Abundant Robotics, a robotics and automation startup, has raised $10 million in Series A funding in a round led by GV (Google Ventures). BayWa, the German agricultural trading and logistics company, joined the round with Tellus Partners, the agribusiness private equity firm.
Abundant will use the proceeds to commercialize its first product, an apple-picking robot aimed at reducing the $200 billion orchard farming industry’s reliance on seasonal labor, labor that hasn’t improved its productivity in 20 years despite yield increases.
“Over the past 20 years, orchard systems have become more productive with the mainstream use of high density planting systems with dwarfing root stock and trees supported by trellises, enabling more trees per acre,” said Dan Steere, cofounder and CEO of Abundant Robotics. “Yet most of the tasks done inside the orchard are still by hand. Imagine if we were still farming row crops without combines; that’s the situation much of the fruit and vegetable industry faces.”
This labor inefficiency is expensive and adds risk to operations because the labor pool of workers willing and able to do the intensive, manual farm work, is shrinking. “This is challenging work; not only are they on their feet all day, but they are carrying bags of apples which can weigh up to 60lbs when full,” said Steere. It also adds risk to the timing of harvest, which might mean fruit are not picked at optimum ripeness.
The industry has been crying out for an automated harvesting solutions for years, and there been active efforts to develop automated harvesting since 1960s, according to Steere. But it’s taken some time for the core technology toolbox of robotics and automation to mature to a viable point.
Now with improvements in computer vision, showing up particularly in the consumer services industry, as well as developments in software and hardware for robotic systems, Abundant has been able to create a complete solution that Steere believes leads the market. But it’s been a relatively long road to this point.
“We are just beginning to create robots that can do complex manipulation, as the technology toolbox has become richer and richer, although we’re still a long way from creating robots that have types of sensing and fine manipulation capabilities of the human hand,” said Steere.
“The biggest challenge is understanding when you’re at a point with a set of technology that you can move from research to actually building a useful product, and that’s the hard part about startups; understanding when the capabilities are really ready.”
“In our case, there was a lot of foundational work and early research. It wasn’t clear what we were trying to do would work, so there was a lot of interaction with growers though prototypes and real world testing to prove we were on the right track.”
Abundant’s founding team has been developing this technology since 2012 when they were working at SRI International, an independent non-profit research center. Steere was an entrepreneur-in-residence at the centre, while Curt Salisbury was leader of the robotics group, and Michael Eriksen was a software architect.
The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, which is backed by growers in the industry, funded the initial research. And in 2016, after successfully demonstrating a prototype of the robotic harvester, Abundant Robotics spun out on its own to commercialize the technology. SRI also contributed internal funding during the research stages and is still a shareholder in Abundant today.
This new round of funding will aim to bring Abundant’s apple picking robot to commercialization in 2018 and Steere is excited about the potential for Abundant’s new investors to play a role. Andy Wheeler from GV will join the board, bringing a “sophisticated understanding” of many types of technology from the Google platform, according to Steere. BayWa has several subsidiaries including T&G Global in New Zealand, which owns the global licensing right to the Envy apple varieties so could be a potential customer and distribution partner.
In future, Abundant will work on automating operations for other fruits and vegetables.