Try to think of the top manufacturing startups today, and you might struggle to name one. While some companies leverage manufacturing to achieve futuristic ideas such as redesigning living organisms or colonizing Mars, few have turned their attention to the heart of the process: factory floors. “Manufacturing is the most unsexy space for anybody to be in,” admits Prasad Akella. “It takes deep conviction on the investors’ part to want to put money in this space. Silicon Valley has walked away from manufacturing for the last 20 to 25 years.”
Nevertheless, Akella committed to an uphill battle to win investor confidence four years ago when he founded Drishti Technologies with Krishnendu Chaudhury, an ex-Google computer vision veteran, and serial entrepreneur Ashish Gupta. On Tuesday, the Mountain View, California-based startup announced that it raised $25 million in a Series B funding round led by Sozo Ventures. Other firms including Andreessen Horowitz, Toyota AI Ventures, Emergence Capital and Alpha Intelligence Capital participated in the round. The company, where Akella serves as CEO, declined to disclose its post-money valuation.
Drishti is looking back more than 100 years to Henry Ford’s assembly line as the target for its innovation – essentially an eye on the factory floor to monitor thousands of workers at once. Its software uses computer vision to digitize human actions by taking real-time video footage from cameras installed throughout a factory, then applying deep learning to assign data points to label different types of manual labor. The data is turned into information to help factories increase efficiency or quality. Use cases include identifying ways to speed up the manufacturing process or discovering bottlenecks before they halt production. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the tech has been used to reduce line crowding in order to maintain social distancing measures.
Simply put, Drishti’s artificial intelligence has twofold duties: besides analyzing data, it – unlike most AI companies – is creating the data that is to be analyzed. The idea comes from Akella, 57, who led the team that developed collaborative robots at General Motors in the 1990s. After stints at SAP and Thomson Reuters working in product strategy and marketing, he came to realize that marketing and sales were attracting massive capital while his old field of manufacturing was being overlooked. “That’s really what drove me [to start the company], but I was in my 50s when I started and my wife asked me, ‘Do you really want to do this?’”
Akella decided to take a chance, first linking up with Gupta, an Amazon engineering director-turned-entrepreneur and angel investor. The pair found Chaudhury, a former Google and Adobe computer vision expert, in Bangalore, where he had gone to look after his parents. They brought him on as the third cofounder and chief technology officer, and decided to build the engineering and product teams around him in India (Drishti’s 50 employees are split between Bangalore and its Mountain View headquarters, where Akella and the marketing team are located).
The big challenge for Drishti, Akella says, was to apply computer vision to a video stream. Instead of analyzing a single image, the AI-powered technology has to detect humans in motion performing different tasks. The company ultimately spent two years in stealth, but emerged with a product that has a “greenfield opportunity,” says Uday Sandhu, a partner at Alpha Intelligence Capital who joined the board as part of the Series B, which also included participation from Hella Ventures, Micron Technology, Presidio Ventures and Benhamou Global Ventures.
“There are no direct close competitors that we found that can address this,” Sandhu adds. The wide open market has helped Drishti sign some of the biggest automotive, electronics and medical parts manufacturers. With a combined revenue greater than $700 billion, the startup’s “double-digit” list of customers include Ford, Nissan, Singapore-based electronics maker Flex and Japanese auto-parts giant Denso. Toyota is currently testing Drishti’s technology across some of its North American factories.
Manufacturing is a market worth trillions of dollars, which gives Drishti room to maneuver. Owing to its relative infancy, the company has stuck to North American factories—even for companies based overseas like Nissan and Denso. But the fresh capital, Akella says, will be put to use to expand the company globally, with an emphasis on Japan. The country ranks third in the world in terms of manufacturing output (after China and the United States) at $1 trillion, or 10% of the global market, according to a 2018 Brookings report.
“It’s pretty clear to me that Japan is the next port of call,” Akella tells Forbes. “Since manufacturing is global, we want to work with the best manufacturers in the world in North America… and then let them lead us into the global markets.”