To be able to increase the presence of autonomous helpers on these operations, however, startups and manufacturers need to scale up. During the “Autonomous Robots, how to scale up for the farmers' benefits?” roundtable at World FIRA 2021, four industry experts met to talk about the best approach.
Pierre Compere, Agri Sud-Ouest Innovation (France), moderated the discussion between Trevor Sieck, Foodbytes by Rabobank (USA), Fabien Arignon, SITIA (France), Daria Batukhtina, Kubota (Netherlands), and John Carrigan, The Yield Lab (Ireland). The group shared their insights about funding and deployment strategies, how to get robots to the market faster and ways to accelerate change for the customer’s benefit. This hour-long discussion is summarized in the following abstract.
The Current State of the Ag Robotics Market
From investors and market experts to startups and established manufacturers, the roundtable panelists brought their unique perspectives to a discussion about where the market for ag robotics is right now and how best to go about scaling within it.
Trevor Sieck of Foodbytes by Rabobank kicked things off by explaining the need for collaboration and openness between startups and their corporate partners. With viable outcomes for the grower in mind, the partners can work together to create synergies throughout the development, deployment and scaling-up processes. Sieck says that corporate partners understand the startups are bringing valuable solutions to the table. Combining this with the strategies that the corporate side brings, the two partners can work to scale together.
Fabien Arignon of SITIA added that when working to scale, he prepared for the long-haul. “We knew it was not a race,” he says. “We had to take time to develop things for the long run.” Daria Batukhtina of Kubota agrees with this approach, especially as it relates to keeping the farmer top of mind throughout the process. She encourages industry players to focus on metrics that matter most to the end user, such as labor reduction, increasing yield in the same area and mitigating risk. While each startup will have their own key metrics, Batukhtina believes this is a good way to go about collaborating.
She also mentions that it’s important to get a firm commitment from the end user and the solutions provider about what needs to be done. When things go well, the provider side can build trust by sharing the wealth in terms of revenue or profit sharing.
John Carrigan of TheYieldLab, who represented the investor perspective, reiterated the need for commitment, especially between the startup and the customer. In Carrigan’s experience, investors feel more comfortable working with companies that have already done the work of seeking out potential customers. It’s even better if those potential customers are willing to work with the startup company on testing and improving the machine. This partnership, Carrigan says, is a great way to ensure companies are developing solutions that their customers actually want and can use. It also means that the startup has some customers who are willing to invest time and energy into ensuring the technology delivers on its promises. These same customers are also more likely to forgive the startup if mistakes happen along the way.
The Pros and Cons of Versatility
Diving deeper into the current state of the ag robotics market, the panelists discussed the intricacies of which autonomous solutions succeed. Arignon expressed the need for versatility. When SITIA first came onto the scene in 2014, the market for ag robots didn’t exist. There were maximum opportunities for the startup’s machine to succeed by helping farmers do more with less.
Sieck sees the need for versatility in terms of creating a broad appeal for autonomous machines, but in his view, the agtech startups that tend to succeed, are the ones that have very specific value propositions. The companies that can clearly articulate what they do are more likely to make it in a crowded marketplace. Sieck says that this clarity is often a result of sculpting and molding that happens during the research and development process.
Carrigan agrees. From a historical perspective, many robots haven’t quite delivered on all of their promises. These autonomous solutions have gotten close without getting the technology all the way there. The most important thing, Carrigan adds, is to have a specific end user and a product that fits what they’re doing. For example, carrot-picking robots need to be able to pick carrots. Carrigan admitted to being wary of companies that try to do too much. From the capital perspective, versatility is less appealing. He encourages startups to think simple.
Arignon clarified his comments about versatility by adding that although he believes in thinking simple, agriculture is naturally versatile. There is diversity in crops, demands, implements and more. While the best robot is specific, it can often be challenging to know those specificities until the solution is on the market. Most importantly, Arignon says, the robot needs to be able to do agricultural tasks. It also needs to be ready for what those who are first to the market are ready for on their operations.
Arignon says it’s essential not to lose the customer or to expect them to transform everything at once. The autonomous machines need to be prepared to work with other types of farm equipment. “We are in a transition world,” he says. “When you think about the long-term, you make good decisions.”
Batukhtina expanded on Arignon’s thoughts by explaining that new autonomous machines are the gateway to full autonomy down the line. The machines that are available today ensure that farmers aren’t being asked to change everything right away. She brings the focus back to problem solving by integrating the robot into the system farmers already have. Companies need to think about how to get the robot out of the box and onto the operation, she says.
The Benefits and Challenges of Robot as a Service Models
When it came time to chat about robots as a service, the panelists seemed to agree that there was a time and place for this model to succeed. Sieck admitted that he was less excited about this service model because it provided challenges to scaling up. He says the model may also create a marketing challenge where potential customers believe the technology is too complex to bring onto the farm. Sieck says there may even be some truth to this fear. While he has seen some companies successfully use swarm technologies or robot as a service, Sieck also contends that if you look under the hood of these models, many of those companies are trying to move beyond that approach as a go-to-market strategy.
Carrigan added that there is a belief within the industry that if companies have a mature technology, then they can sell the units without needing to offer robot as a service. This model is primarily for companies that need more control over the technology and how it is used. It is better to be able to offer the technology to farmers in a way they understand. Geographic constraints also limit how robot as a service can be used effectively.
Alternatively, however, Carrigan says that robot as a service models have some advantages, such as taking care of issues as they arise. He recommends that companies interested in this model pay attention to how they market their services. For example, if a startup with an autonomous weeding robot were to offer weeding as a service (instead of robot as a service), farmers are less likely to care how the weeding is being done.
On the other hand, if companies are transitioning away from robot as a service, Carrigan recommends that the company think about how to sell the product in a way that gives the company access to important data. The relationship with the customer must change in these circumstances.
Batukhtina also has some concerns about the service model, but she believes it can be beneficial to startups that are still developing their technologies. During this phase, it makes sense to stay closer to the customer and monitor the technology more carefully. Batukhtina believes this service model also makes sense for companies working with farmers who don’t have the capital to buy a machine on their own.
When it comes time to scale, however, the service model requires more thought than the traditional sales model. Companies should test various pricing options and consider how their machine is perceived. The type of technology being developed matters, too. Batukhtina believes companies will be better off if they can provide a better solution that meets the needs and expectations of the customer. “Scaling strategy is all about how to approach the customer,” she says.
Arignon likes robot as a service as an economical option for farmers—one that is less pushy than the traditional sales approach. He believes agtech companies should put everything on the table. “We need to follow the market and the farmers’ needs,” he says. “You have to make things easy for the customer, and the service model does this. To know if a market is ready, you have to test it. How the market reacts will tell you a lot. In the beginning, especially, it is good to think, ‘I might be wrong’ and be open to things.”
Batukhtina adds that openness can be achieved easily when companies start from the customer point of view. This enables the startup to explore many scenarios and types of development. Companies need to find the solutions that farmers need based on the problems they are having. Right now, she says, “People have tractors but no one to put in them.” With this in mind, agtech companies can create autonomous robots that those same farmers are willing to work with and deploy on their operations.
Finding the Money to Scale Up
Carrigan kicked off this part of the discussion by saying that venture capital firms are starting to come around to the idea of ag robotics. Traditionally, these firms avoid putting their money into hardware, but Carrigan believes that they are starting to see the value. He speculates that these companies not only believe that ag robotics will deliver a return on their investments, but also that this is the right time to begin introducing robots to the market. “There is this whole feeling that a very traditional industry is about to be turned on its head and really needs to move with the times,” he says.
From the perspective of startups and ag tech companies, Carrigan warns against diving head first into an agreement with VC investors. While VCs love to have corporate partners, companies need to pay attention to timing. Carrigan believes there is a specific point in a company’s lifecycle when these investments make sense. “Companies want to be able to negotiate from a place of strength,” he says.
Arignon gave his perspective from the other side of the equation. SITIA had the ability to create using its own money, which enabled the startup to have total freedom over what it developed. Arignon acknowledges that this is not always feasible, but he does believe that freedom is better. When it comes to scaling, however, he says that there is a time when it makes sense to use investments to move forward quicker. He says that SITIA is considering this now. His goal is to go for mass production in three years.
When asked whether startups might be afraid to lose their freedom when agreeing to work with Kubota, Batukhtina replied that she didn’t think the startups would agree to collaborate if they felt that way. She echoed Carrigan’s sentiments about coming to corporate investors at the right time. Investors help speed up scaling. Startups might not always be ready for this speed in the beginning of their journey to market. Collaborating with a corporate investor can also be a means of showing customers that you have a successful product, Batukhtina says. Startups, however, should have their intellectual property set ahead of any discussions with investors.
With respect to finding partners to help with scale, the panelists agree that it is in a company’s best interest to seek out the right collaborators. Regional partners can work to get the autonomous robot into places where they already have a network of potential customers. Likewise, partners in different parts of the world can explain the market nuances that companies might not understand. These partners may even be able to find new ways for your existing machine to work in regions where the agricultural practices or farm environments are different.
Experts Agree the Industry is Ready for Autonomous Solutions
Another point on which the panelists agreed was that the farming industry is ready for robots. All four experts surprised moderator Pierre Compere by saying that the sector has everything it needs for autonomous technologies to take off and thrive. Arignon set the tone for this discussion.
“Nothing missing for the industry to bloom,” he says. “Everything is there. Change is inevitable and needs to happen, and there will be positive outcomes from these changes. It’s time to structure everything. All the pieces are in place, we just need them to come together.”
Carrigan added that the industry has reached an inflection point where farmers see the need for new and better machines. Not only is the tech accelerating, he says, but the robots’ capabilities are improving, too. The most efficient machines with the best outcomes will continue to drive the industry forward.
According to Batukhtina, farmers are also becoming increasingly comfortable asking for these technologies. Partners are already collaborating on joint developments. “Everything is in place,” she says. “It is just a matter of time before it all comes together.”