Long before Adam Stager began the winding journey that would lead him to agriculture, he was known for being an “ideas guy,” someone who always carried around a notebook filled with concepts and plans. He was determined to travel the path that would best help him to realize the potential contained within the pages. This road would ultimately take Stager all the way to FIRA USA 2023, but that comes later.
Throughout his education to become a mechanical engineer with a specialty in robotics, Stager continued to experiment with different ideas and tackle a wide range of projects in various fields, including law enforcement. He knew two things for sure: He wanted to do something entrepreneurial and help a lot of people in the process.
Eventually, a contact in the farming industry suggested that Stager consider bringing his knowledge, enthusiasm and experience to agtech sector. Stager saw an opportunity. He dove head first into a postdoc building equipment that could collect data from underneath the corn canopy. The work was promising, but Stager quickly learned that farmers weren’t interested in data for data’s sake.
“I would ask them, ‘Would this be a good product? Would you pay for something like this?,’” he says. “And they would tell me that I could run it on their farm as much as I wanted. They wouldn’t charge me to do that, but they wouldn’t pay me for the product because they didn’t get any value out of it or the data right away. That’s when I realized I needed to solve a bigger problem—one that was useful to the farm today.”
This led Stager to write a white paper on his skill set and areas of expertise and send it directly to the USDA. This was where he learned about the agency’s research on using ultraviolet light as an environmentally friendly alternative to chemical pesticides. The information was there, but no one had a good way to deliver UV light onto the farm. Stager hypothesized that a tractor-sized Roomba® could potentially move up and down the rows to get the job done. TRIC Robotics was born from this idea.
Now, Stager had a bigger problem: He’d never built robots this large before. Not only would developing tractor-sized robots present a new challenge, but the machines would also need to be able to autonomously and reliably navigate the strawberry fields where they would eventually be deployed. Stager got started in his garage and brought in a bunch of students to help tackle different aspects of the design.
“I taught them what I knew about automation, and they brought their passion for making a difference,” Stager says. “That’s how we built the first one.” Since then, two of those students, Vishnu Somasundaram and Ryan Berard have become trusted co-founders of TRIC.
This version of the robot was smaller and did indeed operate like a Roomba®. Equipped with UV lights, the machine sat on the edge of the field at night and managed a section on the field throughout the season. It had to run every three days to provide effective pest control.
In 2019, one of the larger strawberry growers in Delaware let the TRIC Robotics team use his farm to test their prototype. The results were positive. The Delaware farmer encouraged the team to take their robot to California where the majority of the nation’s strawberry farms are located. One of the students working with TRIC Robotics agreed to take a semester off and move out west with Stager for eight months to help him operate the machines.
“We loaded up two of the UV light robots on top of our SUV, and we drove across the country with them,” Stager says. “We didn't even have any funding when we decided to leave, but we were lucky because we got this small business innovation research (SBIR) funding from the National Science Foundation. That helped us survive.”
When they arrived in California, the two-person TRIC Robotics team found that the two farmers who agreed to test the machines on their operations were unwilling to pay for the service. From their perspective, this test was a big risk. Choosing not to spray chemical pesticides could prove disastrous for their crops and profitability. Stager understood the concern, but he also knew his fledgling start-up would not go very far if they worked for free. He negotiated a counter offer: The farmers would only pay if the UV treatment seemed to be working.
“Fortunately, part of the way through the season, there was a line in the field where there was a visible color difference in the plants,” Stager says. “That was a big thing for us. I realized we were onto something now. At the end of the season, the farmer said, ‘OK, how much can you do?’”
At the time, labor and financial limitations meant that the robots could only do about an acre. It was Stager’s turn to take on a significant risk. He cashed in his retirement and whatever he’d saved during his Ph.D. to fund the first tractor-sized machine.
“You don't have that many chances in life to take the full dive,” Stager says. “That was my way of getting the first robot out in 2022. We got it on five acres, and then from there, we raised a little bit of money from people we’ve met along the way, mostly through various startup programs. That money allowed us to build three more. Now, we have four total robots, and this year we've done over 100 acres paid from farmers.”
The next stop on the journey was FIRA USA 2023 in Salinas, California. Stager, who had attended the 2022 event, knew TRIC Robotics had survived the early days and was in a good place. With some encouragement from a venture capitalist he’d met at another agtech event, Stager decided to apply to participate in the start-up pitch competition this time around. He was confident in his start-up, but he was also stressed. He really wanted to win.
“FIRA gave us a chance to send our deck in, so I took a video recording of me doing the pitch,” Stager says. “I think if it was too far away from a good pitch, they would give you feedback, but I guess we were close enough to what they wanted to slide through without receiving too much criticism. Because of that, I felt we were probably on track. Then, it was a matter of being able to pitch TRIC Robotics without thinking about the words, so I could really engage with the audience a little bit more.”
On the day the winner was announced, a couple members of the TRIC Robotics team joined Stager at the event. The big reveal included a bit of drama in the form of a stuck clicker that nearly showed the wrong slide. The audience stepped in to do a drumroll, and TRIC Robotics was named the winner.
“I didn't really know what to do,” Stager says. “I kind of sat there like, ‘What now?’ They had a cowboy hat as a trophy which made for a great photo. It was great because I was able to get the whole team on stage. It was good validation to show the team that we’re working on something that’s truly going to help the world.”
TRIC Robotics in 2023 has certainly come a long way from its garage-project days. The robot, which once had an electric system with batteries, now operates on a specially designed hydraulic tractor to better and more reliably navigate the fields. It has consistently proven effective against the strawberry crop’s biggest issues: mites, mildew and mold. A new automated bug vacuum is helping with lygus bug by sucking the tough-to-treat insect into high-speed fans where the blades kill the pest instantly. Taken together, the TRIC Robotics machine helps strawberry farmers maintain a clean field with far less chemical pesticides. The next step is to scale up and expand the company’s reach.
“We've got the interest from the farmers, and they're already paying us as a replacement for their existing chemicals,” Stager says. “So, there’s a good business opportunity for us and also a great solution for the farmer. What FIRA USA showed us is that it’s really clear that automation is here. The timing is right to launch a company like this, which is exciting, because you can always be too early.”
While Stager admits to sometimes feeling the pull of shiny object syndrome, he plans to focus on strawberry farmers and stay the course for the foreseeable future. The long-term goal is to offer TRIC Robotics’ services to other crops where mites, mildew and mold are common problems, such as in grapes, berries, leafy greens and more. For the moment, Stager is enjoying the company’s victory at FIRA USA and using the win to continue making progress.
“Nothing's a bigger confidence boost than customers paying,” he says with a laugh. “But if there's a second place, it's definitely investor judges saying that we're on the right track.”