The round was led by SoftBank Group, whose other recent robotics bets include the currently beleaguered food truck company Zume and, as we reported yesterday, Berkshire Grey, a seven-year-old, Lexington, Mass.-based company that makes pick, pack and sorting robots for fulfillment centers and that just raised a whopping $263 million in Series B funding led by SoftBank.

Because we know you're interested in much more than Bear Robotics' funding picture, we asked Ha -- a former Intel research scientist turned technical lead at Google who in recent years opened and closed his own restaurant -- to share more about the company and its robot servers.

TC: You were an engineer at Google. Why then start your own restaurant?

JH: It's not like I had a dream of having a restaurant; it was more of an investment. It sounded fun, but it didn't turn out to be fun. What I was really shocked by was how much hard work is involved and how low [employees'] income is. I felt [as I was forced to close it] that this was going to be my life's work -- to transform the restaurant industry with the skills I have. I wanted to remove the hard work and the repetitive tasks so that humans can focus on the truly human side, the hospitality. At restaurants, you're selling food and service, but most of your time is spent dealing with hiring people and people not showing up, and I suspect our product will change [the equation].

TC: How did you come up with the first idea or iteration of the robot you've created, that you're calling Penny?

JH: First, me and my restaurant staff constantly discussed, 'If we have this robot, what would it look like and what capacity and features would it need?' I knew it couldn't be too big; robots have to be able to move well in narrow spaces. We also focused on the right capacity. And we didn't want to make a robotic restaurant. I wanted to build a robot that no one really cares about; it's just in the background, sort of like R2-D2 to Luke Skywalker. It's a sidekick -- a bland robot with a weak personality to get things done for your master.

TC Let's talk parts. How are these things built?

JH: It's self-driving tech that's been adopted for indoor space, so it can safely navigate from Point A to Point B. A server puts the food on Penny, and it finds a way to get to the table. It has a two-wheel differential drive, plus casters. It's pretty safe. A lot of similar-looking robots have blind spots, but ours doesn't. It can detect baby hands on the floor -- even something as thin as a wallet that's fallen from someone's table.

We're not using robot arms because it's very difficult to make it 100% safe when you have arms in a crowded space. The material -- it's going to be plastic -- is safe and easy to clean and able to work with the sanitizers and detergents used in restaurants. We've also had to make sure the wheels won't accumulate food waste, because that would cause issues with the health department.

TC: So this isn't out in the world yet.

JH: We haven't entered the mass-manufacturing phase yet.

TC: Where will these be built, and how will you charge for them?

JH: They'll be made somewhere in Asia -- maybe China or some other country. And we haven't figured out pricing yet but restaurants will be leasing these, not buying them, and there will be a monthly subscription fee that they are paying for a white-glove service, so they don't have to worry about maintenance or support.

TC: How customizable are these Penny robots going to be? Are there different tiers of service?

JH: Penny can be configured into several modes. The default is [for it to hold] three trays, so it can carry food to a table or a server can use it for busing help.

TC: Will it address the customers?

JH: Penny can speak and play sound, but it's not conversational yet. It can say, 'Please take your food,' or play music while it's moving. That's where customers may want to personalize the robot for their own purposes.

TC: Ultimately, the idea is for this to be sold where -- just restaurants?

JH: Wherever food is served, so it's being tested right now in some restaurants, casinos, some homes. [I'm sure we'll add] nursing homes, too.