New funding: TerraClear, the ag tech startup that’s using artificial intelligence and robotics to help farmers deal with costly and time-consuming rocks in their fields, has raised $25 million in new funding, the company announced Wednesday.
The tech: Founded in 2017 by Brent Frei, the former CEO of Onyx Software and co-founder of Smartsheet, TerraClear splits its operations between Bellevue, Wash., and Grangeville, Idaho, where Frei grew up farming. The company has developed software solutions for mapping fields and hardware solutions for clearing them, removing backbreaking rocks which can cause significant damage to expensive farming machinery.
TerraClear’s Rock Picker picks an average of 400 rocks per hour and can pick up rocks of up to 300 pounds. The device can mount to a compact track loader or skid steer and works in any field condition with minimal compaction and ground disturbance on the soil. Drones capture high-resolution images of fields and TerraClear uses AI to analyze those images and generate maps showing the size and location of rocks.
“We’re on the 14th major prototype now, and it works amazingly well,” Frei said. “So well that farmers that were doing testing for us, even before we put the computer smarts on it, were like, ‘I’ll buy this. Let me just have this.’ That’s far exceeded my expectations across all the dimensions of the mechanical side.”
Huge market: TerraClear isn’t alone in using modern technology to try to solve problems in an age-old industry. GeekWire recently reported on the attraction to ag tech among other successful Pacific Northwest entrepreneurs and noted that venture capitalists were investing roughly $4 billion a year in farm-centric startups.
Testing success: TerraClear released the first version of its Rock Picker earlier this year and sold out among the farmers in its test group. A second version of the device will be delivered at the end of this summer. TerraClear President Trevor Thompson said the biggest change is going to be one-click operation, where a single button to initiate the picking motion will replace the maneuvering of joysticks to control the Picker.
“It allows anybody, even with a low level of equipment skill, to be able to operate this thing,” Thompson said.
One happy farmer: Evan Aardema, a farm manager with CSC Farms in Jerome, Idaho, told GeekWire that he’s using TerraClear technology to clear fields used for potatoes, corn, hay, wheat and barley. He grew up farming the area along the Snake River and said the rocks are a constant battle.
“We spend countless hours. On a given day, for two months straight, there’s eight people picking rock,” Aardema said, adding that hitting a sizable rock with a potato digger is a costly problem — to the equipment and the hours of labor lost.
And finding workers who actually want to do the hard work of picking rock by hand is not easy, Aardema said. He believes it’s a pastime that technology will permanently replace.
“They’re just way more likely to want to drive a tractor and listen to the radio and be in a heated cabin instead of the wind and the cold and the rain and blowing dirt,” he said. “Times have changed where we’re not going to be able to go back.”
Future automation: TerraClear plans to integrate AI and computer vision to create a fully autonomous Rock Picker down the road. Frei said that 400 million arable acres worldwide have been waiting for a cost-effective, productive solution to a problem that is ripe for automation.
“The idea that [a farmer] can drop one off of the trailer next to the field and have it take care of the problem … It has been such an acute problem for so long with no good answers,” Frei said. “That is it for them.”
Growth: The startup employs 25 people and is “hiring aggressively,” Thompson said. The work appeals to software engineers who like to tackle practical, tangible problems.
“The overlap of robotics and AI in an industry that everybody deeply values and that there are great efficiencies to be gained, I think is really an attraction,” he said. “The majority of folks do not have a farming background. They’re just excited about solving a problem like this in that industry.”
Investors: TerraClear has raised $38 million to date, and the Series A round was led by Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group. Managing Director Matt McIlwain said Madrona is excited by the use of AI and robotics to take on the “dull, dangerous, and dirty” job of rock picking.
Last word: “I think of it like, in the 1970s, when you were trying to trim the grass on your sidewalk and you had those trimmings shears … I mean, what a pain in ass,” Frei said. “Then somebody invented the weed whacker. When that thing showed up you didn’t just do your walkway, you did around your trees, you did up the driveway. The places that you trim got vastly larger because it was so efficient. That is exactly the way I believe this Rock Picker’s gonna work.”