Ocado, the UK online grocer that has been making strides reselling its technology to other grocery companies to help them build and run their own online ordering-and-delivery operations, is making an investment today into what it believes will be the next stage of development of that business: the company is taking a £10 million ($13.8 million) stake in Oxbotica, a UK startup that develops autonomous driving systems.
Ocado is treating this as a strategic investment to develop autonomous systems that will work across its operations, from vehicles within and around its packing warehouses through to the last-mile vehicles that deliver grocery orders to people's homes. It says it expects the first products to come out of this deal — likely in closed environments like warehouses rather than open streets — to be online in two years.
“We are excited about the opportunity to work with Oxbotica to develop a wide range of autonomous solutions that truly have the potential to transform both our and our partners' CFC [customer fulfillment centers] and service delivery operations, while also giving all end customers the widest range of options and flexibility,” said Alex Harvey, chief of advanced technology at Ocado, in a statement.
The investment is coming as an extension to Oxbotica's Series B that it announced in January, bringing the total size of the round — which was led by bp ventures, the investing arm of oil and gas giant bp, and also included BGF, safety equipment maker Halma, pension fund HostPlus, IP Group, Tencent, Venture Science and funds advised by Doxa Partners — to over $60 million.
The timing of the news is very interesting. It comes just one day (less than 24 hours in fact) after Walmart in the US took a stake in Cruise, another autonomous tech company, as part of recent $2.75B monster round. Walmart owns one of Ocado's big competitors in the UK, ASDA; and Ocado recently made its first forays into the US, by way of its deal to power Kroger's delivery. So it seems that competition between these two is heating up on the food front.
More generally, there has been a huge surge in the world of online grocery order and delivery services in the last year, with earlier movers like online-only Ocado, Tesco in the U.K. (which owns both physical stores and online networks), and Instacart in the U.S. seeing record demand, but also a lot of competition from well-capitalized newer entrants bringing different approaches (next-hour delivery, smaller baskets, specific products).
In Ocado's home patch of Europe, they include Oda (formerly Kolonial), Rohlik out of the Czech Republic (which in March bagged $230 million in funding); Everli out of Italy (formerly called Supermercato24, it raised $100 million); Picnic out of the Netherlands (which has yet to announce any recent funding but it feels like it’s only a matter of time given it too has publicly laid out international ambitions). Even Ocado has raised huge amounts of money to pursue its own international ambitions. And that's before you consider the nearly dozens of next-hour, smaller bag grocery delivery plays.
A lot of these players will have had a big year last year, not least because of the pandemic. Now, the big question will be how that market will look in the future as peoples go back to “normal” life.
That may well tighten the competitive landscape, and could be one reason why companies like Ocado are putting more money into working on what might be the next generation of services, one more efficient and run purely (or at least mostly) on technology.
Logistics account for some 10% of the total cost of a grocery delivery operation. But that figure goes up when there is peak demand or anything that disrupts regularly scheduled services.
My guess is also that with all of the subsidised services that are flying about right now where you see free deliveries or discounts on groceries to encourage new business — a result of the market getting so competitive — those logistics have bled into being an even bigger cost. So it's no surprise to see the biggest players in this space looking at ways that it might leverage advances in technology to cut those costs and speed up how those operations work.
In addition to this collaboration with Oxbotica, Ocado continues to seek further investments and/or partnerships as it grows and develops its autonomous vehicle capabilities.
Notably, Oxbotica and Ocado are not strangers. They started to work together on a delivery pilot back in 2017. You can see a video of how that delivery service looks here:
“This is an excellent opportunity for Oxbotica and Ocado to strengthen our partnership, sharing our vision for the future of autonomy,” said Paul Newman, co-founder and CTO of Oxbotica, in a statement. “By combining both companies' cutting-edge knowledge and resources, we hope to bring our Universal Autonomy vision to life and continue to solve some of the world's most complex autonomy challenges.”
But as with all self-driving technology — incredibly complex and full of regulatory and safety hurdles — we are still fairly far from full commercial systems that actually remove people from the equation completely.
“For both regulatory and complexity reasons, Ocado expects that the development of vehicles that operate in low-speed urban areas or in restricted access areas, such as inside its CFC buildings or within its CFC yards, may become a reality sooner than fully-autonomous deliveries to consumers' homes,” Ocado notes in its statement on the deal. “However, all aspects of autonomous vehicle development will be within the scope of this collaboration. Ocado expects to see the first prototypes of some early use cases for autonomous vehicles within two years.”
More to come.