$100 million for mealworms

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numberhttps://twitter.com/cgates123s behind the headlines.

This is our Wednesday show, where we niche down and focus on a single topic, or theme. This week we’re talking agtech, a surprisingly cool bit of the technology startup world. But Chris and Danny and Natasha and Alex were not alone in their quest to take a look into agtech, we brought alone TechCrunch climate editor Jon Shieber for the ride.

With his help we got through a number of pretty damn interesting things, including:

And that’s that! We’re back on Friday with our long-form, newsy episode. Thanks to everyone checking out our newest show. Oh, and don’t forget about TechCrunch Early Stage and TechCrunch Justice. They are going to rock.

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PST, Wednesday, and Friday morning at 7:00 a.m. PST, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

#agtech, #equity, #equity-podcast, #fundings-exits, #future-acres, #jon-shieber, #seso-labor, #startups

0

Robotics roundup

Robotics took a small step into the wild world of SPACs this week, as Berkshire Grey announced its plan to go public by Q2. Setting aside some of the bigger issues with using the reverse merger route we’ve discussed plenty, BG is an ideal candidate for this next major step for a number of reasons.

First, the company’s got a track record and a ton of interest. I visited their HQ early last year, before the country shut down. Their plans were already fairly aggressive, with the wind of a recently raised $263 million Series B at their back. Retailers everywhere are already looking to automation as a way of staying competitive with the ominous monolith that is Amazon.

The mega-retailer has already acquired and deployed a ton of robots in fulfillment centers across the world. The latest number I’ve seen is 200,000. That comes from early 2020, so the number has no doubt increased since then. As Locus Robotics CEO Rick Faulk told me the other week, “There are investors that want to invest in helping everyone that’s not named ‘Amazon’ compete.” As with so many things these days, it’s Amazon versus the world.

Image Credits: Berkshire Grey

Beyond its knack for raising money by the boatload, Berkshire Grey is the company you go to when you’re looking to automate a factory from the ground, up. The company says current warehouse automation is somewhere in the neighborhood of 5%. It’s a figure I’ve seen tossed around before, and certainly points to a ton of opportunity. BG’s offering isn’t lights-out automation, but it’s a pretty full-feature solution.

Locus, which just raised a healthy $150M Series E, represents a different end of the spectrum. Similar to offerings from companies like Fetch, it offers a more plug-and-play approach to automation. The lowered barrier of entry means a far less costly on-ramp. It also means you don’t have to shut down your warehouses for an extended period to implement the tech. It’s a more workable solution for situations with contract-based clients or temporary seasonal needs.

The company uses a RaaS (robot-as-a-service) model to deploy its technology. That’s something you’re going to be hearing more and more of around the industry. Like the HaaS (the “h” being hardware) model, the company essentially rents out these super-pricey machines, rather than selling them outright. It’s another way to lower the barrier of entry, and it gives the robotics companies the opportunity to offer continuous service upgrades.

Image Credits: Future Acres

It’s a model Future Acres, a Southern Californian agtech startup, is exploring as it comes out of stealth. Things are still early days for the company, which spun out of Wavemaker Partners (which also developed food service robotics company Miso). Among other things, the company is looking toward a crowdfunded raise by way of SeedInvest. I’ve not seen a lot of robotics companies take that route, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

Like logistics, agtech is shaping up to be a pretty massive category for robotics investments. FarmWise was ahead of that curve, announcing a $14.5 million round back in 2019 (bringing its total to north of $20 million). This week the Bay Area startup added crop dusting functionality to its weed-pulling robot.

Animated image showing how Perseverance could travel and retravel certain routes to bring items to a central location.

Image Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Perseverance understandably grabbed the biggest robotics headlines of the week. Landing with a parachute sporting the JPL motto, “Dare mighty things,” the rover sent back some of the best and most stunning images of Mars to date.

MSCHF’s livestream, on the other hand, was a bit more spotty. But aside from a fair number of interruptions with the feed, I suspect the company’s 40th drop went about as well as it could have hoped. Prior to announcing that it would mount a remote-control paintball gun to the back of Spot, Boston Dynamics issued a statement condemning the move:

Our mission is to create and deliver surprisingly capable robots that inspire, delight & positively impact society. We take great care to make sure our customers intend to use our robots for legal uses. We cross-check every purchase request against the U.S. Government’s denied persons and entities lists, prior to authorizing a sale.

Image Credits: MSCHF

MSCHF seemed to bask in the attention, even before its name was revealed to the public. At the very least, the stunt was a success from the standpoint of having ignited a conversation about the future of robotics. Boston Dynamics intrinsically understands that its robots sometimes freak people out — it’s a big part of the reason we get viral videos from the company, like the recent one featuring various robots dancing to The Contours.

Among other things, the company is pushing back against the dystopian optics of shows like Black Mirror. Of course, a paintball gun isn’t a weapon, per say. But for the moment, optics are also important. A rep from the company told me, “I turned down a customer that wanted to use Spot for a haunted house. Even putting it in that context of using our technology to scare people was not within our terms of use and not how we imagined the product being beneficial for people, and so we declined that initial sale.”

The ACLU notably raised concern last year after footage from one of our events featuring Spot being used in the field by the Massachusetts police made the rounds. This week, the NYPD deployed a Spot robot yet again — this time at the scene of a home invasion in the Bronx (not to mention a new paint job and the name “Digidog” for some reason). Your own interpretation of those particular optics will likely depend on, among other things, your feelings about cops.

Certainly police departments have utilized robotics for decades for bomb disposal. It’s true that Boston Dynamics (along with much of the robotics industry) got early funding from DARPA. Spot in its current form isn’t much as far as war machines go, but I think these are important conversations to have at this stage in robotic evolution. Certainly there are military drones in the world, and have been for more than a decade.

That’s an important ethical conversation. As is the responsibility of robotics manufacturers once their machines are out in the world. Boston Dynamics does due diligence when selling its robots, but does it continue to be responsible for them once it no longer owns them? That’s certainly not a question we’re going to answer this week.

#amazon, #berkshire-grey, #boston-dynamics, #farmwise, #future-acres, #mschf, #robotics, #robotics-roundup

0

Future Acres launches with the arrival of crop-transporting robot, Carry

When people ask me which robotics categories are poised for the biggest growth, I often point to agriculture. The technology already has a strong foothold in places like warehouse and logistics, but it’s impossible to look at the American – and global – farming community and not see a lot of potential for human-assisted automation.

The category still seems fairly wide open — but not for lack of interest. There are a number of companies both large and small carving out niches in the category. For now, at least, it seems there’s room for a number of different players. After all, needs vary greatly from farm to farm and crop to crop.

Santa Monica-based Future Acres is launching today, with plans to tackle grape picking. An outgrowth of Wavemaker Partners — the same firm that gave the world burger-flipping Miso Robotics — the startup is also announce its first robot, Carry.

Image Credits: Future Acres

“We see Carry as a kind of harvesting sidekick for workers. It’s an autonomous harvesting companion,” CEO Suma Reddy tells TechCrunch. “What it can do in the real world is transport up to 500 lbs. of crops in all terrain and all weather. It can increase production efficiency by up to 80%, which means it pays for itself in only 80 days.”

Carry relies on AI to transport hand-picked crops, working alongside humans rather than attempting to replace the delicate picking process outright. The company is expecting that farms will purchase multiple machines that can work in tandem to speed up their process and help reduce the human strain of moving the crops around manually.

Image Credits: Future Acres

The company is still in early stages, having developed a prototype of Carry. It’s also exploring some partnerships for development. The systems would run $10,000-$15,000 up front, though the company says it’s looking at a RaaS (robotics as a service) model, as a way to defer that cost.

Interest in agricultural robotics has only increased during the pandemic, amid health concerns and labor issues. The company is building on that interest by launching a campaign on SeedInvest, in hopes of raising $3 million, in addition to funding already provided by Wavemaker.

#agriculture, #future-acres, #robotics, #startups

0