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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 14 August 2018

SoftBank said to mull robot pizza-maker investment

May put up to $750m into Zume, which owns a patent for delivery trucks capable of cooking food while it’s en route to customers

Masayoshi Son, CEO of SoftBank . The firm may back automated food-making start-up. Bloomberg
Masayoshi Son, CEO of SoftBank . The firm may back automated food-making start-up. Bloomberg

SoftBank is in talks to invest from $500 million to $750m in Zume, a start-up that makes and delivers fresh pizzas with the help of robots, according to people familiar with the conversations.

Zume owns a patent for delivery trucks capable of cooking food while it’s en route to customers. The start-up's proprietary trucks are loaded in part by robots and have ovens that fire up on demand, via a remote cloud signal. The technology allows Zume to operate legally despite some laws preventing food truck companies from preparing food while a delivery vehicle is in motion. In addition to delivering pizza, Zume creates technology to manage perishable supply chain logistics and sees an opportunity to partner with companies that wish to provide freshly cooked menu items to customers.

The investment shows SoftBank’s Vision Fund's broader ambitions to attach itself to the food-delivery businesses, said the people, who asked not to be identified. Earlier this year SoftBank led a $535m funding round into meal-delivery app DoorDash. SoftBank also owns a 15 per cent stake in Uber, which says its last mile meal-delivery business, UberEats, is growing quickly. In February, Uber's chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi said food delivery already represented about 10 per cent of Uber’s business.

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Right now, Zume’s pizza delivery business is only operating three trucks from its headquarters in Mountain View, California, but the small start-up has ambitions to partner with food couriers like UberEats and DoorDash.

Zume, which started operations in stealth mode in 2015, was co-founded by Alex Garden, a former president of Zynga Studios, and Julia Collins, a restaurant operations executive who worked for artisanal fromager brand Murray's Cheese and Mexicue, a small chain of Mexican food eateries. Shortly after Zume began selling its cyborg-constructed pies, the company secured funding from Yahoo Inc. founder Jerry Yang's venture shop, AME Cloud Ventures. In 2016, Mr Garden said he had designed the robots to mimic the movements of human workers, to "spread your sauce perfectly, but not too perfectly", to recreate the experience of eating a handcrafted slice.

SoftBank’s Vision Fund could help take the start-up's concept global. SoftBank has stakes in Asian ride-hailing giants Ola, Grab and Didi Chuxing, which have all expanded into the food-delivery business. The Vision Fund is also planning to lead an investment of as much as $5 billion into Ele.me, the food delivery giant owned by Alibaba, according to an earlier Bloomberg report.

Yum! Brands's Pizza Hut and Domino Pizza have been experimenting with robots too. In 2016, Pizza Hut Asia announced that it would be using Pepper, the humanoid robot from SoftBank Robotics, to take orders at certain locations. SoftBank Robotics, originally a French start-up before its acquisition by SoftBank in 2012, was heavily marketed in Japan as part of SoftBank leader Masayoshi Son’s big push into robotics. Yet the futuristic clerk has yet to go mainstream.

As of last March, about 10,000 Pepper robots had been sold since they began shipping in 2015.

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