Toyota VC invests in AI startups, firms that refine everyday processes

A Toyota logo is displayed at the 89th Geneva International Motor Show in Geneva, Switzerland March 5, 2019. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy/File Photo

TOKYO (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp's first venture capital fund is investing in startups that help the Japanese automaker refine everyday processes by bringing sharper supply-chain management and robotics to the factory floor, a fund executive said.

The Silicon Valley-based Toyota AI Ventures fund, with $200 million under management, has so far invested in 36 early-stage startups, including self-driving car software firm Nauto, factory video analytics company Drishti and air mobility firm Joby Aviation.

Toyota, the world's largest automaker by vehicle sales, and many car companies such as Volkswagen AG are funnelling money into startups to help gain an edge in artificial intelligence as investor interest shifts to self-driving cars.

For instance Toyota, which has dozens of factories around the world, wants to be able to quickly share the lessons learned at one plant across other plants so that efficiencies are maximised, Jim Adler, the founding managing director of the fund, told Reuters in an interview.

"If you look at cloud computing, for example, and cloud robotics, and fleet learning, when one robot learns something, the rest of the robots automatically learn that thing," he said.

Adler, a former Lockheed Martin rocket engineer and a serial entrepreneur, said that while the fund and the automaker work closely together, the fund had a good degree of independence from Toyota because taking every investment opportunity to the carmaker's management would be too much process.

"We are at the edge of this Toyota ecosystem," said Adler.

"Being between the outside world and the inside world of Toyota, we are this sort of semi-permeable membrane that brings outside influence into the company."

The automaker this year started Woven Capital, an $800 million venture capital fund to make growth-stage investments in companies including those in the Toyota AI Ventures portfolio.

(Reporting by Makiko Yamazaki and Maki Shiraki; Editing by Stephen Coates)

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