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Cobalt raises $16.5 million to bring security robots to the office

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A start-up called Cobalt Robotics is making roving security robots for use in commercial buildings — whether that’s an office, data center or a hospital.

The robot could help companies save money on human security guards: businesses spent almost $68 billion on physical security in 2016, according to industry research by Stratistics MRC. That number is expected to surpass $125 billion by 2022, with a hefty chunk of spending going to human security guards indoors.

CNBC caught up with Cobalt Robotics CEO and co-founder Travis Deyle to see the machines in action at Fuseproject, the design studio of Yves Behar. Fuseproject helped create the look and feel of the Cobalt, which is more like consumer hardware than a piece of office equipment.

Deyle founded Cobalt in 2016 after a stint working on a smart contact lens project for Google X, the search giant’s experimental research lab.

At one time, Google X included a large robotics business. But Deyle actually stayed away from that, trying to expand his horizons while he was there.

When he left Google X, he wanted to build a pure software business and avoid the cost of manufacturing hardware. But Deyle fell back in love with robotics, after teaming with CTO Erik Schluntz, an engineer who turned down a gig at SpaceX to chase entrepreneurial dreams.

Deyle explained, “Our system provides one person with situational awareness across an entire space at one time. The idea is to let machines do what they’re good at and people do what they’re good at.”

Cobalt robots can: scan an employee’s or a visitor’s badge; detect open doors, water leaks, spills or intrusions, among other things. When they sense an anomaly in a building, they can alert a security specialist, who can send a guard to patrol in person as needed.

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US semiconductor policy looks to cut out China, secure supply chain

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A close up image of a CPU socket and motherboard laying on the table.

Narumon Bowonkitwanchai | Moment | Getty Images

GUANGZHOU, China — If you talk about chipmaking, two companies usually spring to mind — Taiwan’s TSMC and South Korea’s Samsung Electronics. The two Asian firms combined control more than 70% of the semiconductor manufacturing market.

The U.S., which was once a leader, lags behind in this space after monumental shifts in the business models in the semiconductor industry.

But a global semiconductor shortage and geopolitical tensions with China have bolstered Washington’s scrutiny of the supply chain, which is concentrated in the hands of a small number of players, and has created a drive to bring manufacturing back to American soil to regain leadership.

The U.S. has earmarked billions of dollars and is reportedly looking at alliances with other nations.

Semiconductors are critical to everything from cars to the smartphones we use. And they have also been thrust into the center of U.S.-China tensions.

“One characteristic of US policy is that it has heavy emphasis on China. This has now become a national imperative to enhance self-sufficiency in semis production, accelerated by the recent chip shortages and the ‘tech war’ against China,” Bank of America said in a note published Wednesday.

How Asia came to dominate manufacturing

The key to understanding the geopolitics of semiconductors, which countries dominate and why the U.S. is trying to boost its domestic industry, lies in coming to grips with the supply chain and business models.

Companies like Intel are integrated device manufacturers (IDMs), which design and manufacture their own chips.

Then there are the fabless semiconductor firms, which design chips but outsource manufacturing to so-called foundries. The two biggest foundries are TSMC in Taiwan and Samsung Electronics in South Korea.

Over the last 15 years or so, companies began shifting to this fabless model. TSMC and Samsung took advantage as they began to invest heavily in leading-edge manufacturing technology. Now if a company like Apple wants to get the latest chip for their iPhone produced, they have to turn to TSMC to do it.

TSMC has 55% foundry market share and Samsung has 18%, according to data from Trendforce. Taiwan and South Korea collectively have 81% of the global market in foundries, highlighting the dominance and reliance on these two countries as well as on TSMC and Samsung.

“In 2001, 30 companies manufactured at the leading edge however as semi manufacturing grew in cost and difficulty, this number has fallen to just 3 firms” — TSMC, Intel and Samsung, according to a note from Bank of America published in December.

However, Intel’s manufacturing process is still behind that of TSMC and Samsung.

“Taiwan and South Korea have become leaders in wafer fabrication which requires massive capital investment; and part of their success over the last 20 years is due to supportive government policies and access to skilled labour forces,” Neil Campling, head of technology, media and telecoms research at Mirabaud Securities, told CNBC by email.

The complex supply chain

What is the U.S. planning and why?

So, the U.S. is not necessarily falling behind in the semiconductor industry as a whole. Some of its firms are integral to the supply chain. But one area it has lagged in is manufacturing.

Under President Joe Biden, the U.S. is looking to regain leadership in manufacturing and secure supply chains.

In February, Biden signed an executive order which involves a review of the semiconductor supply chain to identify risks. As part of a $2 trillion economic stimulus package, $50 billion was earmarked for semiconductor manufacturing and research. A bill known as the CHIPS for America Act is also working its way through the legislative process and aims to provide incentives to enable advanced research and development and secure the supply chain.

Meanwhile, U.S. firm Intel last month announced plans to spend $20 billion to build two new chip factories and said it will act as a foundry. This could offer a domestic alternative to the likes of TSMC and Samsung.

Part of that scrutiny on the supply chain has been prompted by a global chip shortage that’s hit the automotive industry. The coronavirus pandemic accelerated demand for personal electronics like laptops and games consoles just as industrials and automakers wound down production. But a rebound in production plus heightened demand for chips in various sectors has triggered a shortage.

The concentration of production in the hands of TSMC and Samsung has worsened the problem.

The semiconductor supply shortage “has probably made the U.S. administration realise they aren’t in control of their own destiny,” according to Mirabaud Securities’ Campling.

But there are also geopolitical factors at play, informing U.S. policy.

“Over the longer-term, the Biden administration wants to continue to encourage both foreign and U.S. semiconductor manufacturers to expand capacity in the U.S., to reduce dependence on manufacturing in geopolitically sensitive areas such as Taiwan, and create high paying engineering jobs in the U.S.,” Paul Triolo, head of the geo-technology practice at Eurasia Group, told CNBC by email.

Part of the U.S. policy in the semiconductor space involves forming alliances. Earlier this month, the Nikkei reported that the U.S. and Japan will cooperate on supply chains for critical components like semiconductors. The two sides will aim for a system where production is not concentrated on specific regions like Taiwan, the Nikkei said.

“The U.S. is trying to cut China out of the equation,” Abishur Prakash, a geopolitical specialist at the Center for Innovating the Future, a Toronto-based consulting firm, told CNBC via email.

“It is trying to redesign how the world’s chip industry works in the face of a rising China. This is not necessarily about self-sufficiency, although Washington would welcome this. Instead, it is about building up critical sectors — from AI to chips — that are insulated from geopolitics. And, because several nations share U.S. concerns about China, the U.S. is taking a chunk of the world with it.”

China’s push for self-sufficiency

China meanwhile is trying to push self-sufficiency amid U.S. moves to cut it off from key supplies. Over the past few years, China has tried to boost its semiconductor industry through huge investments and incentives like tax breaks.

But China remains well behind everywhere else and that goes back to the supply chain. SMIC is China’s largest foundry, a competitor to the likes of TSMC and Samsung. But SMIC’s technology is several years behind that of its Taiwan and South Korean rivals.

And even if it wanted to advance, it’s extremely difficult due to U.S. sanctions and actions. Washington put SMIC on a blacklist known as the Entity List last year. That restricts American companies from exporting certain technology to SMIC, holding back the chipmaker due to the key role U.S. firms play in the semiconductor supply chain. Roughly 80% or more of SMIC equipment comes from U.S. vendors, according to Bank of America.

Last year, Reuters reported that the U.S. pressured the Netherlands government to stop the sale of an ASML machine to SMIC. The Dutch firm is the only company that makes the so-called extreme ultraviolet (EUV) machine that is needed to make the most cutting-edge chips. That machine has still not been shipped to China.

“If China wants to manufacture leading edge chips, it is virtually impossible without equipment from the US or allies,” Bank of America said in its December note.

“We remain skeptical about a meaningful progress in China’s progress due to US restrictions as it is materially behind in IP (intellectual property) and has limited access to IP given the US restrictions,” Bank of America said in a separate note last week.

“Our team expects a delay of around 5+ years before it makes a more significant progress.”

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Economy about to grow quicker due to vaccinations, fiscal support

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Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell testifies before the Senate Banking Committee hearing on “The Quarterly CARES Act Report to Congress” on Capitol Hill in Washington, December 1, 2020.

Susan Walsh | Pool | Reuters

The U.S. economy is at a turning point thanks to government support and a speedy campaign to inoculate Americans against Covid-19, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said in a new interview.

“What we’re seeing now is really an economy that seems to be at an inflection point,” Powell told Scott Pelley during an interview that will air Sunday evening on CBS News’ “60 Minutes.” CBS released a portion of the interview earlier Sunday.

“We feel like we’re at a place where the economy’s about to start growing much more quickly and job creation coming in much more quickly,” Powell said. “So the principal risk to our economy right now really is that the disease would spread again. It’s going to be smart if people can continue to socially distance and wear masks.”

Powell’s comments come as U.S. stock indices are at record levels thanks in part to optimism about the reopening of the economy. Investors will be watching closely next week as earnings season kicks off and company leaders issue forecasts for the coming year.

The nationwide vaccination drive has been speeding up in recent weeks, with nearly every state making all adults over 16 years old eligible for shots.

About 183 million doses of vaccine have been administered in the U.S., according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Nearly half the country’s adult population, and almost 80% of those 65 and older, have received at least one dose, CDC data shows.

Powell, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, has been one of the key figures in the federal government overseeing the nation’s response to the financial distress caused by the pandemic.

The Federal Reserve slashed its benchmark rate to near zero in March of 2020 and deployed massive emergency lending programs. Powell has said the Fed is unlikely to raise rates until the economy is essentially fully healed, even if inflation rises moderately above its 2% target.

Powell has also been supportive of aggressive federal spending programs implemented under both Trump and President Joe Biden to stem the worst impacts of the public health crisis.

The full interview with Powell will air on Sunday at 7 p.m. ET.

Subscribe to CNBC Pro for the TV livestream, deep insights and analysis  on how to invest during the next presidential term.

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Stock futures slip after Dow, S&P 500 hit fresh records

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A Wall Street street sign is displayed in front of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.

Bloomberg | Getty Images

Futures contracts tied to the major U.S. stock indexes slipped at the start of the overnight session Sunday evening, suggesting Wall Street could see mild losses on Monday to curb last week’s strength in U.S. equity markets.

Dow futures lost 30 points around 6 p.m. in New York, while contracts tied to the S&P 500 shed 0.15%. Nasdaq 100 futures fell 0.1%.

The movement in the futures market on Sunday followed yet another record close for the Dow Jones Industrial Average on Friday, when it gained nearly 300 points to end at 33,800.6. The S&P 500 gained 0.8% and hit its third straight record close.

Stocks linked to the recovering economy led many of last week’s gains as vaccinations efforts throughout the U.S. accelerated. Both the Dow and the S&P 500 climbed at least 2% last week. The Nasdaq rallied 3.1% over the same period as some traders snapped up big tech names, with Apple up more than 8% and Amazon and Alphabet each gaining more than 6%.

The first-quarter earnings reporting season gets underway in the week ahead, with expectations set for broadly positive news and an uptrend for U.S. equities thanks to a recovering economy. Many of the nation’s largest banks, including Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase will report results for the three months ended March 31.

The coming week is also packed with Federal Reserve speeches and key economic data including a hotly anticipated inflation reading Tuesday, when the consumer price index is released.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell begins a week of multiple Fed appearances with a Sunday evening interview on “60 Minutes.” He also speaks Wednesday at an Economic Club of Washington event.

“A positive fiscal shock, strong housing tailwinds, a large stock of savings, and the Fed letting inflation run above 2% mark a fundamentally different economic backdrop,” Evercore ISI equity strategist Dennis DeBusschere wrote in an email. “US data is expected to be strong this week and US vaccinations are increasing. Real rates are still too negative and are headed higher, supporting risk-on factor outperformance.”

Investors will also keep an eye on President Joe Biden’s effort to advance his infrastructure plan known as the American Jobs Plan. Biden, who with other Democrats promised significant an infrastructure overhaul in the 2020 elections, will meet with a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Monday to try to persuade Capitol Hill to back the $2 trillion package.

Congress will return to Washington this week and be in session for the first time since Biden debuted his proposal, which earmarks hundreds of billions of dollars for roads, bridges, airports, broadband, electric vehicles, housing and job training.

The president’s plan would also increase the corporate tax rate to 28% and crack down on other overseas tax avoidance strategies.

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