Tulip Downloads $13M Round, Led by NEA, for Manufacturing Apps

Robots and other automation technologies are a growing presence on factory floors, but there are still opportunities to equip human workers with new tools to help them perform better.

That’s part of the pitch from Tulip, a startup with roots at MIT, which today announced it received a $13 million investment to help it sell digital products to manufacturers. The Series A round was led by New Enterprise Associates, with contributions from Pitango Venture Capital and individual investors.

Tulip’s software connects with devices, sensors, and equipment on the shop floor, helping manufacturers collect data in real time so they can improve production processes and boost their bottom lines. Or that’s the goal, at least. The Somerville, MA-based company’s software platform enables manufacturers to develop their own apps and other digital tools to help with tasks such as training machine operators, providing production workers with interactive instructions, monitoring equipment, and tracking product quality.

The startup fits into some major trends in manufacturing, as companies install more sensors on factory floors, connect their equipment to the Internet, and use software to try and boost operations. Enabling the industrial “Internet of Things” is a growing focus for big companies such as GE, IBM, Siemens, and PTC.

Tulip has its work cut out challenging the larger, more established providers of manufacturing software. Tulip co-founder Rony Kubat says part of the company’s focus is on making software that is more “flexible” and “designed for the everyday usage of the manufacturing engineer.”

Tulip has about two dozen customers in six countries, Kubat says. Those companies work in electronics, aerospace, defense, medical devices, shoes, pharmaceuticals, and contract manufacturing. Customers are seeing tangible benefits, Kubat says. An analysis of Tulip’s impact on contract manufacturer Jabil’s operations found that within the first four weeks, its software helped increase Jabil’s production yield while reducing the frequency of quality issues in parts assembly, Tulip says.

When asked if increased factory automation diminishes the prospects for Tulip, Kubat doesn’t sound worried. “There will always be a trend toward automation where it makes sense,” he says. “But the manual operations, they’re not going to go away.”

Tulip plans to use the funding to hire people in sales and marketing, customer support, and product research and development, Kubat says. The company currently has 25 employees, and that number could double in the next couple of years, he says.

Kubat and Tulip co-founder Natan Linder previously worked as researchers in the fluid interfaces group at the MIT Media Lab. Their work included developing LuminAR, an augmented reality technology.

Before the Media Lab, Kubat was an early employee at Bluefin Labs, which was later acquired by Twitter. Linder, Tulip’s CEO, also co-founded Formlabs, a 3D printing company based in Somerville.

Formlabs just announced some news of its own this week. It unveiled a new 3D printer called Fuse 1, as well as a system dubbed Form Cell—a connected row of its 3D printers, partly controlled by robotics—that it says automates much of the printing process.

The bigger picture here is that the manufacturing industry is evolving, and Boston-area companies are trying to play a role. The local players include GE, PTC, and Tulip in industrial software; Formlabs, Desktop Metal, and NVBots in 3D printing (GE plays in this space, too); and Rethink Robotics, RightHand Robotics, and Vecna in factory and warehouse robotics.

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