How robotics and AI helped Hippo Harvest land $21M to develop lettuce

When you suppose rising leaves is simple, suppose once more.

Lettuce isn’t the world’s most difficult crop, however as any farmer is aware of, there are many issues that pop up between planting and harvest. The gamut runs from pests to pathogens and rain — each too little and an excessive amount of.

To defend the tender greens from the merciless world, many growers have taken their crops indoors — sprawling greenhouses or buzzing warehouses have change into the brand new properties for all kinds of crops. However demons lurk indoors, too, and not too long ago they’ve been of the profit-and-loss selection. Extra losses than income, truly.

Indoor farming startups have been darlings of the startup world lately, with their tech-forward focus drawing about $3 billion price of funding from 2012–2022, in line with Crunchbase. But, within the final yr or so, funding to the sector has wilted: AppHarvest and Fifth Season have each filed for chapter; Iron Ox laid off almost half its employees; and Bowery Farming went by way of rounds of layoffs and noticed its valuation slashed by Constancy.

With headwinds like these, it might look like the sector is headed for a mud bowl.

There are some inexperienced shoots, although. Hippo Harvest not too long ago raised a $21 million Collection B on the again of its repurposed warehouse robots, TechCrunch has completely discovered.

What’s extra, the spherical values the startup, put up cash, at $145 million, in line with PitchBook — a wholesome step up from its earlier $42 million valuation. The spherical was led by Customary Investments with participation from Congruent Ventures, Amazon Local weather Pledge Fund, Hawthorne Meals Ventures, and Power Impression Companions.

In some methods, Hippo Harvest is like its rivals: It’s hoping that it could actually develop meals extra effectively utilizing much less land and water. However what units it aside on this house is the truth that it’s extra of a robotic startup than an indoor farming firm.

Many indoor farming firms depend on automation. Computer systems management all the pieces from warmth and humidity to nutrient ranges within the hydroponic techniques. Trays stuffed with ripe produce zip alongside tracks to allow them to be harvested.

“When you go into an Amazon warehouse 15 years in the past, you’d see one thing that appears truly rather a lot just like the greenhouses right this moment: pneumatics, gantry techniques, a number of fastened course of automation,” Hippo Harvest’s CEO Eitan Marder-Eppstein instructed TechCrunch.

However Amazon’s warehouses look utterly completely different now. Robots scurry about, transferring total cabinets of merchandise from one place to a different, optimizing the format relying on demand.

These robots have change into so broadly used that they’ve change into commoditized, Marder-Eppstein mentioned. “We noticed this chance to say, ‘Hey, what if we took these robots and switch them into tractors for our greenhouses?’” he mentioned.

It’s a choice that might form your entire firm. “We went all the best way again to how nurseries was managed. It’s actually old-school, with an individual with a watering can strolling round. However now we’ve acquired a robotic that may try this.”

The robots additionally enable Hippo Harvest to run extra experiments and glean information for its machine studying algorithms. When Marder-Eppstein and his co-founder Wim Meeussen began learning greenhouses, he mentioned they stored developing in opposition to one downside: “These techniques function on these massive recirculating plumbing loops,” Marder-Eppstein mentioned.

The shared loop meant they didn’t know the way a lot vitamins particular person vegetation have been receiving, they usually couldn’t preserve every plant’s microbiome separate from the others (vegetation rely closely on their microbiome to benefit from the vitamins accessible to them). Such a setup would have severely restricted what number of experiments they might run.

So as a substitute of vegetation sitting in the identical shared hydroponic loop, Hippo Harvest locations them in particular person cells inside three-foot-square modules. That separation not solely allowed the greenhouse to check extra variables, it additionally inadvertently solved an issue that vexes hydroponic greenhouse operators: pathogens that swiftly unfold by way of the shared loop and kill a whole crop.

In a Hippo Harvest greenhouse, modules of vegetation sit atop a grid of posts and are separated by small aisles. The robots weave their approach underneath the flats, popping up within the aisles to ship water and vitamins, and to collect information. When the vegetation are mature, they carry the flats and carry them to warehouse operators for harvest.

Hippo Harvest is sticking with greenhouses, eschewing the vertical farm in an try to avoid wasting on capital and operational bills. (Vertical farms require extra intensive lighting, heating, and air flow.)

The corporate says it could actually develop greens utilizing as much as 92% much less water, 55% much less fertilizer, and no pesticides in contrast with conventional agriculture, although it doesn’t disclose the carbon footprint of its operations. Presently, its greenhouses are heated by pure gasoline, although Marder-Eppstein mentioned the corporate is dedicated to be web zero by 2040.

Hippo Harvest’s produce is at the moment on the market in California by way of Amazon Recent and at some smaller shops all through the state, together with Mar-Val and Gus’s Neighborhood Market. The corporate plans to remain targeted on the Golden State whereas it makes use of its Collection B funding to scale operations.

Ought to Hippo Harvest succeed, it’ll be bucking the pattern, little doubt to its buyers’ delight. Indoor agriculture has hit a tough patch, however its potential has confirmed too engaging for some to disregard. Indoor farms promise to scale back water utilization, which is not any small feat in an period of megadroughts, and to deliver produce manufacturing nearer to properties and eating places, trimming transportation prices and emissions.

Now, all they must do is reign in prices, and Hippo Harvest is hoping its repurposed robots will just do that.

Leave a Comment