Harvest Automation, With Dreams of Becoming the next iRobot, Sets Sight on Machines to Harvest Shrubs

Harvest Automation has a straightforward vision on how to target a market for its robotics technology, which comes from iRobot veterans.

“Basically, it’s go where the labor is,” says CEO and co-founder Charles Grinnell. And it’s starting with agriculture. The Billerica, MA-based startup is developing fleets of robots designed to speed up the labor-intensive task of harvesting the shrubs you eventually purchase at your local garden shop or Home Depot, a slice of agriculture where “work is being done the same way it was 100 years ago,” says Grinnell.

Harvest Automation had no particular product or application in mind when the founding team got together in 2007, originally under the name Q Robotics. But Grinnell, a former executive at DEKA Research & Development, the invention shop led by engineer Dean Kamen, aspired with his co-founders to the same success iRobot achieved with its Roomba automated vacuum cleaner. The new company’s concept is to start with robots that can handle some of the manual labor that’s always been a part of agriculture industry. Then it plans to pursue other manual labor-based industries, like construction, warehousing, or mining. It changed its name in 2008 to reflect the honed market focus.

The company doesn’t necessarily aim for its robots to replace the human workers in shrub harvesting, but to instead add efficiency and reliability to the process, Grinnell says. The goal is to improve productivity and output for the wholesale shrub farms, in order to increase reliable delivery to the retailers purchasing the plants.

Harvest announced it had secured a $4 million Series A round in January, with backing from the Massachusetts Technology Development Corporation, the state venture capital fund. Harvest is putting the money, which also comes from the MidPoint Food & Ag Fund and Life Sciences Partners, toward expanding its 10-person operation by another five or so employees over the next year, Grinnell says. The funding is also going to testing its units in the field (literally), with a goal of getting the product on the market in 2011, Grinnell says.

Greg profiled the company back when it was still named Q Robotics, but it reappeared on our radar this year with the ribbon cutting of its new 6,000-square-foot facility in Billerica last month. (Prior to that the company was working out of a founder’s home in Groton, MA).

Its units weigh about 50 pounds, and are a few feet in diameter and less than knee height. They’re designed to … Next Page »

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