We’ve seen a lot of trend lines moving throughout 2020 and into 2021 around automation, workflow, robotic process automation (RPA) and the movement to low-code and no-code application building. While all of these technologies can work on their own, they are deeply connected and we are starting to see some movement towards bringing them together.
While the definition of process automation is open to interpretation, and could include things like industrial automation, Statista estimates that the process automation market could be worth $74 billion in 2021. Those are numbers that are going to get the attention of both investors and enterprise software executives.
Just this week, Berlin-based Camunda announced a $98 million Series B to help act as a layer to orchestrate the flow of data between RPA bots, microservices and human employees. Meanwhile UIPath, the pure-play RPA startup that’s going to IPO any minute now, acquired Cloud Elements, giving it a way to move beyond RPA into API automation.
Not enough proof for you? How about ServiceNow announcing this week that it is buying Indian startup Intellibot to give it — you guessed it — RPA capabilities. That acquisition is part of a broader strategy by the company to move into full-scale workflow and automation, which it discussed just a couple of weeks ago.
Meanwhile at the end of last year, SAP bought a different Berlin process automation startup, Signavio, for $1.2 billion after announcing new automated workflow tools and an RPA tool at the beginning of December. Microsoft is in on it too, having acquired process automation startup Softmotive last May, which it then combined with its own automation tool PowerAutomate.
What we have here is a frothy mix of startups and large companies racing to provide a comprehensive spectrum of workflow automation tools to empower companies to spin up workflows quickly and move work involving both human and machine labor through an organization.
The result is hot startups getting prodigious funding, while other startups are exiting via acquisition to these larger companies looking to buy instead of build to gain a quick foothold in this market.
Cathy Tornbohm, Distinguished Research Vice President at Gartner, says part of the reason for the rapidly growing interest is that these companies have stayed on the sidelines up until now, but they see an opportunity and are using their checkbooks to play catch up.
“IBM, SAP, Pega, Appian, Microsoft, ServiceNow all bought into the RPA market because for years they didn’t focus on how data got into their systems when operating between organizations or without a human. [Instead] they focused more on what happens inside the client’s organization. The drive to be digitally more efficient necessitates optimizing data ingestion and data flows,” Tornbohm told me.
For all the bluster from the big vendors, they do not control the pure-play RPA market. In fact, Gartner found that the top three players in this space are UIPath, Automation Anywhere and Blue Prism.
But Tornbohm says that, even as the traditional enterprise vendors try to push their way into the space, these pure-play companies are not sitting still. They are expanding beyond their RPA roots into the broader automation space, which could explain why UIPath came up from its pre-IPO quiet period to make the Cloud Elements announcement this week.
Dharmesh Thakker, managing partner at Battery Ventures, agrees with Tornbohm, saying that the shift to the cloud, accelerated by COVID-19, has led to an expansion of what RPA vendors are doing.
“RPA has traditionally focused on automation-UI flow and user steps, but we believe a full automation suite requires that ability to automate processes across the stack. For larger companies, we see their interest in the category as a way to take action on data within their systems. And for standalone RPA vendors, we see this as validation of the category and an invitation to expand their offerings to other pillars of automation,” Thakker said.
The activity we have seen across the automation and workflow space over the last year could be just the beginning of what Thakker and Tornbohm are describing, as companies of all sizes fight to become the automation stack of choice in the coming years.