Bill Gates’ green tech fund bets on farming robots

A robotic arm system named Ada lifts Genovese Basil plants for a root inspection at the Iron Ox greenhouse. The robot below the plants lifts and moves the growth tanks autonomously. | Reuters/Nathan Frandino photo

Reuters — As many parts of North America struggle under a crippling drought, a California startup that believes robots can grow produce more sustainably has raised US$50 million in a funding round led by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

Iron Ox uses robots that are integrated with a hydroponic system consuming 90 percent less water than traditional farms, said chief executive officer Brandon Alexander.

The company is putting that system to work at a 10,000-sq. foot greenhouse in Gilroy, California, where a self-driving robot named Grover moves pallets of Genovese basil and a robotic arm system lifts the pallets for inspection. Sensors check the water for nitrogen and acidity levels for healthy growth.

“Then they say, ‘What is missing? What does that plant need that we’re not giving it’,” Alexander said. Any water not used can be pumped back into the system to be reused later.

Agriculture plays an important role in California’s economy, but water use is increasingly in the spotlight. The last major drought in 2012-17 cut irrigation for farmers, forced strict household conservation measures and stoked deadly wildfires.

Iron Ox CEO Brandon Alexander poses for a portrait in the company’s greenhouse in Gilroy, California. | Reuters/ Nathan Frandino photo

Iron Ox grows Thai basil and strawberries and is working on cilantro, parsley and tomatoes. The company is also building a new 535,000-sq. foot greenhouse in Lockhart, Texas, 48 kilometres south of Austin.

Alexander said hydroponics — saving water by growing plants without soil — is just one piece of the puzzle for future farming.

“To really eliminate waste, to really get to that next level of sustainability and impact, we have to rethink the entire grow process,” he said.

The funding round included investors from Crosslink Capital, R7 Partners, and Pathbreaker Ventures, among others.

Iron Ox declined to comment on its valuation.

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