Columbus venture fund backs autonomous forklift developer

Columbus venture fund backs autonomous forklift developer

By Dan Eaton – Staff reporter, Columbus Business First
Jul 1, 2020, 2:45pm EDT

A Columbus-based venture fund wants to make area warehouses safer and more efficient.

Heartland Ventures has invested in California-based Third Wave and its autonomous forklift technology in the hope of connecting that business to customers in the Midwest.

“With the density of logistics hubs and warehouse operations here there’s a real need for this,” Heartland Managing Director Max Brickman said. “This is of interest to anyone who uses forklifts, especially those with high rack storage, which can be dangerous and a bottleneck for operations.”

Heartland is one of five investors in the $15 million round alongside four California-based firms: Homebrew, Toyota AI, Eclipse and Innovation Endeavors.

Brickman founded the fund in Indiana and opened the Columbus office last year.

Third Wave is an embodiment of the firm’s approach of finding companies and technology on the coasts and bringing it to potential customers in the Midwest.

When Brickman thinks of customers, it’s not just warehouses, but also forklift manufacturers. Two of the top three forklift manufacturers in the U.S. are based in Ohio: Crown Equipment in New Bremen and Cleveland-based Hyster-Yale Materials Handling.

One advantage of the technology is the artificial intelligence and camera system allows existing forklifts to be retrofitted to be autonomous.

“There’s no trenching or RFID needed,” Brickman said. “It’s simple to deploy. We think it’s going to be extremely relevant.”

Third Wave calls its system “shared autonomy” because it can identify conditions in a changing warehouse environment and learn. The system works with a forklift operator in instances where it doesn’t know what to do.

“The premise is that the robot is multiplying the potential of the forklift operator, while also keeping them out of harm’s way,” the company wrote on its website. “Every time the operator is asked to assist the forklift, our systems learn from the interaction and are able to autonomously handle similar situations in the future.”

Third Wave was founded in 2018 by former engineers from Google and Toyota. Heartland Ventures now calls Columbus its home. It maintains a presence in South Bend, Indiana, where it now has added Mike Schmuhl as a director. Schmuhl most recently was national campaign manager for Pete Buttigieg’s recent run for the U.S. presidency.

Brickman said they are prepping to raise a second fund that will be supported with commitments from family-owned businesses and funds in the region.

“That was part of our intention when we came here, to collaborate with these family-owned funds and make connections to tech,” he said.