I got to spend a fascinating couple of days in San Francisco at the March 19-20 World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit, the U.S. edition of a semi-annual gathering of investors, inventors, and big thinkers in the agriculture technology space.
The event has grown quickly, hitting more than 1,300 in attendance. The sessions are middling, but the networking is terrific. A lot of collaborating, consternation, and heavy lifting occurs in the hallways, restaurants, and private suites.
There was certainly a lot to take in, but one particular conversation on robotics piqued my interest.
It was a panel session that started out with the producer’s perspective, provided by David Marguleas of Sun World Innovations. He quite literally begged for robotics solutions that would help solve his organization’s growing labor problem.
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Well, we’ve all heard our share about the impending robotics revolution and seen many super-cool YouTube videos demonstrating robot acumen for picking, sorting, and transporting agriculture goods. But field-scale technology is another thing entirely.
Representing the venture capital side was Jennifer Place, Associate with Finistere Ventures. She shed a bit of light (while throwing some shade) on the state of investment in robotics for ag.
“Despite the massive potential we see, such as the labor challenges in the field, we still have not seen any evidence of adoption of automation solutions in the field at scale,” Place said. “To put things into perspective, in the last five years there has been $6.7 billion in venture capital that has gone into the ag tech space, and only $150 million of that has been in robotic automation. It is certainly early, but it speaks to some of the challenges we still see when we look at robotic automation.”
With specialty crops, in particular, the struggle to create a more mass-market product that would fit within a critical mass of farm operations with little or no modification is very difficult.
Of course, this investment doesn’t include the big dollars being spent within existing ag entities like Deere, Case, and AGCO, among others. But it seems clear that marketable robotics, for myriad reasons, is still a point on the horizon.