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Former Z Corp. chief executive joins Harvest Automation, agricultural robotics startup

Posted by Scott Kirsner  November 30, 2012 02:00 PM

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Harvest Automation, the company building rugged robots that work in commercial nurseries, has recruited a new chief executive from the 3-D printing industry. John Kawola, who'd led Z Corp. for four years until its acquisition by 3D Systems, joins the Billerica startup on Monday. Kawola stuck around at 3D Systems. for several months after the deal closed, but when I ran into him earlier this fall, he was scouting for his next gig.

At Harvest, founder and former CEO Charlie Grinnell will stay on, overseeing technology and operations, as Kawola focuses on sales and marketing. "At Z Corp., we were building a complex product for a new market, and so this feels very familiar to me," says Kawola, who spent 15 years helping nudge 3-D printing into the mainstream. Initially, he'll focus on making sure that Harvest is reaching all the commercial plant growers who can benefit from the first generation of its 'bot, and later he'll look for other applications. While the current product is good at picking up and moving potted plants, Kawola said that new kinds of sensors and grabbers, which the company might license or acquire, could enable it to do other kinds of tasks.

Kawola tells me that Harvest investor Eric Paley and board member Russ Wilcox connected him to the company; Wilcox was formerly the chief executive of display-maker E Ink.

I last wrote about Harvest in June, when I had a chance to visit a commercial nursery in Connecticut that was testing out the company's robots. And I spoke with Kawola back in 2008, when he was launching an interesting Z Corp. partnership with videogame-maker Harmonix Music Systems.

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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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