Philly’s Fort raises $13 million to save you from killer robots
Fort Robotics and UniversalCIS say they'll use the milions to hire more software people and other staff
New money is flowing to a pair of Philadelphia-area technology companies, which plan to use it to grow rapidly.
Center City-based Fort Robotics, whose software keeps robots from killing people, plans to double its staff of 33 with $13 million from investors led by Prime Movers Lab.
And UniversalCIS, a Broomall company that collects and ships credit data on would-be home-buyers for banks and other lenders, says it has sold a controlling stake to Radnor-based Lovell Minnick Partners, which has invested in dozens of financial and financial-tech firms across the United States. UniversalCIS also says it will keep hiring.
Fort Robotics, which plans to move its office at the Curtis Building to a full floor at 1608 Walnut St. (the Pew brothers’ long-ago Sun Oil headquarters) to fit all the new people, was started three years ago by Samuel Reeves, a 2005 Wharton graduate who previously cofounded Humanistic Robots, which clears land mines.
“The world is on the cusp of a new industrial revolution in mobile autonomy, in every worksite and every home, but security hadn’t existed for autonomous robots that are big enough to kill you,” Reeves told me.
“How do you develop safety for machines that think on their own?” he added. “It’s not just robot arms on an auto assembly lines. That we’ve been doing since the 1950s. You need more than robotics. You need aerospace people, automotive safety people, software people.” And sales, and marketing management. “Philadelphia is a great place to draw those people,” he said.
Humanistic Robotics built a safety platform as part of its work as a defense contractor helping the military clear mines. It split up in 2018: Reeves developed Fort Robotics while Humanistic is still run by his partner, Josh Koplin.
I noted that science-fiction and tech writer Isaac Asimov expanded on his famous “rules for robotics,” which began with a dictum that robots never harm people, while working at the Philadelphia Navy Yard during World War II.
”It is so cool to think of Asimov here in Philadelphia,” Reeves said. “We are productizing Asimov. Science fiction is becoming reality. Mobile autonomous systems are starting to trickle up everywhere. Someone has to make sure the risk is managed.”
He says the company has dozens of large industrial clients — factory owners, such as Flir Systems, which manufactures many of the most popular robot camera makers.
The investor, Prime Movers, is headed by Dakin Sloss, who founded a string of companies (Tachyus, OpenGov) and the independent political group California Common Sense.
“Fort is creating systems that will accelerate the rise of autonomous vehicles and robotics, making work safer and more productive,” said Suzanne Fletcher, general partner at Prime Movers Lab. She said Fort is organized around the idea that “safe collaboration between humans and robots is synonymous with the workforce of tomorrow.”
Besides Prime Movers Lab, Fort’s new backers include Prologis Ventures, an arm of Prologis, the largest U.S. warehouse operator and owner of the former Philadelphia-based Liberty Property Trust properties; Quiet Capital, Lemnos Labs, Creative Ventures, Ahoy Capital, Compound and FundersClub; and Mark Cuban, the Pittsburgh-born tech-investor billionaire.
Separately, Lovell Minnick Partners, which is based in Radnor, has agreed to buy a controlling stake in Philadelphia-based UniversalCIS, which collects credit data on would-be mortgage loan borrowers and speeds their applications.
Lovell Minnick won’t say how much it is investing, but promised the deal will boost, and not reduce, UniversalCIS’ staff of 350, half of whom are based at the its Broomall headquarters, the others in several offices around the U.S.
The company has added 50 people in the last three months, and “management expects the company to accelerate growth,” a spokeswoman says.
UniversalCIS’ predecessor, Universal Credit Services, adopted its current name in January after acquiring CIS Credit Solutions, credit reporting firm Avantus, and appraisal technology developer SharperLending over the past year.
It’s run by chief executive Jerry Haftmann, a Broomall-based developer who founded Universal Credit in 1992. The chairman is Perry Steiner, past managing partner of private-equity investment firm Arlington Global Partners.
UniversalCIS says its systems are used in 60 loan-origination services that are in turn used by 4,000 banks, credit unions and loan brokers.
Its directors include some well-wired Washington insiders — ex-U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wisc.), the onetime speaker of the House; and John Dalton, a former U.S. Secretary of the Navy. They will be joined by a Lovell Minnick representative, Steve Ozonian.
Lovell Minnick has invested $3.5 billion since its founding in 1999 by former SEI Investments executives Jeffrey D. Lovell and James Minnick. Its properties have included Montgomery County-based global real estate investor CenterSquare Investment Management, Wyncote-based Lincoln Investment Planning, China investor Matthews Asia, TriState Capital Bank, and dozens of other financial, investment and payments companies.
Philadelphia law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius advised Lovell Minnick in the UniversalCIS deal, while McDonald Hopkins counseled the seller.