Growing up, Brandon Alexander would spend every summer working on his grandfather's peanut and potato farm in Texas. Eventually, a career in tech would lead him away from the fields to Silicon Valley where he worked at the robotics lab Willow Garage and later at Google X.
As is often the case, those experiences in his early years were formative, and Alexander found his way back to the business of farming but with a decidedly high tech approach. In 2105, he co-founded Iron Ox with Jon Binney, a doctor of robotics and fellow Willow Garage alum, with the ambitious idea of running a fully automated robotic greenhouse.
"Robotics has come so far in the past few years, we thought we could be doing something with more impact," said Alexander.
Now the company has closed a $3 million seed round led by Eniac Ventures with participation from Amplify Partners to continue to prove out its technology. This brings the company's total financing to $5 million, with previous pre-seed venture capital coming via Y Combinator and others.
Having worked on a farm, Alexander knew the traditional model was not working and that technology could alleviate some of the inefficiencies. Still, the duo wanted to learn from farmers what problems they were up against, so they spent months on the road visiting indoor and outdoor farms. "Engineers like to engineer, but we made a deal that before we would write a line of code that we would road trip across California and talk with farmers," said Alexander.
Throughout their travels, they consistently heard that the biggest challenge confronting farmers is hiring enough people to work the harvest season. Despite increasing wages on farms, between 2002 and 2014, the number of full-time equivalent field and crop workers dropped by more than 20 percent. Without workers to pick the crops they rot on the vine, and the Partnership for a New American Economy estimates that labor shortages in agriculture cost the American economy around $3.1 billion a year.
With American workers unwilling to do grueling farm work and tighter immigration laws proposed by the Trump administration, the situation could become more dire.
Alexander and Binney believed the solution to the labor crunch was creating a greenhouse with autonomous robots that could manage the entire supply chain from planting to picking and packaging crops. Equipped with a camera, the robots can perform 3D imaging to analyze the shape, size and coloring of an individual crop as it grows to determine whether it is hitting certain benchmarks and when it is ready to be harvested. It can also perform early detection of diseases and pest that could wipe out an entire crops and remove potentially problematic plants.
Iron Ox's system also employs hydroponics where the crops are grown in nutrient rich water instead of soil.The water is recycled through the system, and as a result, the company says it uses 90 percent less water than an outdoor farm.
To start, Iron Ox is focusing on leafy greens like romaine lettuce and kale since they can be grown in a short span of six weeks. But long term, it wants to be a general farm that can grow a variety of crops.
Iron Ox is part of a growing number of companies that are re-imagining the traditional farm as well as catering to consumers demand for local, organic food. During the first half of 2017, novel farming systems raised $198 million across 21 deals, which was a 560 percent increase year-over-year, according to AgFunder.
In particular, vertical farms have emerged as a burgeoning sub-sector of novel farming, and there are several well capitalized companies in the market. Plenty raised $226 million from Jeff Bezos and other investors, and AeroFarms has raised almost $150 million and built the world's largest indoor vertical farm.
Despite the fervor surrounding vertical farms, Vic Singh, founding general partner, Eniac Ventures, believes that Iron Ox has an edge over these companies because the company has taken an automation-first approach whereas competitors in the vertical market have focused on (literally) scaling up.
"Iron Ox is probably going to have the largest set of data around crop production," said Singh. "They are applying machine learning and computer vision to every single piece of leafy greens they create. All of the data they are going to collect is going to create a more efficient, higher yield crop production."
With this latest round of funding, the company will be opening a larger facility in San Carlos, Calif. that will serve surrounding cities from Palo Alto to San Francisco. It also plans to begin selling to customers in the first half of the year.
As for those old family farms like his grandfather's, Alexander thinks there will always be a role for them with staple crops like wheat but that in the future more fresh produce will come from local greenhouses like Iron Ox. "For fresh produce there is going to be a big change because of macro issues and because it is labor intensive, he said. "It doesn't matter if your flour is a week old, but it does matter if your strawberries are."