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Harvest Automation wraps up $5.3 million funding round, brings on two prominent robotics CEOs as advisors

Posted by Scott Kirsner  September 27, 2010 08:00 AM

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Charles Grinnell believes that every farmer needs a few good robots working his acreage, and this morning, he's announcing that he's wrapped up a $5.3 million first round of funding for his Billerica start-up, Harvest Automation.

The company, which once tested its prototypes in a greenhouse behind Grinnell's Groton home, initially had trouble finding financing to develop a robot strong and rugged enough to move potted plants around as they grow in nurseries. Harvest says that its initial target market will be the largest growers in the $4 billion wholesale ornamental plant market, I.E., the kind of company that grew that ficus tree sitting in the corner of your reception area. These plants get moved a lot from the time they are tiny seedlings to when they head for the marketplace, and Harvest's robots are designed to take over that manual labor. The company has conducted a few field tests of the robot, but Grinnell says they'll begin a more formal alpha test in the early part of 2011.

The new funding is the biggest investment so far for Cambridge-based Founder Collective, which joins other investors including the Massachusetts Technology Development Corp., Life Sciences Partners and Cultivian Ventures (formerly known as the Midpoint Food and Ag Fund.) Joining Harvest as advisors are iRobot CEO Colin Angle, and Mick Mountz, CEO of Kiva Systems, a Woburn company that makes a robotic order fulfillment system for warehouses. (Harvest's chief technology officer is Joe Jones, who led the development of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner when he worked at iRobot.)

"I think Harvest as a company really plays to the strengths of Boston," says Eric Paley of Founder Collective. "There aren't that many people with the expertise to create these complicated hardware-and-software systems." Paley says Harvest reminds him of the start-up he ran after business school, Brontes Technologies, which developed a 3-D imaging system that helped dentists create better crowns and bridges. "We pitched 40 VC funds, and had trouble raising money," he says. "It was a pretty weird niche, but there was a very specific customer with a very specific return-on-investment." (Brontes was acquired by 3M for $95 million.)

Harvest's belief is that growers will turn to robots to improve their productivity while lowering costs — and that robots can reduce the risks that some growers face of hiring undocumented workers and facing enforcement actions and fines.

I wrote about Harvest's technology back in 2008, and shot this video of their prototypes:

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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