Harvest is one of the most hectic times on a farm. The idea of sending a fleet of robots to do the dull, dirty, and often dangerous work is promising for many operators. Numerous startups are working tirelessly to create robots that can harvest or perform other farm tasks efficiently without damaging high-dollar crops. But the sector still has a long way to go, according to Eric Adamson, co-founder of ag robotics startup Tortuga AgTech.
“For many years, the story behind harvesting robotics has been a lot of promise but really companies have struggled to deliver on that promise for the customer. That’s because this is one of the hardest problems there is to solve,” he teold AFN. “Not only are we doing autonomous robotics but we are also doing picking robotics and we are doing them together in really unstructured environments.”
AFN can reveal that Denver, Colorado-based Tortuga has completed a $20 million Series A round led by Lewis & Clark AgriFood. Other investors in the round include robot-focused Avidan Ross’ Root Ventures, Spero Ventures (where Tesla co-founder Marc Tarpenning is a board member), Ceres Partners, Colorado Impact Fund, AME Cloud Ventures, Morado Ventures, Grit Ventures, and Remus Capital.
“We have been looking at the robotics and automation space for a while, and got to know Tortuga shortly after they closed their last round. As we tracked their progress, we became further and further convinced that they are the most exciting and commercially viable robotic harvesting company on the market. We believe Tortuga can be the world leader in on-farm technology and automation,” Larry Page, managing director of Lewis & Clark AgriFood, told AFN.
Tortuga came out of stealth last year with a strawberry harvesting robot after spending time conducting R&D with farmers to ensure that its product was up to snuff. Although it’s starting with high-value strawberries, the platform is flexible and can be tailored to work on other crops like indoor-grown tomatoes or outdoor table grapes.
“They have a combination of pick speed, reliability, and an ability to accurately pick in a wide variety of real world situations. According to our research and their customers, these critical metrics are head and shoulders above others in the space,” Page said.
The startup has already pivoted into its second crop but is keeping the crop’s identity under wraps for now.
Working with farmers and taking a collaborative approach was key for Tortuga. The approach served them well heading into the pandemic when labor shortages and other operational issues hit during the harvest season. The problems that Tortuga was already trying to solve only got worse, Adamson said.
“We continued to work and travel during the pandemic and the turning point for us was the ability to raise a round like this, which to my knowledge is the biggest round for harvesting robotics startup. We are having customers tell us that they’re ready to scale up and sign for tens of millions of dollars worth of contracts that we can scale into during the next couple of years,” according to Adamson.
The $20 million in new capital will be used for a variety of goals including building hundreds of robots to deploy in 2022. Some of the funding will also go towards building out the operating model and making sure there are enough employees to operate the robot fleets.
Tortuga currently offers its technology through a robots-as-a-service model, getting paid by the kilo for the produce that its robots pick.
“On top of that, as we provide other services that are close to harvest, like data-driven forecasting and other types of cultivation services, those will also be service-based although they may not be quite so specific to a kilogram. We are charging for some of these additional services on a monthly or per-hectare basis,” Adamson said.
The goal behind offering these additional services is to demonstrate the actual value that Tortuga’s harvesting robots are bringing to the table, he added.
Farmers are largely on board with the service-based model in lieu of purchasing the robots outright. Harvest only happens once a year, making it harder to justify paying for a piece of equipment that will largely sit in storage.
Rise of the robots
The ag robotics space is expanding as startups reach new levels of maturity with their R&D. As Adamson alluded, applying robotics to agriculture requires marrying many different technologies into one machine that has to operate in often brutal environments. As advances are made, more and more startups are popping up and catching investors’ attention.
Autonomous tractor startup Bear Flag Robotics recently raised $7.9 million, for example, while Australia’s SwarmFarm Robotics raised A$4.5 million ($3.22 million) in October 2020. A number of startups are honing in on harvest like Tortuga, including Vingery and Saga Robotics. There are even robotics applications emerging in the restaurant kitchen and broader CPG retail spaces.
The uptick in ag robotics startups that are not only progressing with their technology but raising venture rounds is promising, but Adamson still underscores the serious challenges in the space. This includes expertise in engineering, customer service, industry expertise, and the operational capacity to solve customers’ problems at scale.
“I think there will probably be a lot of teams that figure out one or two of these things but can’t put it all together and that’s what makes the space relatively challenging compared to others,” Adamson said. “I think there is already starting to be a separation in terms of which projects are going to be able to graduate into businesses and which products may be more niche services or not have quite as much ability to scale.”