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Amazon to spend 11 days of annual profit developing robot warehouse workers

Who will win? Staff unions or $1bn of venture capital?

Amazon today announced the creation of a $1 billion venture investment program with the aim to spur innovation in three areas close to its heart: fulfillment, logistics, and the supply chain. 

The Amazon Industrial Innovation Fund (AIIF) will be bankrolled using 11 days of the US giant's $33bn annual net income from 2021 (or 58 days of non-AWS annual operating income.)

Given the historic vote by New York warehouse staff to form the Amazon Labor Union, and claims by others that Amazon workers suffer higher rates of injury, the first five investments announced from the money pool may come as little surprise.

  • Agility Robotics, which is developing a bipedal robot dubbed Digit to replace larger robots that can't work within human-sized confines "so that machines can assist people wherever they are."
  • BionicHIVE, an Israeli startup, is working on autonomous robots that can climb warehouse shelves to retrieve inaccessible stock with "floor to ceiling functionality."
  • Mantis Robotics is building a robotic arm with tactile feedback capabilities that can be used to work alongside humans.
  • Modjoul, which is developing tech that alerts wearers when they may be doing something that could cause an injury, with a focus on musculoskeletal issues, one of Amazon fulfillment worker's most common complaints.
  • Vimaan is working on computer-vision technology to improve inventory management.

"We see an opportunity to look beyond our own experience and empower companies that are developing emerging technologies in customer fulfillment operations, logistics, and the supply chain," said Amazon's VP of worldwide corporate development, Alex Ceballos Encarnacion. Amazon said it's interested in speaking to any companies meeting those criteria about potential funding.

Amazon didn't say what themes, if any, future funding rounds would have, nor did it say how many companies it plans to invest in, or how much individual companies will get. Also left out of the release was any mention of what portion of the $1 billion fund was handed out to each company, though Amazon did say it would be variable "based on the opportunity and stage of growth."

Along with no mention of monetary rewards, Amazon also left off any mention of obligations or expectations that may come along with its investment. Previous investments that Amazon has made have been criticized for their tone and fine print, and the lack of details coming from Amazon leave room for speculation.

We've reached out to Amazon and the AIIF funding recipients for more details, and have yet to hear back. ®

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