UB makes first venture capital investment into high-tech startup Buffalo Automation

By Dan Miner
Buffalo Business First

Thiru Vikram, CEO, Buffalo Automation
Thiru Vikram, CEO of Buffalo Automation (Buffalo Business First file photo)

The University at Buffalo has made its first venture-capital investment into a high-tech startup, contributing $250,000 to Buffalo Automation.

The self-driving boat startup is led by founder and CEO Thiru Vikram, and is mainly focused on autonomous boating navigation. Buffalo Automation closed on a total of $500,000, with the rest of the funding coming from Varia Ventures.

UB’s Buffalo Innovation Seed Fund is capitalized through a $10 million investment from New York state’s Buffalo Billion economic development program, part of the university’s broader Innovation Hub project. The fund seeks to make investments in technology coming out of UB and research partners Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Center, the Jacobs Institute and Kaleida Health.

“We designed the Buffalo Innovation Seed Fund to be cyclical, and our investment in Buffalo Automation is just the beginning," said Christina Orsi, UB associate vice president for economic development. "By providing students, faculty, staff and researchers with the support they need to take a kernel of an idea and turn it into a product or service that benefits society, we are catalyzing the next generation of great startups right here in Buffalo.”

Buffalo Automation’s flagship product, AutoMate, uses artificial intelligence to help guide large commercial ships and has already been implemented on vessels in the Great Lakes. The investment aims to accelerate Buffalo Automation’s growth, particularly in customer acquisition.

“Our next key milestone is to automate lock entry,” Vikram said. “Locks are very difficult for humans to navigate and are the No. 1 place that vessels get damaged. Our goal is for AutoMate to navigate locks precisely, eliminating damage to both ships and public infrastructure.”

Buffalo Automation has also debuted a consumer version of its technology, dubbed Pegasus, that is designed for smaller recreational boats. Pegasus is designed to provide a fully autonomous boating experience for future electrified transport such as water taxis and ferries.

“Buffalo Automation’s combination of AI, machine learning and proprietary algorithms is unique around the world,” said Scott Friedman, managing director and co-founder of Varia Ventures.

Friedman co-founded the firm with Andrea Vossler. Friedman is chair of Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman law firm and Vossler is a partner in that firm.

Varia Ventures has also invested in local startups MimiVax and Viridi Parente.

Buffalo Automation is the 13th local startup to acknowledge private, growth-oriented financing this year. Others include Squire Technologies ($34 million), Tackle.io ($7.2 million), CleanSlate ($7 million), Kyklo ($4.5 million), SparkCharge ($3.3 million), Pop Biotechnologies ($3 million), CleanFiber ($2.9 million), Circuit Clinical ($2.2 million), MimiVax ($2 million), HELIXintel ($500,000), BetterMynd ($250,000) and Capti Voice (undisclosed).

This article originally appeared in Buffalo Business First.