New funding: Aigen, a startup developing solar-powered robots for weed control and soil regeneration, has raised $4 million in venture capital. The seed round was led by NEA with participation from AgFunder, Global Founders Capital and ReGen Ventures. The Kirkland, Wash.-based ag tech company launched in 2020.
The founders: Co-founder Rich Wurden was one of the first engineers at Seattle’s Pure Watercraft, an electric boat company that General Motors recently acquired a stake in and is valued at $600 million. Following that, Wurden was a mechanical engineer at Tesla for five years before returning to Pure Watercraft in 2018 for an additional two years.
Co-founder Kenny Lee has a background in cybersecurity and co-founded a startup that was acquired in 2017.
The two met through a Slack community called Work on Climate. The company has five employees, and could triple headcount by the end of the year.
The tech: Aigen is building small robots that use AI to autonomously navigate rows of crops and identify and remove unwanted weeds using mechanical arms. The AI can be trained to leave benign weeds that help hold carbon. Because growing seasons coincide with sunshine, solar is a viable energy source, the founders said. The robots carry batteries for added power.
The team is testing its prototype with sugar beet farmers in Idaho. They’ll begin alpha tests with new devices later this year, and move to beta tests with early customers in 2023.
The competition: There are similar startups in the space, including Carbon Robotics, which is deploying larger, robotic machines that zap weeds with lasers. The Seattle-based company has raised $36 million since launching in 2018.
While a Carbon Robotics machine can treat 16 acres in a day to Aigen’s three acres, robots from Aigen weigh less and won’t compact the soil, plus they doesn’t generate additional carbon emissions thanks to the solar power, the company says. Aigen’s robot will be less expensive.
The take: While the initial prototypes are focused on weeds, the goal is creating a device that can collect data on a variety of parameters, including insect and disease identification and measuring the nutrient and carbon content of soil. Measuring carbon levels could help farmers earn extra money by selling carbon offsets if they can reliably calculate the amount of carbon being captured.
Wurden turned from EVs to ag tech because of the huge opportunities for climate benefits. In addition to eliminating carbon emissions, he said, “with agriculture, you have the potential to go carbon negative.”