Last week, Massachusetts-based robot maker Boston Dynamics announced that it was becoming part of the South Korean Hyundai family, subject to all the usual regulatory requirements and formal approval inherent in international acquisitions.
The huge $1.1 billion deal will see Hyundai Motor Group take an 80% stake in the company, with SoftBank controlling the leftover 20%. It’s the latest in a series of notable sales by the Japanese multinational conglomerate holding company SoftBank. In September, SoftBank made the news when it announced the sale of Arm Holdings to NVIDIA for $40 billion.
A Pioneer of Life-Like Robotics
Although Boston Dynamics can trace its roots all the way back to 1992 when it spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), much of the company’s success and viral fame has come in recent years with the development of life-like robotics solutions like “Atlas,” a humanoid robot that can run and do backflips, and “Spot,” a robotic quadrupedal “dog” that has been assisting healthcare workers during the ongoing pandemic.
Spot and Atlas. Image used courtesy of Boston Dynamics
In June of this year, the company began selling Spot the robotic dog for $74,500 a piece, its very first commercialized product over 25 years in the making. There are more plans for commercial products in the near future, too. The company has already started testing “proof of concept models” of a logistics robot, “Handle” with select partners in real-world warehouses.
Spot’s Third Owner in Seven Years
In its 28-year history, Boston Dynamics has spent time under Google, where the focus was primarily on research and development, which then sold it to SoftBank in a deal that then-CEO Marc Raibert said was intended to “push the boundaries of what advanced robots can do.”
Given recent innovations from the company, such as “Atlas,” a humanoid robot with arguably more agility than many actual humans, this goal has certainly been achieved. And while it’s unconventional for a company to change hands so many times in such a short space of time, the company’s quick transitions have been anything but unsuccessful.
The team at Boston Dynamics programmed Atlas to do parkour in 2018. Image used courtesy of Boston Dynamics
Each new owner, from Google to SoftBank and now Hyundai, has served a specific function to help grow the company’s bottom line. Google provided resources for exploration, SoftBank helped bring products to market, and Hyundai will bring the engineering and manufacturing knowledge and resources needed to scale up and enable further innovation.
What’s In It For Hyundai?
Despite its 28-year existence, Boston Dynamics has struggled to make a profit. In fact, the company has been losing millions of dollars a year for several years now.
While this may have been problematic for the likes of Google and SoftBank—ultimately, SoftBank is an investment company—Hyundai, given its history, is likely to see more value in Boston’s IP and be willing to weather the storm on what will undoubtedly be a long road to profitability. SoftBank clearly sees long-term potential too; the company will hold on to a 20% stake when the deal closes.
For Hyundai, it’s all about the tech. Its focus with the acquisition of Boston Dynamics, as per the official press release, is the company’s status as “the established leader in developing agile, mobile robots that have been successfully integrated into various business operations.”
The robot maker has valuable technology and IP that Hyundai could make use of to realize its goal of transforming into a “smart mobility solution provider.”
“The synergies created by our union offer exciting new pathways for our companies to realize our goal—providing free and safe movement and higher plane of life experiences for humanity,” said Hyundai Chairman Euisun Chung.
Hyundai’s concept for a car with legs, “Elevate.” Image used courtesy of Hyundai
It does seem to be an odd move for Hyundai to drop $1.1 billion on acquiring Boston Dynamics if its goal is to become a smart mobility solution provider, especially given Hyundai’s focus on vehicles. That being said, there’s probably immense value for Hyundai in integrating Boston’s robots (i.e., Spot, Pick, and Handle) into their own manufacturing, logistics, and construction processes.
What Hyundai will do with Boston’s technology remains to be seen. Perhaps a car with legs will soon be coming to a street near you.