Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
A software developer at a small, local robotics company in May scrawled the names of summer interns on a whiteboard as he and his colleagues contemplated where they should sit amid the outgrowth of the company’s 4,000-square-foot headquarters.
“Do we want to move the robots twice?” he wondered out loud as he surveyed a room at Port San Antonio that crammed his desk as well as that of Plus One Robotics‘ human resources director, its chief operating officer, and chief technology officer.
“No we definitely don’t,” he said. “[Moving] the interns it is.”
Plus One Robotics was founded in San Antonio in 2016. Since then the business, based at the former Air Force base and burgeoning tech hub Port San Antonio, has been quietly growing its arsenal of 3D sensing and artificial intelligence-powered robots and enlisting the services of an increasing number of techies to program them.
On Monday, Plus One moves into its new 10,000-square-foot space at Port San Antonio. The expansion marks a significant milestone and the fourth move in the company’s young history, said co-founder and CEO Erik Nieves.
“This is fourth and it’s going to be the last for a good while,” Nieves said. “We’re going to have plenty of elbow room, but more importantly we made sure we have right of first refusal on the spot next to us and an agreement with the Port that they’ll grow on the other end toward us because there’s a very real possibility that we’ll be knocking down a wall at some point [and expanding even further].
“It is indicative of the maturity of the business. You don’t make a bet with a lease of that magnitude if you don’t think that the business is viable and growing. We made the bet, but it’s not an uninformed one.”
To accelerate its growth, Plus One fetched a sizable haul of venture capital along the way – with a $2.3 million initial funding round in May 2018 as the company launched its first commercial product and an $8.3 million Series A round last November.
The company employs about 28 people, most of them technical workers such as engineers and developers. Plus One is planning to employ 32 people at its new facility’s capacity.
Plus One develops software that trains 3D camera-equipped robots through machine learning to pick up items on an assembly line. The company is focused on automating the warehousing for e-commerce companies.
Nieves said the company’s next sales hires will likely be located outside of San Antonio, where its customers are: Seattle, Chicago, and Atlanta. Although Plus One cannot disclose its customers, the Rivard Report found Amazon has a cluster of fulfillment centers in each of those cities.
Plus One’s robots will replace jobs. That much is certain. But they won’t take humans completely out of the picture. The company has developed a remote system for human operators, which it calls crew chiefs, to help the robots when they get stuck. For example, when multiple items appear on the conveyor belt, and the robot cannot determine how to pick up the item it needs, the crew chief can control the robot remotely via a computer to keep the assembly line running smoothly. The company has one crew chief on its staff, but it expects to hire more as its customer list grows.
The robots Plus One equips with the intelligence to efficiently package items can help propel the e-commerce industry to an even greater share of the retail sector, said Julian Counihan, a venture capitalist who invested in Plus One’s first funding round. Counihan, a general partner at Schematic Ventures, said that will only fuel Plus One further. Online retail transactions accounted for 10.7 percent of total sales in the second quarter of this year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“I don’t think anyone sees that number going down or even slowing in growth,” he said. “They’re sort of the backbone and infrastructure behind the growth in e-commerce, and as e-commerce grows, Plus One will grow.”
The robotics company has until recently had a rather anonymous existence in the local startup ecosystem, owed in part to Plus One’s residence outside of the downtown tech district. Maintaining a staging area for its robots requires more space than is reasonable in one of the Houston Street tech offices.
Plus One will provide Port San Antonio with a major showpiece as it moves forward with plans to build an Innovation Center at its 1,900-acre industrial complex, Port San Antonio President and CEO Jim Perschbach said. As the company has developed its products, its reputation in the robotics and the technology industry more broadly has grown.
“Give them another year or two,” he said, “and they’re going to be as close to a household name as you can get.”