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Neatleaf Spyder flying over a cultivation facility monitoring plant health. Image credit: Neatleaf

Innovating the ‘picks and shovels’ of the greenhouse: Why AgFunder invested in robotics startup Neatleaf

February 2, 2024

Tom Shields is a partner at AgFunder, the parent company of AgFunderNews. AgFunder recently led a $4 million round for Neatleaf, a robotic cultivation management platform for indoor farming environments. 

More often than not, the simplest innovations are the best. 

When California-based Neatleaf reached out to AgFunder a couple years ago, we were struck by the company’s no-nonsense approach to autonomous ag robotics systems, which it is developing for greenhouse environments.

Such simplicity makes for a much-needed shift for indoor ag, a sector that’s been plagued by overpromising, underdelivering, and a lot of expensive, complex technologies. Rather than focusing on yield increases or plant health, many indoor ag players to date have touted the benefits of 100% unique systems or automated for the sake of automation.

The straightforwardness of Neatleaf’s product combined with the company’s tight focus on improving plant health and yield is a welcome change. 

Neatleaf’s flagship product, a fully autonomous robotic platform called the Spyder, scans crops in the greenhouse and generates millions of data points on plant health and growth. The system can then analyze that data and turn it into insights on which the cultivation team can take action.

To accomplish this, Neatleaf has a fairly simple approach: it uses a cable system, similar to the cameras you see at NFL games, to cover the entire greenhouse with one set of cameras and sensors. Using this data, the system’s AI capabilities can detect plant stress and quantify plant health as well as forecast yields. 

When AgFunder and Neatleaf first connected two years ago, the product and market were a little too early. But we really liked the team, which did an excellent job of both executing their vision and staying in touch. 

When it came time for the next round of funding, we were already familiar with both the technology and the phenomenal team behind the product.

We were also impressed by the traction they had with growers. When we talked to their customers, we heard things like, “We can’t live without this” and, “We use it every day, it’s a key part of our growing system.”

Greenhouses as we know them have existed for well over a century, and the tech-equipped version of the twenty-first century is fast becoming mainstream.

The basics of greenhouse growing are well understood at this point. Now it’s time to take the next step, which is to optimize yield and reduce costs. To do that, growers need more data, faster, and they need to obtain it without human labor. 

Neatleaf can deliver all of this, detecting problems that humans can’t even see. And the system can do it plant by plant and 24/7 for an entire greenhouse.

Our recent investment in the company is a vote of confidence for both Neatleaf and the future of indoor ag technology. The fundamentals of greenhouses still make sense. We continue to see growth and believe there is still opportunity to innovate in the picks and shovels of the industry.

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