It’s an exciting time to be a startup in the agtech industry. In the last few years especially, these companies have caught the attention of venture capital (VC) investors, bringing new money to a sector where the technology tends to lag behind the times.
According to an article on CropLife.com, Crunchbase data shows that a total of 797 agtech startups around the globe raised $10.66 billion in funding in 2022. This represents a 26 percent increase in funding deals for agtech startups last year. While this represents a 13 percent decrease in capital from 2021, agtech startups faired far better than the industry average, where funding was down 35 percent year over year.
But for the startups that are already embedded in the agtech world, the money is only part of the equation. The real goal is to develop viable products and solutions that solve real-world problems and successfully bring them to market. This is the work that can make or break a startup in its first few years.
At World FIRA 2023, a panel of four judges from VCs in different regions around the globe had an opportunity to highlight two startups that have excelled in this arena. The judges were Juliette Raoul-Fortésa, a financial analyst with Capagro (France), Trevor Sieck, a startup relationship manager with FoodBytes! by Rabobank (USA), Matias Peire, the founder of Grid Exponential (Argentina), and Anton Wibowo, CEO of Trendlines Agrifood Innovation Centre (Singapore).
From more than 40 applications, 12 startups were selected to pitch their solutions to the panel at the World FIRA event. In the end, Raoul-Fortésa, Sieck, Peire and Wibowo named Bluewhite the FIRA Startup Award winner, with Small Robot Company earning a special mention. Keep reading to learn more about Bluewhite, Small Robot Company and the unique agricultural solutions that helped these two startups stand out from the competition.
Bluewhite Gives Farmers Greater Agency Over the Things They Can Control
It’s hardly a secret that the agricultural industry is facing a number of increasingly difficult challenges. Everything from labor shortages and supply chain delays to rising input costs and shrinking profits have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the conflict in Ukraine, continually changing weather and many other unexpected issues. A lot of factors are outside a farmer’s control. Bluewhite set out to help its ag clients manage everything else.
The agtech company first got its start in 2017, founded by Israeli Air Force veterans and autonomous vehicle experts. Initially, the goal was simply to find the best way to leverage Bluewhite’s technology in different markets, including mining, homeland security, urban mobility and, of course, agriculture. The startup’s once broad focus soon narrowed. For the last four years, Bluewhite has worked exclusively within the farming industry, specifically on high-value permanent crops in California.
“In 2019, we started to focus heavily on agriculture because of the maturity of the technology, customer acceptance and the big pain points of labor and operational and production costs that have become so significant,” says Alon Ascher, Chief Business Officer for Bluewhite. “We decided to focus on orchards and vineyards because they are the most labor-intensive operations and require a lot of repetitive tasks, all year round, using multiple vehicles.”
While Bluewhite experimented with both aerial and ground equipment to determine which machines worked best, the startup ultimately decided to put its efforts on the ground by focusing on tractor autonomy. Today, Bluewhite’s end-to-end platform combines hardware and software to tackle fleet and data management simultaneously. By offering robot-as-a-service to its customers, Bluewhite is able to introduce farmers to the technology in a simple, three-phase process:
- Bluewhite equip the farmers existing assets – tractors and implements with the ‘Pathfinder’ and ‘Compass’. ‘Pathfinder’ is the startup’s autonomous solution , which transforms an ordinary tractor into an autonomous machine that is compatible with a wide range of implements that can spray, disc, mow and more. Pathfinder uses LIDAR, cameras, sensors and AI to drive safely in any condition. If farmers ever need to drive the tractor manually, they can do that without issue. Combined with ‘Compass’ – its fleet and data management software, the farmer can control all his equipment remotely and mange his operation efficiently and safely.
- Bluewhite works with the growers to create a plan for fully integrating the technology into the operation and develop safety and operational protocols to ensure the technology will improve efficiency and boost output on the customer’s unique farming operation. Bluewhite Compass is the software platform that tracks data, manages the fleet, collects operational insights and otherwise helps farmers optimize their results.
- Then, Bluewhite puts farmers back in control. After training, growers take over the autonomous operations, while Bluewhite continues to support the farm from afar or onsite as needed. Bluewhite is also making hardware and software updates that give its customers access to the latest technologies. Farmers never have to worry about investing in a system that will soon be obsolete or unable to keep up with the industry’s growing demands.
Ascher believes that this attention to its customers’ needs was one reason Bluewhite was selected for the FIRA Startup Award. Not only is the company tackling real problems in a meaningful way, it’s also providing solutions with ROI and grower impact in mind.
“Growers are facing more and more challenges,” Ascher says. “We like to say that there's so many aspects in ag that growers can't control. They can’t control the market price, they can’t control the weather, they can’t control diseases. But how they run their business, how they run their equipment, how they run the operation? Those things are totally in their hands. Our technology gives them the ability to take control.”
In Bluewhite’s FIRA pitch, which was delivered remotely, the startup highlighted these benefits by including a 40-second testimonial from one of its clients using the technology and showcasing the value. The company also spent time highlighting what made its technology was unique, compelling and relevant. This was more than enough to convince the judges that Bluewhite should win the top honor.
Ascher says the win was exciting, especially at a time when investors continue to set their sights on agtech companies. It also motivates Bluewhite to keep going. In the next few years, the startup will not only expand its geographical reach along the west coast, but it will also work to improve the company’s current solutions and develop partnerships that bring this same commitment of excellence to the next generation of autonomous vehicles. Ascher says this will all be accomplished by continuing to focus on growers and their growing needs.
“On the social side of things, we really see the benefit and the potential of leveraging this technology to create new farming jobs and bring diverse, trained and qualified people back to agriculture,” he says. “This is important to us because a lot of second and third generation farmers are now moving to the cities, and there’s no one left to provide food for us. Integrating technology and robotics into agriculture is a huge opportunity.”
“On the environmental side, there is this great ability for technology to reduce chemical usage and the carbon footprint and to promote more organic and regenerative farming practices,” Ascher continues. “So, yes, technology can save growers money and is beneficial for the bottom line of the farm. It is starting to become essential for those who want to have a sustainable and resilient business . But immediately after the financial aspect of what technology can do, we realize that the social and environmental benefits and impacts are enormous. We are really proud that we are focused on all of these things, and that we’re working to respectfully care for the environment in an innovative and future-looking way.”
Small Robot Company Helps Farmers Adopt the Precision Technologies that Work for Them
In an industry where big tractors are often the norm, Small Robot Company was founded on the simple premise that smaller specialized machines might actually be better. Ben Scott-Robinson, co-founder and CEO of Small Robot Company, first came to this idea while working for Ordinance Survey, Britain’s national mapping agency, in 2015.
His work with the agency left Scott-Robinson wondering if the solution to the farming industry’s need for better technologies was less about developing autonomous versions of existing machinery and more about getting increasingly granular and detailed about what was happening in the field. This curiosity led Scott-Robinson to Harper Adams University in northwest England where he connected with Professor Simon Blackmore.
“Professor Blackmore was talking about the potential power of using robotics and AI to be able to make farming very precise and very targeted and move away from the sort of industrial processes that farming tends to be caught up around,” Scott-Robinson says. “After about sort of six months of talking to him about various bits and pieces, he then introduced me to Sam Watson Jones, a fourth-generation arable farmer, who was thinking about things the same way as I was, and we ended up founding Small Robot Company. But it was really the six months of speaking to farmers about potential reporting, robotics, AI and those sorts of things that allowed us to come up with this concept of using robots to deliver a Per Plant Farming model.”
Today, Per Plant Farming is at the core of what Small Robot Company offers. The idea is relatively simple. Per Plant Farming works to achieve an entirely new model for “ecologically harmonious, efficient and profitable farming” through the use of robotics and AI.
In this model—which the company sees as being part of the fourth agricultural revolution—sustainability, profitability and optimal yield are top priorities. Because traditional agriculture practices are no longer working, Small Robot Company set out to develop a better one with the people best equipped to speak to the challenges: the farmers themselves.
“I think one of the fears farmers have has to do with the fact that they ultimately have to buy certain chemicals, inputs and seeds, and there are only a few massive companies they can buy these things from,” Scott-Robinson says. “So, the farmers are always sort of stuck in the middle. They’re always subject to global prices, and they don’t have control over what’s happening there. Additionally, they're always pushed to edge of their profit margins and what they can achieve on their farms. This makes them feel like they’re always in a commercially dubious position.”
Another problem that Small Robot Company hears about from its Farmer Advisory Group has to do with longevity. Farmers aren’t just interested in surviving the next five years—they want to feel confident that their operation will still be viable when they’re ready to pass the business to the next generation several decades down the line. In the meantime, farmers want to put themselves in a position to thrive. They need to be able to make a living, which can exacerbate fears around implementing technologies or practices that require a leap of faith.
“When it comes to new technologies, they're incredibly nervous about spending money on machinery that might not work or the company might not be around in a few years,” Scott-Robinson says. “They really want to be able to adopt new technologies in a more gradual way. And this sort of sort of tied together both how we understood what the farmers needed to achieve—which is great precision, greater accuracy, greater sustainability both from an environmental and from a financial perspective—and how we can create a service model that allows them to be able to adopt and understand how the technologies work.”
“Farmers like to own and have agency of what they're doing,” he continues. “They want to have a say over what happens. Their confidence needs to be built over time, so you really have to get them to believe in you before you can do something.”
This understanding prompted Small Robot Company to develop its mapping robot, Tom. Now available for service on farms in the United Kingdom, Tom locates and counts every plant on the field. The lightweight robot also detects weeds and pests, collects emergence data and takes herbicide efficacy measurements to create a digital map.
From there, Small Robot Company’s AI and data analytics system, Wilma, examines the information, helping farmers understand what decisions need to be made and what actions need to be taken. This Per Plant Intelligence is then used to make improvements across the operation.
To assist with the actions that need to be taken, Small Robot Company has developed two additional prototypes. Dick is a precision weeding robot that uses non-chemical treatments. It is designed to be effective on herbicide-resistant weeds and help farmers achieve Net Zero targets. Dick is currently being used in field trials to see how it works with the Per Plant Intelligence gathered by Tom.
The company’s third robot is Harry, a precision planting machine that has achieved Technology Readiness Level 4. This means that Harry’s capabilities have been validated in the lab. The next step will be to test the robot in a relevant environment. At this stage, Harry has a drill that punch-plants seeds at a uniform depth. The design minimizes soil disturbance while also recording where the seeds have been planting. This data is reported to Wilma where farmers can use the information to optimize their yield and maximize profitability.
Even as Small Robot Company works to validate and test its current technologies, the startup hasn’t slowed its pace. Scott-Robinson says the company will continue to explore and experiment with the best ways to serve its customers effectively. Small Robot Company also has an ambitious scaling plan it is working to implement during the 2023/2024 season.
There are many exciting opportunities in the pipeline, but it’s important to note that it was Small Robot Company’s current solutions impressed the judges and warranted a special mention for the FIRA Startup Award. Scott-Robinson and his team were delighted by the outcome. They only have one tiny regret.
“It was amazing to be rewarded for our work,” he says. “Since Bluewhite is not strictly a robotics company, from my team’s perspective, we were the leading robotics company. So, yay! This is fantastic. Ray, James and Allie were there with me, and we were all very excited about it.”
“Next year, we want to be able to have a robot in France,” Scott-Robinson continues. “Going to the event is kind of like seeing everyone else’s kids and not being able to show off our own, which was a bit unfortunate. In 2024, we will have a robot in France anyway, and that will make it easier for us to be able to get it to the event.”