“Software is Feeding the World” is a weekly newsletter for Food/AgTech leaders about technology trends.
Greetings from the San Francisco Bay Area.
I am a techno-optimist and believe technology will play a crucial role in solving some of the most pressing problems facing food and agriculture systems, including climate change.
Policy is plagued with politics, and often too slow to address what is needed. This is an interesting visualization about the trend in atmospheric CO2, global temperature change, and different global policy proposals overlayed on it.
Sometimes policy makers surprise you.
Last week the United States Senate announced a compromise deal and a path forward with a package which includes “a suite of clean energy tax credits for commercial and emerging clean technologies as well as other key emissions reduction investments.” The package is smartly named the inflation reduction act (IRA), and is about economic growth (or is it?).
A preliminary study estimates,
Technology and innovation will play a key part. It is important to understand some of the challenges to innovation and adoption.
Today’s edition will look at agriculture robotics, and how innovation can accelerate.
Analysis: Ag Robotics is difficult af
One of my favorite fictional robots is Marvin, the paranoid android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
Marvin is incredibly smart, has a "brain the size of a planet" capable of extremely complex mathematics, can solve difficult problems and operate high-tech devices.
Despite being so smart, Marvin is typically made to perform menial tasks and labor such as escorting people, opening doors, picking up pieces of paper, and other tasks well beneath his skills. Due to this, Marvin is extremely frustrated and depressed.
If we compare the current state of robotics to Marvin (albeit a fictional robot), it reminds one of the 2013 lament by Peter Theil
Strawberry picking (if you are going to pick a basket or two) can be a fun activity. The process of picking strawberries by hand, with your kids, can be a fun activity. The weather is great, you are out with your family, and you get to eat fresh strawberries, which you picked moments ago.
But picking strawberries at scale, and picking them consistently requires practice and skill. You have to judge if the strawberry is at the right ripeness for picking, grab the stem, twist it, and put the strawberry in your basket, without bruising or damaging the strawberry. Human beings are good at following the process to find strawberries with the right ripeness, grab the stem, twist it, and put it in a container.
Try to build a robot which can do the same job with human or better efficiency, and it is difficult af.
We desire Marvin, and we get a slow version, compared to Marvin or a human strawberry picker.
Picking strawberries using a robot is a very specific application. It requires hardware to “see” strawberries, software logic to decide which strawberry to pick, to move an arm to the right spot in 3D space to cut the stem of the strawberry, to position the basket correctly, and to cut the stem. The robot has to do it fast enough to make economic sense.
It is expensive and difficult to build a hardware and software system which can meet strawberry picking requirements.
Tortuga has developed a bot to save on labor for picking hydroponic strawberries. Picking strawberries using humans is an expensive activity, as growers have to pay up to $ 35,000 per year in California (UC Davis study), which amounts to 40% of the total cost per acre for a strawberry operation.
Now take the same agriculture robot to pick apples, and it will be more depressed and frustrated than Marvin from Hitchhikers. The strawberry robot has no chance to pick an apple as apples grow on trees.
The example above highlights some of the challenges with the development and adoption of agriculture robotics technology.
Building an application specific robot is expensive and hard, but the application of the robot can be limited due to the diversity of applications needed in agriculture. This limits the size of the business of application specific robots. Due to this, it is difficult to raise VC funding as the total addressable market of the application is limited.
In a recent Agtech So What? Podcast by Sarah Nolet covered the three categories of agriculture robotics autonomy. The three categories mentioned were:
Brand new equipment or after-market attachments
Brand new equipment for row crop or aftermarket attachments for existing equipment to satisfy certain use cases like see & spray etc. This space is currently dominated with investments from incumbent OEMs. For example, investments made by Deere in See & Spray, acquisition of Raven, and Blue River.
Application specific agriculture robots built by startups
Startups building application specific agriculture robots have struggled.
For example, Abundant Robotics (mentioned in the podcast), a Hayward, California based agriculture robotics company was founded in 2016. It focused on robots picking apples. The company was shut down in 2021, as it was unable to develop the market traction necessary to support its business during the pandemic. The company raised a total of $ 12 million over 5 years.
Abundant said it has a,
The company planned to broaden the type of fruit it picked in the future.
The company’s product expansion strategy (from their liquidation memo) is highlighted below. The strategy called for solving the apple harvesting problem to a certain degree, and then move on to other tree fruits (for harvesting) and then other operations like thinning, pruning, and spraying.
Robot platforms provide generic robotic capabilities for hardware and software, without building application specific capabilities. Building robot platforms is equally hard, as your customer is not the end user of a particular application but the application developer for that application.
Platforms are incredibly powerful as they provide the tools to rapidly build other applications. Imagine how difficult (and inefficient) it would be, if to make accounting software, you had to design and build computer hardware, and an operating system to run on the hardware, before you got to building your accounting software.
There is not a plethora of sophisticated platforms and tools to choose from, especially in agriculture. According to the podcast guest, Andrew Bates (CEO),SwarmFarm Robotics is building a platform (a set of tools and capabilities) to help application developers focus on building their application.
So what does a robot technology stack and operating environment look like?
Robot operating environment
Let us begin with a simple schematic diagram of the hardware and software for a robot, and how it interacts with the environment.
Schematic by Rhishi Pethe
The sensor and the actuator are the hardware components of the robot, For reference, a sensor could be a camera or a vision system (in the strawberry and apple examples above). The actuator is the hardware component performing an action (in the strawberry example, it is the robotic arm with scissors to cut the stem of the strawberry).
The Sense, Plan, and Act are software components of the robotic system. The Sense component in our apple and strawberry example determines the ripeness of the apple or berry, and other attributes like distance, angle, obstructions etc. The Plan component creates a plan based on Sense whether to pick the apple or berry or not. The Act component acts on the plan (pick the apple or berry, and move on to the next fruit or move on to the next fruit).
Robot technology stack
There is another way to look at the technology stack for a robot. This is an overly simplified version, but the schematic will be helpful to understand how to think about robot platforms from a technology standpoint.
The schematic shows hardware at the bottom of the stack, with software layered on top of it. For the software component, as you go from the robot operating system up to robot applications, the capabilities become more specific to the application at hand (for example, picking fruits).
Schematic by Rhishi Pethe
The first robot specific layer is the robot base libraries & services layer, as it contains functionality independent from concrete robot applications. It provides generic capabilities like path planning, navigation, and localization.
The top most layer is the most application specific. This is the layer that defines what the robot is actually doing, i.e. picking a strawberry or an apple.
Building a set of generic tools and generic hardware like robot arms, cameras, etc. and having them work together for a set of basic capabilities is not trivial. It is harder to build a business to begin with, as you need a longer cycle of investment, to build the generic tools. Adoption can be harder as you are not solving an end application problem (for example, picking apples), but have to find application developers and help them accelerate their technology and innovation process.
I had illustrated a similar point last year in edition 83 (picks and shovels), between application and tools, and how they create value in the longer term.
We see similar development in the field of robotics, especially agriculture robotics.
A more recent example on the software side is a Y-combinator startup which came out stealth mode just a few days back. Polymath Robotics has launched plug-and-play autonomous software for any industrial vehicle.
Polymath Robotics have developed, (emphasis is from me)
(An SDK is a software development kit, and it makes it easier to build software.)
(Note: The article mentions a farmer, but it will be another technology company who will use the software platform to build tools for farmers)
The video below shows how you can use the Polymath Robotics platform, create simulations, and then push the code to work in actual physical environments. (I am oversimplifying this, but the concept is still true)
One of the investors in Polymath Robotics said,
(Oracle was an early pioneer in relational database technologies, and continues to be an important player in the technology industry.)
Will companies like SwarmFarm Robotics, Polymath Robotics, Sabanto, and others move a lot of the smarts in smart machines to software? Would it be possible to build cheaper and smaller hardware, powered by really smart software? I had explored this question in edition 89. (Android of agriculture),
I am personally excited about the development of software and hardware tools, which can potentially accelerate innovation in agriculture applications of robotics, and create value.
Break down the silos
“Silo” is an interesting word in agriculture. In farming, a silo is used to store grain or feed. It is the outcome of significant sweat and hard work on part of the farming team.
In the context of organizations or technology, “silo” is not a good word. It indicates teams not collaborating with each other, or information trapped in different places, and not flowing freely. “Break down the silos” is a common refrain heard in the corporate and technology world.
The talk of silos is common in the context of the food and agriculture value chain. For example, traceability or COOL (Country of Origin Labeling) are examples to break down the information silos between different food and agriculture value chain participants.
Telus believes there is value to be unlocked by breaking down the silos between different value chain participants. Telus has gone on a technology acquisition spree over the last few years, to address different parts of the value chain. (The inimitable Shane Thomas of Upstream Ag Insights did a great write up on the Telus stack in December 2021)
Telus has now rebranded its agriculture division to Telus Agriculture and Consumer Goods to,
Currently, more than one in five Telus Agriculture & Consumer Goods customers are manufacturers of packaged foods, beverages and products. The news release talks about reducing food waste, but there are a variety of other possibilities by breaking down the silos. The three below are a small subset of a significant number of examples.
1. Connecting a food CPG company with a seed input company to breed seeds with a specific set of characteristics for the end food product.
2. Supply chain risk management for grocery retail or CPG companies by understanding what’s happening at the first mile on farms.
3. Product differentiation for CPG companies based on sourcing decisions or management practices. Fair trade chocolate or coffee, organic cereal, or regenerative organic certified wine are some examples.
Telus is following a horizontal integration strategy across the value chain, whereas Nutrien is following a vertical integration strategy for input products.
Biological & biotech investments - Gingko, Bayer, and Enko
With increasing challenges of herbicide resistance, nutrient runoff from chemical fertilizers, biological products have been a ray of hope. Unfortunately for biological products in agriculture, the bark has been bigger than its bite. (If you want a deeper dive on biological products, you should read the article published by AgThentic in 2021.)
From a business model standpoint, my conjecture is that Bayer will fund some percentage of the product development costs, and Gingko will do a revenue share with Bayer down the line on the commercialization of products. This is a standard arrangement, when new products are being developed jointly with a potential go-to-market partner in the future.
Enko, which uses machine learning based discovery technology and predictive analytics to find new modes of action for crop protection, raised $ 70 million in funding from investors like NuFarm.
Similar to the agriculture robotics platforms, I am excited and optimistic about these biological platforms.
In the News
No one-size-fits-all in farming operations “Ease of use and quality of life may be even more important to a farmer than an economic ROI” !!!
Five main paths to autonomy in agriculture - report from Tech Hub live - Auto steer, connectivity, cab automation, supervised autonomy, full autonomy.
Gingko acquired Zymergen for $ 300 million, a company once valued at $ 3 billion around its IPO a few years back. This is the largest acquisition by Gingko so far.
Fun fact: Arable CEO Jim Ethington and Arable CRO Vilas Rao are my ex-colleagues. Best of luck!
Syngenta’s partnership to provide advanced high resolution mapping to farmers in Eastern Europe.
Crop2cash offers Nigerian farmers a pathway to inclusion and no smartphone needed!b78% of Nigeria’s farmers are not registered with formal financial services. Crop2Cash offers simple financial accounts linked to an e-wallet where farmers can receive payments, make purchases and track their financial transactions. The system runs on USSD, making it accessible to farmers who don’t have a smartphone.
Tanzania increases rice export exports with improved seed, better irrigation and processing infrastructure.
Adopt more orphan crops - The global food system stands on the pillars of three crops: rice, wheat and maize, which together account for 50% of the world’s consumer calories. Orphan crops may be breeders’ best option in producing climate-hardy crops. Instead of starting with more “elite” crop species and breeding them to create a hardier crop, scientists could start with an orphan crop, already more tolerant to inclement conditions, and create a crop with good potential for “large-scale growth.”
What do you think?
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My name is Rhishi Pethe. I lead the product management team at Project Mineral (focused on sustainable agriculture). The views expressed in this newsletter are my personal opinions.