Bear Flag Robotics, a US startup developing autonomous technology for farms, has raised $3.5 million in seed funding. Silicon Valley-based True Ventures led the round of funding, which takes Bear Flag’s total funding efforts to $4.5 million after it took part in the Y Combinator accelerator and raised a pre-seed round in the fall of 2017.
The startup’s technology aims to help farmers lower operational costs and increase yields, as well as get around the labor shortages rife in the agriculture industry, Igino Cafiero, CEO told AgFunderNews.
The company was founded by Cafiero and Aubrey Donnellan in 2017 after Cafiero became aware of the shortage of skilled industrial labor through his in-laws who own and operate a multi-generation construction aggregate quarry in Oregon.
“As the cost of labor has risen, they have been hard pressed to find quality workers at prices that make sense for their operation,” he said. “I started building the first Bear Flag prototype in my garage with this problem in mind. During this process, Aubrey and I were introduced to the same labor problems in agriculture through friends. These friends explained just how acute and widespread the labor problem is for growers.”
From there, the two spent most of last summer talking to as many growers as they could and heard the same thing over and over—finding and retaining skilled labor is a major problem. Growers compete with other industries such as construction, mining and trucking meaning their costs continue to rise and the economics that their farms were built on begin to look much less compelling.
Bear Flag is, therefore, constructing farm equipment that can carry out farmers’ most common tasks autonomously — without a driver. These tasks include spraying and mowing in orchards and vineyards, as well as tillage and cultivation in row crops.
“Once this technology is deployed, the other benefits are powerful,” Cafiero said. “Growers can use their tractors around the clock, while removing their workers from hazardous jobs such as spraying. Furthermore, autonomous tractors are safer which will lower injury risks and will have the knock-on effect of lowering insurance premiums.”
“The idea is to empower one person to supervise a fleet, where previously an entire team was needed,” he added.
Bear Flag uses a variety of sensors including, lidar, camera, IMU, GPS and others, and onboard computers process the data, providing situational awareness for the job being done as well as track obstacles and system vitals. This is done through a variety of known algorithms as well as IP generated in-house.
“Getting the tractor across the field is only part o. f the task—we need to make sure the tractor is doing the work properly and adapting to the environment around it,” Cafiero said.
Additionally, the startup is building a relevant dataset from the data it is collecting in the field to further optimize its operations and provide insights to growers about their crops and businesses.
Currently, the company’s plan is to retrofit its own fleet of tractors and lease them to growers. Additionally, they will offer both full-service and hybrid models, where operations are supervised by a central location. Operations will begin by the end of 2018.
“Our approach has been to build technology that works on top of existing tractors,” said Cafiero.
The company sees autonomous technology as the first step in helping growers thrive and in the future; Bear Flag machinery will operate in completely revolutionary ways from the traditional man-and-machine combination of today.
“Crops will be planted in more efficient configurations than rows, which are currently optimized for traditional tractor use,” Cafiero said. “Furthermore, Bear Flag machinery will enable multiple crops to be intermingled in the same field, increasing yield and sustainability—something that is completely unrealistic with today’s cultivation and harvest machinery.”
The new funding will help Bear Flag grow its team with the most qualified robotics, machine vision and system engineers in Silicon Valley.
“Hand-in-hand with our development efforts, we are working closely with growers in the Central Valley and Salinas Valley,” Cafiero said. “Ag tech cannot be built in a vacuum, and our close relationship with our pilot customers has been instrumental in our product roadmap.”
Rohit Sharma, True Ventures’ venture partner, was named to the Bear Flag board as part of the round.
“Rohit’s experience and thoughtfulness complement our team well,” Cafiero said. “Rohit is an experienced entrepreneur who has built multiple companies. Additionally, he is currently on the board of several companies, including a robotics company that we admire.”
Bear Flag, which took part in Y Combinator’s Winter 2018 cohort, has now raised a total of $4.5 million since starting last year, raising its pre-seed round in the fall of 2017. It is backed by Liquid 2, Trucks VC, Expansion VC and Y Combinator.