On 17th November 2022, Marel, one of the leading global providers of advanced food processing equipment, systems, software, and services (market cap of ca. $2.8 billion), agreed to acquire a 29% stake along with Tyson Ventures and other investors in a soft robotic automation systems company, Soft Robotics.
Tech – Soft Robotics: Soft Robotics designs and builds automated, high-speed picking solutions using proprietary soft robotic grippers, 3D machine vision, and artificial intelligence. The company's transformational robotic solutions enable system integrators and OEM machinery builders to offer solutions that automate some of the most challenging bulk processes found in food production.
Non-Tech – Marel: Marel is an Iceland-based provider of advanced food processing equipment, systems, software, and services to the poultry, meat, and fish industries. It has four business segments: poultry, fish, meat, and others. Most of the company's revenue is derived from poultry processing activity. The company has a presence in 30+ countries, with 100+ partners, and customers from 150+ countries.
On 17th November 2022, Marel entered into a definitive agreement to acquire a minority stake in Soft Robotics as a part of Soft Robotics’ Series C round where the company raised a total of $26 million from new and existing investors.
While Marel invested financially $3 million out of the $26 million in this round, the real shareholder value creation for Marel comes in the form of the strategic partnership it has agreed with Soft Robotics (see section below).
Like most other techquisition deals, the market reacted favourably to the investment announcement given the positive outlook associated with the strategic potential of the investment and partnership and how it fits with Marel’s business strategy.
Marel’s share price increased by approximately 9.2% from the date of the deal’s announcement on November 17 to November 24 – versus an increase of only 2.0% in the benchmark index, OMX Iceland All-Share PI – implying an addition of net ca. $194.6 million, which is ca. 65x Marel’s investment in Soft Robotics, and which is due in large part to the strategic partnership that is aligned with the financial investment.
This signals a potentially high ROI for Marel on the techquisition investment, assuming it can execute on the partnership plan.
Founded in 2018, Soft Robotics focuses on enabling the mass adoption of robotic automation by the $8 trillion global food industry to help reduce the critical dependency on labour-powered operations.
The company’s products address one of today’s most pressing societal problems – enabling food companies to produce enough safe and high-quality food products to feed the global population amidst massive labour shortages.
The company’s unprecedented combination of robotic “hands,” “eyes,” and “brains” enables, for the first time, the use of high-speed industrial arms to automate bulk-picking processes throughout the protein, produce, dairy, baked goods, and prepared foods operations.
"For decades, food producers have been unable to adopt industrial robot arms to automate their most labour-intensive, bulk production processes. mGripAI, with its revolutionary perception and AI, unlocks the use of industrial robots in nearly all stages of food production increasing throughput, improving food quality, reducing facility footprint, and breaking the critical dependency on labour"
- Mark Chiappetta, COO of Soft Robotics
Marel’s focus is to put advanced, automated systems and solutions to work at every step of the production process and to cover the relevant geographical areas in the food industry.
Marel is fully committed to meeting its target of a 12% average annual increase in revenues through a balanced mix of organic and acquired growth.
Additionally, Marel invests 6% of its revenues in innovation annually throughout the years and believes that further automation, robotics, and digital solutions are key for food processors to optimise production, improve safety, and meet customers’ demand for high-quality, safe, and nutritious protein products. Marel brought 27 new solutions and upgrades to the market in 2021 alone.
The company’s growth plan involves capitalising on its strong innovation investment to drive expansion and market penetration and focusing on strategic partnerships and acquisitions to fill gaps in the value chain to augment its full-line product offering.
For example, in 2019, Marel partnered up with TOMRA, the global leader in vision technology. The FATscan analyser, which utilises high-end interacting spectroscopy technology and measures VIS Near Infrared light, is an example of a Tomra development that has now been integrated into the Marel full-line offering.
From the automation perspective, all Marel industries are drawing on automation in the three process areas of primary, secondary, and further processing.
Marel has taken significant steps in delivering new robot applications to the fish industry in 2021. These include the RoboBatcher launches and the establishment of the Marel Automation Center to accelerate new developments to the market.
The development of automation platforms, such as the DeboFlex platform in meat, also enables more and quicker developments across the group.
Vision and inspection technology leadership is a focus area. Its innovative solutions such as the Marel Spectra takes the step from detecting hard contaminants like wood and steel to detecting soft contaminants like plastics. This reduces the need for staff to perform visual and manual checking while improving customers’ value-add by achieving better quality and food safety.
In line with its 2017-2026 growth strategy, Marel has gradually expanded its business model into adjacent industries, where most recently the acquisition of Wenger has added a fourth pillar focused on pet food, plant-based protein, and aqua feed.
The company believes acquisitions enhance the key strategic pillars and drive organic growth and aims to obtain better market reach and customer engagement thus improving customer focus.
In addition to acquiring a minority stake in Soft Robotics, Marel has also launched a strategic partnership with the company.
Soft Robotics adds critical technology building blocks to Marel's diverse product portfolio, enabling automation solutions for the food industry.
The deal rationale revolves around Marel’s plans to incorporate Soft Robotics’ technology into its core market solutions. The strategic partnership will initially focus on automating machine infeed or styling products for final packaging, with numerous opportunities for future expansion.
“Our goal is to transform food processing and be an enabler for a more sustainable industry where automation and digitalization are key. We are as well transforming Marel. Our disciplined investments in past years, in acquisitions as well as innovation and infrastructure, are portfolio management by design”
- Arni Oddur Thordarson, CEO of Marel
One of the reasons Marel is so interested in the “soft robotics” market is the growth expected – the global soft robotics market is estimated to grow from ca. $520 million in 2020 to $3.4 billion by 2027 (CAGR of 31%).
“Soft robotics” is a system specifically designed and manufactured from materials with mechanical properties similar to living tissues and has the potential to eliminate computational and mechanical robot design complexities.
It has now spread across the retail, food & beverage, logistic, and healthcare sectors to innovate in the product supply chain. Further, soft robotics allows the end users to increase the flexibility and adaptability of the manufacturing process due to the ability to sense and adapt according to the surrounding.
Significant factors that impact the growth of the global soft robotics industry include a surge in penetration of AI-based technologies, increasing industrialisation in the automation sector, and smart infrastructure development.
Increasing automation in the food & beverages industry and rising research and development in the robotics industry are some of the main drivers for the Soft Robotics Market. Many R&D projects were funded by various governments worldwide despite the Covid-19 crisis to support the contribution of robotics and automation to the industry as well as society.
A global increase in demand for quality and sustainably produced food, at a time of worsening labour scarcity, is causing food producers to struggle with supply, further intensifying the pressure to automate.
As a result, Soft Robotics has experienced a rapid surge in demand for its solutions and has delivered the four largest sales quarters in the company's eight-year history.
The techquisition deal with Soft Robotics completely aligns with Marel’s vision to provide sustainable nutrition to a growing global population.
The deal should enable Marel to seamlessly integrate technology in selected solutions for its core markets.
"Soft Robotics’ revolutionary robotic technology, computer vision and AI platform have the potential to transform the food industry and will play a key role in any company’s automation journey"
- Rahul Ray, Senior Director of Tyson Ventures (Co-investor)
Marel’s techquisition investment is a great example of how a traditional business belonging to the food processing industry is actively engaged in the journey of transforming itself to deliver greater value to its stakeholders – particularly its shareholders and customers – by properly positioning itself for the future, ready to tackle any disruptions, especially in a pandemic.
The essence of such a transformation unfolding is embedded in a strategy execution approach we have trademarked and call Techquisition, which my firm, Aquaa Partners, has designed and delivers to its clients every day as an experienced and trusted expert partner.