Startup replicating insect brains to control autonomous vehicles raises £2.1m seed
Natural intelligence startup, Opteran has raised £2.1m in seed funding. Opteran will use the funds to pioneer its radical lightweight, low cost silicon-based approach to autonomy called Natural Intelligence and expects its technology will significantly expand the potential addressable market for autonomy in machines and robotics.
The round was led by IQ Capital with Episode1, Join and Seraphim Capital also participating. Following on from a pre-seed round from the Connecting Capabilities Fund of the British Business Bank, the latest funding round also includes angel investors and a CCF grant, a part of the Northern Triangle Initiative .
Opteran is a University of Sheffield spin-out based on eight years of research by Professor James Marshall and Dr. Alex Cope into insect brains as part of the Green Brain and Brains on Board projects.
Although insects have smaller brains, they are still capable of sophisticated decision making and navigation using optic flow to perceive depth and distance. This is a far more efficient, robust and transparent way to achieve autonomy than current deep learning techniques enabling Opteran to reverse-engineer insect brains to produce algorithms requiring no data centre or extensive pre-training.
It means Opteran can mimic tasks such as seeing, sensing objects, obstacle avoidance, navigation and decision making and in a recent trial they were able to control a sub-250g drone, with complete onboard autonomy, using fewer than 10,000 pixels from a single low-resolution panoramic camera.
Weighing approximately 30g, and integrating Opteran technology drawing less than a watt of power, the Opteran Development Kit (ODK) will enable the technology to be integrated into a wide variety of applications in the robotics market, which is expected to grow to $77bn by 2022. Opteran’s technology will transform the use case for a wide variety of autonomous vehicles, drones, mining robots and even off-planet vehicles, as it will enable real-time autonomous decision-making.
In the next 18 months Opteran will use this seed funding to build out functionality in the algorithms and chipsets, including launching Opteran Sense for obstacle avoidance and reactive navigation, Opteran Direct for SLAM, Opteran Decide for autonomous decision-making, and Opteran See - a 360 degree camera. It will also look to expand its engineering and commercial team, and is currently launching a Development Kit to enable partners to embed its technology in their applications.
David Rajan, CEO, Opteran, commented: “2021 will be the year when Natural Intelligence will challenge deep learning in solving some of the most fundamental short-comings in autonomous applications and this funding round will set Opteran on a path to be at the forefront of this next wave. Already in a position to demonstrate the technology, we are confident that Natural Intelligence will become highly sought after as the way to deliver lightweight, low-cost and effective autonomy in a radically new way that will open up huge growth opportunities for robotics.”
Ed Stacey, Partner at IQ Capital said: "We are hugely excited to be working with Opteran, as Natural Intelligence adds a whole new dimension that will transform the way in which we create intelligent machines - starting with the design of more efficient silicon brains for robots and autonomous vehicles. We are delighted to be supporting them at the start of their commercial journey and are excited to see the technology they create and the role it plays in the wider AI market in the years ahead.”
Rob Desborough, Partner Seraphim Space Fund and CEO of Spacecamp commented: “The benefits and step change Natural Intelligence can bring to the field of autonomy are profound. Within a Space environment autonomous systems are truly on the edge where size, weight and efficiency are critical. Opteran has the potential to be the world leader in this area and was an exceptional fit for our Seraphim Space Camp accelerator. Our experience of working with the team gave us the conviction that this was a company that could revolutionise this sector.”
Sebastian von Ribbentrop, Partner at Join Capital said: “We are thrilled to back Opteran’s passionate founders, whose strong backgrounds in both academics and business make them poised to pioneer a new domain of brain biomimicry. We’ve already had the chance to introduce the team to global industrial players, and it immediately became clear that the industry is keen to implement their technology. Opteran is driving a paradigm shift in intelligence that is not based on today’s Deep Learning and sophisticated pattern matching, but on replicating nature’s proven blueprints for autonomy.”
Paul McNabb, Managing Partner at Episode 1 Ventures commented: “We know that the next generation of applications will run on the edge - robots, drones, VR/AR - but that today’s brute-force Deep Learning solutions won’t be able to. Taking inspiration from nature, a whole new paradigm for AI is needed - Opteran has it.”