By Eric Peterson | Aug 08, 2021
Robotic mowing technology
When Scythe Robotics co-founder and CEO Jack Morrison bought a 1.5-acre property outside Boulder, he got a riding mower and found himself mowing -- a lot.
"This was a problem," says Foster. "It was much bigger than his yard, and it was also something that could be attractively solved by cutting-edge computer vision."
The duo soon partnered with Isaac Roberts to start Scythe Robotics. All three co-founders previously worked together at Occipital, a Boulder-based sensor manufacturer.
First envisioning golf courses as the primary market, the founding trio shifted to commercial landscaping, because labor has been near-impossible to find. Even at $17 an hour or more, many landscapers can't fill positions needed to grow.
"Golf courses have a fixed area of grass that needs to be mowed, and they don't grow, whereas commercial landscapers want to continuously take on new contracts and become a bigger business," says Foster. "All of them are turning down new contract opportunities because they don't have the labor to actually do the work. It's pretty much universal, and they're all paying substantially above minimum wage."
And mowing represents about half of the labor involved with commercial landscaping. The company's autonomous electric mower eases the associated labor crunch with batteries that last a full day, and it is also considerably quieter, cleaner, and more reliable than its manual, gas-powered counterparts
Scythe is rolling out a robots-as-a-service (RaaS) model, where customers pay by the acre and do not buy the machines, meaning there's no maintenance headache for the landscaper. "We are incentivized to make machines that are reliable," says Foster. "It's a totally new paradigm in that regard."
The company's first prototype robot was up and running before the end of 2018, and they've since developed three more iterations. The fifth will be the "production-ready" autonomous mower that will go to market by the end of 2021, says Foster, with production ramping up to a "non-trivial scale" in 2022. "We've currently got a lot more customers lined up for robots than we have robots," he adds.
Partners are now testing the company's fourth iteration on grass in Texas and Florida. "Grass grows more or less year-round in those two places, but not so much in Colorado," says Foster.
Initial production will take place at Scythe Robotics' 11,000-square-foot facility in Longmont, but Foster says the company is actively exploring contract manufacturing as a long-term strategy.
"Right now, we've got a sort of split model where we're getting all of our metalwork and most of our metal parts from local Colorado vendors," says Foster. "We're doing our final assembly and tests at our own office in Longmont. As we ramp up, we're looking for more suppliers on the metalworking side -- especially suppliers who can grow with us -- and we're also evaluating CMs [contract manufacturers], both local to Colorado and in the Rockies and the West. That's an active area of exploration for us: exactly who we're going to partner with to go to scale."
The perfect partner needs to have a diverse set of capabilities, he adds. "It looks a lot like automotive in some of its assembly facets," says Foster. "On the input side, it's a lot of sheet metal and tube steel."
The company, which emerged from stealth mode in June 2021 when it announced a $13.8 million Series A raise, has about 20 employees in Colorado, and the remainder work at satellite offices in Texas and Florida.
Foster says Scythe's droids can now mow Morrison's property near Boulder in an hour, about twice as fast as his riding mower. "His property was one of the big [testing grounds]," says Foster.
Challenges: "The biggest challenge of all right now is figuring out the exact right product to go to market with and creating the proper supply chain and manufacturing strategy to get it built," says Foster. "The next stage is figuring out how much we internalize and how much of a proper manufacturing space we build out and how much of that we push to CMs."
He adds, "Ideally, we can keep it in Colorado, but we're still very much exploring what that looks like."
Opportunities: The commercial landscaping industry in the U.S. generates more than $100 billion in revenue annually, and commercial mowing operations represents about $15 billion of that. "It's a lot of room for us to grow into, that's for sure," says Foster.
He highlights the southern half of the U.S. as the most fertile market -- literally and figuratively -- and notes that Scythe's model allows the company to rotate robots from region to region on a seasonal basis, and site to site within those regions in order to maximize mowing capacity. Exports are part of the long-term strategy, but the company is currently "laser-focused" on the U.S. market.
Needs: "We're very much in hiring mode right now," says Foster, anticipating about 10 new employees by the end of 2021. Scythe is actively recruiting software and hardware engineers and will also soon bring on manufacturing and supply-chain leads.