- British Columbia, Canada-based TechBrew Robotics has rebranded to 4AG Robotics and raised $17.5 million in equity financing.
- The company has developed an autonomous harvesting robot it says can greatly alleviate labor challenges in the mushroom industry.
- BDC Capital’s Industrial Innovation Venture Fund and InBC Investment Corp. led the round with participation from Emmertech, Jim Richardson Family Office, Lex Capital, and “a series of angel investors from across Canada.”
Sean O’ Connor, CEO of 4AG, says mushroom harvesting is a task especially well suited to automation.
“Unlike other crops, they grow at an astonishing rate (4% per hour) meaning if you’re behind on harvesting by a few hours, you can start to lose yield and quality as the mushroom bed overgrows,” he tells AgFunderNews.
Canada is the world’s eighth-largest producer of mushrooms, the vast majority of which are grown in Toronto and British Columbia.
But supply can struggle to keep up with demand thanks to labor challenges in the industry. Much of the industry’s labor relies on immigrant workers that are increasingly hard to come by thanks to new laws and restrictions in many countries including Canada.
“This problem is magnified by the fact that it’s difficult to find labor to harvest this crop as it’s high-skill,” says O’Connor. “It takes three to four months for a mushroom harvester to start being efficient on a farm in undesirable conditions (humid, dark, bending over all day, climbing up and down racks, etc.).”
‘Our systems are entirely autonomous’
4AG is addressing the above challenges with a fully autonomous robotic harvester.
According to O’Connor, the robot scans the mushroom bed to identify when each mushroom should be picked. After identifying those that are ready, the machine picks the mushroom, trims the stem and places the produce into a container for the grocery store.”
“There’s a ton of work that’s been done by our computer vision and AI teams to make sure the mushroom bed is constantly being harvested in a way that maximizes the yield for the farm,” he says. “Our systems are entirely autonomous, and built to consistently pick without human intervention for well over 24 hours at a time.”
Currently, 4AG’s robots work for indoor mushroom farms growing the typical white and brown mushrooms in most grocery stores. O’Connor says these types account for roughly 90% of all mushrooms grown in the world.
While the company may eventually work with farmers growing other crops, he says right now, “the mushroom industry is the one we’re most excited to be in given how important solving this problem is.
“Over time, I believe that 4AG Robotics is going to become a global leader in harvesting crops in the indoor agriculture space, solving the growing labor issues in these industries that are critical for food security and bringing fresh food closer to large populations.”
4AG has finished multiple pilots on a mushroom farm in Canada, with its robots picking more than 13,000 pounds of mushrooms that went on to be sold in North America.
O’Connor says 4AG is now entering the commercialization stage of the business with “two secured orders from farms valued at just under $1 million each.” One is in Canada and the other in Europe. The new funding will assist the company in this move towards commercialization.
4AG is “in the late stages” of speaking with other farms and securing orders.
“While we’ve proven we can solve the challenging problem of harvesting this fragile crop that grows really quickly, we now need to prove that we can scale a robotics company, and all of the complexities that come with increasing our manufacturing capacity.”
As to the name refresh, “Honestly, we’ve just been getting annoyed with how many people thought that TechBrew was building robots for the coffee or beer industry,” says O’Connor.
“As we approached the announcement of this financing, we felt it was time to choose a name that reflects our desire to become a global leader in the robotics space for indoor agriculture, where we can solve the growing labor issues in these industries that are critical for food security and bringing fresh food closer to large populations.”