3 questions to smart minds
Photo: Prof. Dr. Christoph von Einem

Hotly contested robotics

For this 3 questions to Prof. Dr. Christoph von Einem

ARQIS Attor­neys at Law in Munich
Photo: Prof. Dr. Chris­toph von Einem
15. Novem­ber 2023

Robo­tics has been making its way into our lives for some years now and is chan­ging indus­trial produc­tion and logi­stics in parti­cu­lar. The largest market for robots is curr­ently China with its decli­ning popu­la­tion. Robots can also help to compen­sate for the shortage of skil­led workers in Germany. Franka Emika was conside­red the hottest start-up on the scene after it was foun­ded in 2016 and ended up in insol­vency at the end of August 23 follo­wing heated dispu­tes between the two main foun­ders, the Hadda­din brot­hers, with their co-share­hol­­ders and the Free State of Bava­ria. The bidders were queu­ing up: the Munich-based tech­no­logy company Agile Robots AG finally won the race.

For this 3 ques­ti­ons to Prof. Dr. Chris­toph von Einem, Off Coun­sel at ARQIS Rechts­an­wälte in Munich

1. The battle for robo­tics compa­nies is fierce. This should be known at the latest since the sale of KUKA to Chinese inves­tors, after which the German govern­ment gran­ted itself a veto on the sale of core tech­no­lo­gies abroad by law. You talked about awkward nego­tia­tion situa­tions that you expe­ri­en­ced as an agile. How did that work out for Franka Emika?

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.

2. It is said that the Chinese are also invol­ved in Agile Robots. How did it come about?

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.

3. How do you assess the trends in the robo­tics sector? Can you give us an outlook?

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

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