The Denver-based start-up claims the funding makes it the biggest venture capital-backed agricultural harvesting robotics company in the world

Robotic and automation company Tortuga AgTech has raised $20 million in a Series A funding round led by Lewis & Clark AgriFood. The company claims the funding makes it the biggest venture capital-backed agricultural harvesting robotics company in the world. The company’s first robots have been designed for strawberry production.

Other investors include Ceres Partners, Root Ventures (a third-time investor), Spero Ventures, AME Cloud Ventures, Morado Ventures, Colorado Impact Fund, Remus Capital and Grit Ventures.

Tortuga claims to consider growers’ businesses first and foremost. “Grower operations and economics are challenging, and we’ve worked hard to build our system to easily integrate with the grower’s,” said Eric Adamson, chief executive of Tortuga. “To do this well takes agronomic, operational and even manufacturing expertise, not just advanced robotics and artificial intelligence.”

Advanced robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are fundamentally changing the ability to navigate challenging demands of producing high-value crops by focusing on workers.

Affordable labour

The Tortuga harvesting robotics are designed to provide growers with reliable and affordable labour along with access to critical data to improve growers’ operational efficiency. The company argues that growers save money immediately because of the low-cost custom robotics and software approach.

“We took a very strategic view of this industry and are excited about the opportunity to invest in Tortuga,” said Dave Taiclet, general partner and managing director, Lewis & Clark AgriFood. “Tortuga’s approach to thinking through grower economics and operations gave us a lot of confidence.”

Tortuga intentionally started by solving the grower’s problem with new technology, not the other way around. The company designed a form factor that addresses the problem and is lower cost than traditional approaches, which is a more difficult challenge to overcome.

“Robotics and automation empower growers to transition to the next iteration of farming format,” said Larry Page, managing director, Lewis & Clark AgriFood. “The agricultural system faces many challenges from environmental impact, to escalating labour shortages, to the need for a more sustainable food system. Companies like Tortuga help to solve these challenges while simultaneously helping growers to succeed.”

Growing automation

Tortuga is part of an ecosystem focused on sustainability, quality and cost for growers to make a more efficient system possible, especially in the fresh produce industry.

“People often think of robots as a simple labour replacement, but we see it as much bigger than that,” said Adamson. “When cereal crops started using tractors, it didn’t just replace the ox or the horse. It fundamentally changed how farms operated and how the industry was structured to be tractor-centric. The same thing is happening in fresh produce with advanced robotics and AI. This will completely change how the grower profits and navigates challenging demands.”

Tortuga has begun the commercialisation process for a second crop, outdoor table grapes, with a focus on the future for glasshouse tomato, pepper, cucumber and outdoor blueberry crops in the coming years.

“We learned early on that in order to really create value for the grower and Tortuga, we needed to build our own custom robotics stack of hardware and software,” said Tim Brackbill, co-founder and chief technology office at Tortuga.

Brackbill said the company has built a generalisable picking algorithm that allows the company to transfer across farms and even crops with relative ease. “We’ve built a team that is excited to keep driving the industry forward from here,” he concluded.

Date published: 22 April 2021

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