By Eric Peterson | Oct 04, 2019
San Francisco, California
Industry: Industrial & Equipment
Products: Agriculture robots
Boyer met FarmWise co-founder Thomas Palomares, whose grandparents were farmers in the French Alps, at École Polytechnique, France's top engineering school. Boyer then completed his undergraduate studies at MIT, and Palomares went to Stanford.
The duo launched FarmWise after interviewing farmers in California. The exercise opened their eyes to the game-changing potential of automating the labor-intensive weeding process.
For most of its existence, the company has been in R&D mode developing robots that can weed a field -- and much more. "We have built technologies that are allowing us to capture information, make decisions, and perform actions at the crop level," explains Boyer. "This changes everything for farmers as they can now optimize their processes based on what every single crop needs. To do this, we have leveraged the team's expertise in state-of-the-art AI and robotics technologies and designed from the ground up a universal farming robot."
"[O]ur robots are drastically increasing efficiency on the field. This results in less costs and fewer chemicals being used," he adds. "For instance, our robots are taking care of weeding for farmers providing them with a chemical-free alternative that they can use today on their field. Robots go through the fields, detect crops, calibrate the mechanical actuators to perform a high-precision weeding service."
FarmWise is scaling up rapidly. "We were 12 in September 2018," notes Boyer. "We're 25 now."
Manufacturing has been outsourced to a specialist. "We're manufacturing our robots in Michigan, in partnership with Roush, a high-end automotive manufacturer, building for Ford, GM, and the military," says Boyer. "We're really proud to build bridges between California and the historical automotive manufacturing epicenter of America, Michigan."
He adds, "We knew -- and now we can speak from experience -- that Michigan had to offer a pool of highly skilled engineers who are not only experts at bringing robust and safe machines to life but are also familiar with advanced technologies such as autonomous navigation systems."
Following a 2017 seed round of $5.7 million, FarmWise closed its Series A of $14.5 million in summer 2019. "Based on the success of our robots in the field this year, we decided to raise more funding to accelerate the deployment of our robots and the service that goes with it," notes Boyer. "We will use this new funding to accelerate our deployments as well as continue to development of more and more capabilities for our robots, which creates increasing value for every one of our customers."
Challenges: "Developing FarmWise’s weeding robots has been an interesting and exciting challenge combining multiple domains of expertise such as machine learning, robotics, and mechanical engineering," says Boyer. "When the robot goes through a field, it’s searching for the center of each crop which is the prerequisite to a high-precision weeding service. This is a tough vision challenge that we solve thanks to unique plant-detection models fed by millions of images."
Opportunities: Explains Boyer: "Farmers globally are in need of efficient processes that address the rising demand for organic produce and increasing regulatory initiatives for more sustainable agriculture."
"In vegetable production, where weeding relies mostly on herbicides and hand labor, growers face two main challenges. On the one hand, there are few herbicides available. As an example, the last significant lettuce herbicide was registered 47 years ago. On the other hand, seasonal field workers hired to perform hand weeding are harder and harder to find. As a result, the process of weeding in vegetable production has to change."
Needs: Talent. "We're looking for amazing talents to join our team and help us grow our business," says Boyer. "We're hiring in all parts of the business: robotics, software engineering, hardware engineering, and field operations."
There's a payoff: "We're leveraging advanced technologies, yet we're working on a very tangible product on which each member of our team has direct impact. We're driven by purpose, we know that every little progress we make can benefit farmers and us all, consumers."