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After hiatus, Sony is back in the corporate venture capital game

Mike Freeman, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Science & Technology News

If self-driving delivery vans ever hit the road, how is the package going to get from the truck at the curb to your doorstep?

An employee riding along could do it, or maybe a drone. But Agility Robotics thinks it has a better way -- Cassie.

Named after the ostrich-like Cassowary bird of New Guinea, Cassie is a biped robot that actively balances like humans, is capable of navigating uneven ground and can recover from a stumble, said Chief Executive Damion Shelton.

"If your UPS truck is self-driving, then your driver is not a driver. They are a rider to run back and forth to the door," he said. "So at that point the commercial demand (for Cassie) becomes pretty extreme because there is always pressure to automate when you can."

Shelton brought Cassie to Sony Electronics' San Diego campus last week for a showcase of companies recently backed by the Sony Innovation Fund -- a relatively new, $100 million corporate venture vehicle from the Japanese consumer electronics giant.

Launched in 2016, the Innovation Fund targets early stage companies in robotics, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, video, music, entertainment and other technologies. It has invested in around 25 companies in the U.S., Japan and Europe so far. The average investment is a few million in each company.

"We are focused on early stage startups, so each investment is relatively small," said Toshimoto Mitomo, senior investment executive for the fund. "But our plan is to stay with the company, and when they grow and need additional funding, we are open minded depending on the situation."

While Sony has made corporate venture investments in the past, it took a hiatus in recent years as it restructured amid struggles with its core electronics business.

Now that the company is profitable again, it's renewed efforts to invest in startups.

"In the artificial intelligence area, for example, we do have a strong deep learning research team, but at the same time, the field is moving so fast," said Hiroaki Kitano, who oversees Sony's Computer Sciences Laboratories. "The opportunity is so immense. So we can work with all these startups and explore more."

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