June 15, 2010      

As another example of a robust and growing Massachusetts based robotics economy, startup Harvest Automation celebrated the opening of its new 6,000-square-foot headquarters on May 27. The company, founded as QRobotics in late 2006 by Joe Jones and Paul Sandin, inventors of iRobot Corp.’s Roomba autonomous vacuuming robot, is developing mobile materials handling robots targeted at commercial growers.

In January Harvest Automation announced that it had received $4 million in Series A financing from investors Life Sciences Partners, MidPoint Food & Ag Funds, and the Massachusetts Technology Development Corporation. But the funding process was a bit more interesting than what was portrayed in the announcement, and provides insights into how government and business can work together to promote each other’s interests.

During one of the speeches that preceded the ribbon cutting, Dina Routhier, principal at the Massachusetts Technology Development Corporation (MTDC), described how Harvest was really funded in two steps. The company first received $400K from the MTDC. These funds, with assistance from Routhier and the MTDC, were subsequently used to secure additional financing from investment groups that specialize in agriculture-which it did from Life Sciences Partners and MidPoint Food & Ag Funds.

After the ribbon cutting, Harvest Automation officials described their robots and gave a brief demonstration. For those unfamiliar with the company, Harvest Automation is developing robots that automate the moving of potted plants. The application sounds trivial, but it is not (i.e., autonomous operation in unstructured, outdoor environments). And neither is the market. According to Wade Appelman, Harvest’s vice president of sales and marketing, the movement and spacing of pots is a very common, time consuming manual process, on which growers spend millions of dollars each year for manual labor.

Many in the Boston robotics community have seen demonstrations of Harvest’s bots. What they have not seen are computer renderings of what the final product will look like. I have, and I was impressed. It is clear that unlike many companies producing robotics products, Harvest understands the value of great-looking design.

According to Harvest Automation CEO Charles Grinnell, the company plans to begin field trials later this summer with deployments coming in 2011. Grinnell noted that the company will be focused on the pot-moving application for the near future, but that we should expect new applications in the agriculture market in the future. I look forward to it.