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An Innovators Journey - Getting Started in Agritech

Just a few miles north of London Heathrow airport, you'll find a hotbed of innovation. During the 1960s, the Hayes site in west London was home to EMI's research and development division, where scientists and inventors worked on innovations such as stereo sound and airborne radar.

Today it is where the Central Research Laboratory (CRL), a purpose-built technology co-working space and hardware design accelerator is based. Early-stage companies, typically working on a diverse range of technologies, from agritech to building materials, enjoy a six-month programme of business acceleration support. Innovators receive help turning a product idea into a solid business plan, seeking funding, and getting a prototype into production. With a long-term commitment to empowering innovation, Mouser has partnered with CRL and provides funding, innovation support, and access to their technical knowledge network of industry-leading electronic component suppliers.

One such start-up to benefit from the CRL accelerator programme is Muddy Machines. The company is creating innovative agricultural robots to help combat the shortage of harvesting workers in the UK. The need arose from a lack of asparagus pickers in the UK. However, this issue also resonates with other crops in many countries worldwide, so the applications are plentiful.

Capturing the Light-bulb Moment

There is an inventor in all of us, so the saying goes. Have you ever found a gap in the market, something you're looking for, but it doesn't exist yet? Capturing that idea, developing it, and getting it into the market presents a huge challenge, no wonder only a tiny fraction of ideas ever make it to market. Growing the business idea into a prototype, creating a business to produce, market and sell it requires many different skills, more than one person typically has.

For Muddy Machines CEO and co-founder Florian Richter, the desire to innovate started with his family buying a rundown farm in Portugal. Witnessing the turn-around over several years, Florian became excited by the potential value that modern technologies could bring to agriculture. By this stage in his career, Florian had built up considerable commercial experience but lacked technical expertise. Serendipity, however, changed his outlook when he met Chris Chavasse at Entrepreneur First (an entrepreneur event) in London. Co-founder and CTO, Chris had spent his career developing robotic systems and shared the same visions for agriculture as Florian. From this, Muddy Machines was born.

Getting Started in Agritech

The founders invested time in researching the business of agriculture to identify the challenges that technology might address. After many conference calls with livestock, horticulture and arable farmers, it was apparent that access to a reliable source of labour for many agricultural businesses was a significant issue. A chance meeting with the largest asparagus grower in the UK highlighted the considerable challenges of selective harvesting. Certain crops require pickers to be selective in the way they harvest, only picking parts of the produce ready for harvest, leaving the rest to continue growing. The use of large machinery is not viable. Harvesting asparagus in the UK is an intensive and selective process. With a relatively short harvest period, typically only 12 weeks, significant numbers of people must keep going over the same fields to check the crop. Like all field crops, variations in the weather heavily influence crop harvest yield, creating challenges securing labour.

Florian and Chris decided to focus their innovation efforts on designing a robot that could harvest asparagus. From a robotic perspective, asparagus is a relatively straightforward crop to harvest due to its lack of surrounding foliage. Spears grow vertically out of the ground and are grown in furrows in robot accessible rows.

Working from Chris' apartment, they 3D printed asparagus spears and built some four-wheeled robot prototypes using hobbyist grade components. Initially, the technical focus was on the battery-powered robot drive train and a 4-axis harvesting mechanism. Use of a 3D camera and a machine-learning algorithm to detect spears and determine their ripeness came later. Chris and Florian understood they needed to seek finance to develop their idea further and that illustrating the basic concepts to potential investors would require a simple prototype. The pair also could see that the harvesting robot they were developing could equally be applied to other crops, further expanding the size of the available market.

Prototype development continued, and with the help of their asparagus grower, they gained access to growing crops to experience first-hand the physical challenges the robot would encounter. Furrows proved to be more uneven than expected, and access tracks often could be washed away due to heavy rain.

It was becoming apparent that further technical insight and business knowledge was necessary to keep up the momentum started by Florian and Chris with Muddy Machines.

Muddy Machines registered on a CRL Accelerator programme and, having outgrown Chris' apartment, occupied start-up space in the Hayes facility.

Muddy Machines Advances At CRL

With the engineering skills available at CRL, progress on the robot prototype advanced, with neural network algorithm for spear identification, a single board computer capable of running the whole applications, improved power management, and electric drive train. The battery life was extended from roughly an hour to 16 hours, although the weight of the whole payload set a maximum for the batteries. The focus was on a low speed, high torque drive train to accommodate uneven terrain.

As the robot prototypes became field-tested, the founders thought through how to market the harvesting machines. Rather than sell them outright, they decided to provide the robots as a service, with payment made based on a ‘per kilo per pick’ fee of the harvested produce. This closely matches the existing cost structure, so a service contract was more attractive for them. For Muddy Machines, this had the added benefit of continuing to adapt the machines for harvesting other seasonal selective crops once the asparagus harvest was complete. In this way, the utilisation of the robots is kept high, earning revenue across different harvesting seasons.

Looking to the Future

The CRL team continued to contribute to planning meetings throughout the product development and provide business support services as needed. Muddy Machines CEO and co-founder Florian highlights, “Working with CRL made us feel a larger organisation than we were, with a team of specialists and relevant experts ready to help us.

Despite the ongoing component supply issues the whole electronics industry faces, Muddy Machines plans to deploy harvesting robots for the next asparagus season. They are also working with growers to highlight the high-value data insights generated during the harvesting process, including yield forecasting, plant health and phenotyping.

Muddy Machines is just one start-up benefiting from CRL's accelerator programme, and readers can find examples of other companies here.

Mouser's partnership with CRL is a mutually beneficial relationship, as the start-ups benefit from Mouser's support & electronics expertise, whilst Mouser can keep their finger on the beating pulse of innovation, maintaining visibility and understanding of new technology developments and business challenges that will affect customers and sales around the world. Collaborative environments like this are a regenerative solution for engineering challenges – empowering innovation together.

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