TerraClear Seeks to Join Agtech Market with Rock Picker for Tractors

Brent Frei, a serial entrepreneur who has helped launch and lead several successful early-stage businesses in the Seattle-area, is getting back to his roots as part of his latest startup, TerraClear.

That has meant a return to Frei’s hometown, Grangeville, ID, where TerraClear recently opened a facility it plans to use for product testing. The startup, which is headquartered in Bellevue, WA, is developing a machine to pick rocks out of soil used for growing crops.

Rocks can damage equipment in several ways, such as poking holes in tractor tires, Frei says. If such a machine were to reach the market, rock picking could become the latest farming task to be automated through technology after centuries of manual picking.

TerraClear was founded in 2017 and Frei says that the startup’s first couple years in business in some ways felt similar to the beginnings of other companies he’s co-founded, like Smartsheet (NASDAQ: SMAR) and Onyx Software.

“It’s super exciting at the beginning—you just can’t believe you get to work with these people every day,” Frei says. But part of what has set TerraClear apart from past ventures is it “combines technology with my passion for agriculture and my hometown, my family, and the family business in a way that’s going to make a really big difference in farming,” he says.

TerraClear’s long-term vision to automate rock picking involves creating and selling an integrated hardware-and-software system that encompasses technologies like flying drones and self-driving vehicles.

In Idaho, the company has a “fleet” of aerial vehicles at its disposal, Frei says, and has used them to capture birds-eye views of farm fields. TerraClear’s engineers and software developers analyze how rocks appear in such images. The idea would be to feed images taken from above into a software program, which would instruct an autonomous vehicle to roll through the field and pick the rocks visible from overhead.

Frei says there’s plenty of interest in aviation in Grangeville, which is in western Idaho, several dozen miles east of the state’s Washington border.

“One of the cool things about Grangeville is it turns out there’s a bunch of people that we know who are both pilots and farmers,” he says.

In the nearer term, however, TerraClear is seeking to commercialize a picker that could be attached to the large compartment, known as the bucket, at the front of most popular tractor models.

In a video demonstrating a prototype TerraClear picker attached to a tractor, the machine uses two sets of treaded plates. They’re attached to the front of the tractor’s bucket, which is pointed up, and the treads spin in opposite directions. This design allows the device to suck up rocks vertically as the tractor approaches the rocks, and deposit them into the bucket. The video also shows the tractor can electronically maneuver the picker horizontally the entire width of the bucket, which appears to be about six feet. (Not surprisingly, the video only shows successful rock-picking attempts.)

Frei says TerraClear doesn’t anticipate that the picker for a self-driving vehicle would be significantly different from the one designed to go on tractors.

“The key thing is that picker itself has to be really effective, whether it’s sitting on a tractor or sitting on an autonomous vehicle,” he says. “We’re starting with the tractor because it’s the easiest way for us to reduce the number of variables we have to work on to make sure that picker is really effective.”

TerraClear plans to continue with prototype testing throughout the summer.

It would seek to sell the picker that mounts to tractors to individual farmers, as well to businesses—likely agriculture chemical dealerships or equipment distributors, Frei says.

TerraClear said last week it had raised a $6.1 million funding round. The startup late last month disclosed to regulators it had raised a significant chunk of that total, about $4.7 million. TerraClear has raised more than $13 million since launching in 2017. Madrona Venture Group led the most recent round, with some previous TerraClear investors also participating, the startup says. Concurrent with its announcement on the new funding round, TerraClear says it named Trevor Thompson as the company’s president.

The startup currently has 16 people on its team. Over time, Frei says he expects about half of TerraClear’s employees will work from its offices in Grangeville—about eight miles from the farm he grew up on—with the other half based in greater Seattle.

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