To solve some of the world’s biggest problems, it will take innovation in artificial intelligence (AI). That’s the goal of Toyota AI Ventures, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital (VC) subsidiary of the Toyota Research Institute (TRI). Toyota AI Ventures invests in companies developing AI, autonomous mobility, cloud, data, and robotics technology.
Toyota AI Ventures recently issued a call for innovation in partnership with TRI, which furthers scientific discovery through AI and machine learning (ML) techniques. Toyota will offer startups a chance to secure from $500,000 to $2 million in VC funding and work with TRI on a proof of concept. The project is focused on developing mobile manipulation technology for assistive robots so they can aid people at home. Future projects may focus on automated driving.
PCMag (PCM): Tell us about your work to bring innovative business models to market.
Jim Adler (JA): We are focused on bringing disruptive technology and innovative business models to market by engaging the startup community. We want to help these startups, watch how they develop, and see these interesting approaches be integrated into our lives. That’s the fundamental reason why we’re involved in this work.
We are Toyota’s first standalone VC fund. We’re a subsidiary of TRI, and we’re a $100 million fund. We just had our one-year anniversary on July 11. We’ve invested in companies in AI, data, cloud, autonomy, and robotics. We work to be aligned with our startup companies and our co-investors. We really view the entrepreneur’s success as our success and, if they’re successful in the marketplace, then we will be successful.
PCM: What’s the key to success when you’re looking to invest in startups?
JA: Our ability to do 13 deals in as many months is a testament to the fact that it’s important that we run fast and are not reckless. We want to [make] good deals, but there’s always a trade-off between speed and quality. If you wait to be too sure about an investment, then you often miss it or lose it. But if you go too fast, then you can end up losing quality by not being as careful as you should be. We’re trying to strike that balance, which, in the automotive industry, is difficult. For Toyota, clearly, it’s difficult, but we’ve had great upper management that has really given us the reins to execute on this mission.
PCM: So, how do you actually strike that balance of speed and quality?
JA: I think we’ve had the luxury of being a subsidiary of TRI. We work with them in a lot of different ways. It does help us to be fast but also careful, and dial that knob to find the right balance between the two because you never get it exactly right. You’re either going too fast or you’re too careful, so it’s a constant balance.
PCM: Tell us about Toyota AI Ventures’ call for innovation. How will that advance the market for AI? What’s your criteria to find something that’s really innovative?
JA: This came out of TRI. We wanted to spur innovation and encourage people who aren’t currently working in the space to possibly jump into it. If they’re thinking about a startup, then they should consider forming a company around this. Of the companies in our portfolio to date, SLAMcore spun out of Imperial College Londonand May Mobility was formed out of the University of Michigan.
We’ve seen really innovative companies come out of universities, but we don’t think it’s only the purview of universities. I think there are a lot of creative people toiling away in garages all over the world. We want to let them know that assistive robots helping people in and around the home are an unrealized opportunity.
We thought this call for innovation would be a clear signal to the startup community that what we think is an area that is underserved is robotics in the home. We know it’s not a safe bet to introduce robots in the home, but we believe it will be inevitable. Startups are often the ones that are the first at blazing that trail, and we think that will be the same here. We just wanted to give the startup community a bit of a nudge both in direction and in capital to realize their dreams.