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Agriculture, cameras, tire changes and drive-throughs: Here are our robotics pitch-off winners

Brian Heater

We tried something new at last week’s TC Sessions: Robotics + AI. For the first time ever, we incorporated a pitch-off into the event. With a site as embedded in the startup world, it made sense to find a way to give some stage time to some early-stage startups.

On Monday night, I was joined by Aaron Jacobson (NEA), Jennifer Roberts (Grit Ventures) and Sunil Nagaraj (Ubiquity VC) to judge pitches from eight robotics and AI startups in front of a packed house at TechCrunch’s San Francisco HQ. Having also helped to whittle down the initial list, I’m happy to say it was an extremely solid list of competitors across the board.

We ultimately got the list down to four companies that showcased onstage at our Berkeley event the following day. The winning four companies were impressive not only from the standpoint of the products they were pitching, but also from the broad range of potential technologies they represented.

Two were primarily focused on robotics hardware and two were more interested in AI technologies. Their solutions ran the gamut from agricultural robotics to camera imagining to service center tire changes to helping improve customer interactions at fast-food drive-throughs. I feel pretty confident we’ll be hearing more from all of them in the coming months and years.

Quick note here: Due to time constrains, the pitches were brief. That’s the case for both the finals and those who appeared onstage. In the case of the latter, each company was given four minutes to make its case to an auditorium full of founders, students and investors. There was no Q&A segment that time out, but it should give you a pretty good idea of what each startup brings to the table.

Burro was the first up. Formerly known as Augean Robotics (good name change, IMO), the company offers an interesting take on the booming agricultural robotics category. Rather than focusing on robots that will replace human workers outright, the company has created a semi-autonomous robotic cart that saves pickers a long trip.

The wheeled robot is trained by following farmhands on their initial trip. After that, it works on its own. After being loaded with produce like table grapes, using on-board sensors and machine learning it delivers its payload to its destination without damaging it in the process.

Blink.AI arguably has the most immediate wide-ranging potential of the bunch. The company uses AI software to enhance imaging for stills, video and sensing. The company offered a compelling demo wherein its machine learning algorithms were employed for everything from minimizing snowfall in a video to improving conditions for self-driving vehicles.

Robotire is something we actually wrote about a week prior, when the company came out of stealth on our site, ahead of its Y Combinator pitch. TL;DR: The robot is capable of changing four tires in about 10 minutes. The company is currently in the process of rolling it out in select shops around the country.

Like Blink, Valyant AI is exploring a wide range of applications with its smart assist. The first one is an unexpected place: drive-throughs. The startup’s demo didn’t go exactly as planned onstage (it happens), but its founder was able to demonstrate it the night before. According to Valyant, operating the drive-through is one of the least desirable positions in the fast-food hierarchy.