Yesterday enterprise computing Zebra Technologies has announced its plan to acquire Fetch Robotics. The San Jose-based startup has been a mainstay in warehouse and fulfillment robotics for a number of years, offering a modular system designed to automate businesses behind the scenes.
The total value of the transaction is $ 305 million, with Zebra acquiring the remaining 95% of the company for $ 290 million. Interest in the category is at an all-time high after widespread labor shortages during the pandemic.
After the news broke, we sat down with Fetch Co-Founder and CEO Melonee Wise to discuss the deal and the future of warehouse robotics.
Why was this acquisition the right move for Fetch?
If you look at that, we’ve built a pretty compelling cloud robotics platform over the past seven years. About two years ago Zebra invested in Fetch and we started working together as part of our partnership. One of the first things we did was integrate their mobile computing devices for an out-of-the-box experience on our cloud robotics platform. When our customers got robots, they could take the handheld scanner they already had with them, scan a barcode and call a robot over to them.
When we raised funds for our Series D, this was an opportunity. I think if you look at that, we’ve had a good relationship with them over the past few years. With the pandemic there is a big draw for more and more automation technology. There was a labor shortage for warehouses and logistics even before the pandemic, and the pandemic only exacerbated it. One of the other great things about Zebra joining us is that they have a strong go-to-market engine and they can strengthen our sales capabilities. They are already included in all customers we would like to work with. It helps us reach a much wider, wider, and deeper audience.
I had assumed Fetch would be a good potential candidate for an acquisition, but I always imagined that it would be something like a Walmart looking to compete with Amazon robotics. I suspect you have been approached by companies over the years. Why does this type of acquisition make more sense in the end?
I think the acquisition made sense because it is more in line with our long-term vision. When we created our platform, we unified it. Not just our robots. Over the years we have slowly brought more partners onto the platform. We have a partnership with SICK, we have partnerships with other MWS providers such as VARGO. That won’t change. We will continue to be partner-friendly and add other devices to the ecosystem. Looking at the options and possibilities, this was a good opportunity and it was a good fit for the team we were trying to build.
I know Zebra developed its own robot and invested in other robotics companies. Are you the cornerstone of an ecosystem game? Is this zebra building a robotic ecosystem for retail and fulfillment around fetch?
Yes, that has been the discussion so far. It’s still developing. I don’t have all the details for you, of course. And of course we still have 30 or 35 days until the closure, so we continue to work as an independent company. In terms of the vision we are thinking about, Zebra is very excited to make Fetch the centerpiece of this entirely new offering they are building. It is a high strategic priority for them.
Will the Fetch brand stay? Will the company stay in San Jose? Will you stay on board?
Polling does not move. We’re becoming the centerpiece, so to speak, so they want to keep the team together in San Jose. My plan is to stay We are still working on the details [ … ] Fetch has a very strong brand and how can we get the best of both worlds?
Is acquisition something that a company like Fetch is working towards? Do you think that is inevitable?
I think it’s complicated. When I started the company, I never really had anything planned. I just wanted to build something. I mean that sincerely. I wanted to build something and not fail. And the question is, what does it look like to fail? I think the facts are that almost no robotics company has gone public in the past 20 years. Now we’re starting to see SPACS, but there hasn’t been a robotics company that went public the traditional way.
I would say if on any given day you asked me what I thought was the likelihood of an IPO versus an acquisition, I would probably have said an acquisition because there is simply no history of robotics company IPOs. There are many reasons for this. It’s a hardware-intensive business. It takes a lot of technology and investment. Usually they are kept private. It is hard for large companies to have the income statement to invest in this deep technology. I think this is starting to change. And I think now that SPACs are in place, a lot is going to change in that regard. But I would say that over the next 10 years you will still see more acquisitions than IPOs.
Have you been approached about an acquisition in the past?
Yes. We had been there in the past, but many times before it was just too early.
What does it mean to be early?
It just didn’t feel like the time was right for a lot of reasons. Some things have to do with what I want. Some of this has to do with what the team wants. And some of it has to do with what our investors want. There are a lot of people at the table. It’s always a tough question. Before, when these things came up, the market was so undefined and so new, we just wanted to see where it was going. Now we’re starting to see more structure in the area and we’re starting to see a turning point.
Is additional international expansion part of the plan?
Yes. We are represented in several companies in Europe. We’re in APAC and we’re expanding in that region. We are not currently placing large bets in any of these countries. We’ll wait and see how the market develops, but we want to expand.