Hotly contested robotics
In the last 12 months, the founders of Franka Emika and other stakeholders have asked us at least 4 times to step in and avert insolvency at Franka Emika. But either the founders’ asking prices were still astronomically high or the founders were unable to let go and in the end preferred to accept insolvency at the expense of all the shareholders and the Free State. Since Agile and Franka both have their roots at DLR in Oberpfaffenhofen, it made sense for Peter Meusel and Dr. Zhaopeng Chen, who founded Agile Robots together with my help in 2018, to try to save Franka in order to strengthen Munich as a robotics location in international competition.
However, neither the insolvency administrator Dr. Matthias Hofmann nor I could have imagined after 40 years of M&A that the competition for the rescue would develop into such a mud fight with fake news and repeated serious breaches of confidentiality in the creditors’ committee. While the Schöller brothers, who together with Franka shareholder TQ Systems and with the active support of the Haddadin brothers, who had caused the insolvency, had offered a significantly higher price than the two strategic co-bidders the night before the decisive creditors’ meeting, the creditors’ committee ultimately awarded the contract to Agile. Apparently because Agile Robots guaranteed the takeover of all 100 employees, as well as the continuation of production in Bavaria — and not just the exploitation of over 700 patents and design rights.
As Agile Robots has a major investor with a stake of more than 25% from outside the EU in the Japanese Softbank Group, in addition to three internationally active VC funds including Sequoia, which mainly manage funds from the USA, all acquisitions by Agile Robots are subject to control by the BMWK. As Agile has already acquired BÄR Automation GmbH from Baden Württemberg this year as part of a company succession and IdealWorks GmbH from Munich as part of a joint venture with BMW AG, several procedures for obtaining clearance certificates from the BMWK were successfully completed.
Agile Robots AG, founded in Munich in 2018, recognized earlier than other German robotics companies that the Chinese market for robotics is the largest in the world and that market access there is easier than in Europe. For this reason, the German company Agile Robots AG has adapted the robot arms developed in Germany together with its Agile Core in Beijing for the Chinese market and sold them there very successfully. In its 5th financial year, Agile was already able to generate global sales of around EUR 50 million. The BMWK was aware that neither the Chinese state nor Chinese investors are involved in Agile to any great extent — only 8% of all investors are based in China.
Today, Agile’s customers include not only German flagship companies such as EDSCHA, Continental and Volkswagen in China, but also the Taiwanese FoxConn Group, which manufactures cell phones and other electronic devices. These early market successes in China have brought the German company Agile Robots AG a lot of interest from investors all over the world. The main founder Dr. Zhaopeng Chen, who has lived with his family on Lake Starnberg since 2007, has been greatly helped by his ability to navigate both the European and Chinese markets. Agile is now expanding to India and soon to the USA.
The topic of robotics has been an integral part of automotive production for decades with the well-known large robots from KUKA, ABB and FANUC. Smaller, agile robots are now being used that work hand in hand with humans in production, such as those from Agile and Franka. This means that difficult steps in production, logistics or even in the hospital can be carried out as a helping third hand for the doctor. In my opinion, without robots we will not be able to get to grips with the shortage of skilled workers in Europe, both in industry and in the care sector. Many highly motivated employees are needed to realize this vision. That is why Agile Robots has ensured very broad employee participation from the outset. Good people are an asset!
*) BMWK = Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Protection