Launched just a year ago, technology startup The Small Robot Company is already sowing the seeds of change in the farming industry.
Founded by experienced entrepreneur and user-centred design expert Ben Scott-Robinson and fourth-generation farmer Sam Watson Jones, the company is preparing to launch a series of precision engineered, smart robots that they hope will revolutionise food production as we know it.
Here, Ben tells us how the company’s big ideas have translated into buy-in from the industry and the government.
Challenging existing business models: the innovator’s dilemma
“This all started when I was driving into work early one day, listening to Farming Today on the radio. Simon Blackmore, from the National Centre for Precision Farming at Harper Adams University, was talking about the problems farmers were facing with tractors. He was discussing the potential for using small robots in place of tractors and it blew me away.
“I thought of robots as being used in all sorts of high-tech places – it just didn’t occur to me that robotics had one of its main uses in farming, which has a reputation for being quite old-fashioned,” explains Ben.
After getting in touch with Simon, Ben discovered that none of the big farming machinery manufacturers were interested in the idea, despite being aware of the potential.
“It was a classic innovator’s dilemma – the people embedded in the industry were not willing to innovate and change their model because they were making enough money manufacturing and selling increasingly large tractors. It was clear that it was time for someone from the outside to come in and make that change.”
Market research and analysing costs
On connecting with Sam, who had just taken over his father’s farm after five years working in management consulting for Accenture, it became clear that the current model was not working and that farmers were in need of a new solution.
In recent years farming costs have increased by 10 – 12% per year, particularly with regards to machinery, putting much more strain on farmers.
“About 85% of farms are totally dependent on subsidies and all farmers are aware that they’re doing damage to the environment and to the soil. Yet they’re unable to improve the amount of yield or revenue they are generating, despite being sold an ever-increasingly pricey piece of kit every two to three years from big manufacturers”.
After conducting a series of interviews and qualitative research with more than 50 farmers over several months it was obvious that the appetite for new technology was there. But farmers were reluctant to take a risk in purchasing a piece of kit that they were unfamiliar with outright.
Developing an offering
Using all the feedback garnered from farmers – and with the help of AI expert Joe Allnutt – the team developed three robots, Tom, Dick and Harry, as well as an artificial intelligence platform called Wilma to help remedy some of the major pain points for farmers.
Together, all the machines can monitor conditions on a farm, before micro-spraying, precision weeding and planting. Not only can the system minimise the use of toxic chemicals by up to 95%, but it also removes the need for ploughing, which means no churning of the soil and less damage to earthworms and the soil’s natural ecosystem.
“There are currently 750 million hectares of wheat being grown in the world, and about 320 million hectares of rice and soya, the majority of which is being done in inefficient ways that are actively damaging the earth.
“Using smart robots will allow farmers to use that land more effectively, reducing costs by up to 60% and increasing revenues by as much as 40%,” says Ben.
Taking the technology to market
The company will offer farmers access to its systems using a ‘farming as a service’ model. Farmers will lease the equipment for a fixed annual fee of £600 per hectare – saving farmers a considerable sum on traditional farming equipment.
“Before we even started working on the technology, we looked at the pain points farmers were facing and realised the old model had to change. This structure means we’re very customer focused. Understanding what they need and what they can pay for was a priority for us,” explains Ben.
A serendipitous launch
It seems this pioneering new launch couldn’t have come at a better time for the industry, with the uncertainty of the post-Brexit economic landscape looming large on many farmer’s minds. British farmers currently receive between £3.5bn and £4.0bn each year in EU subsidies, but this is expected to drop to £1bn after Brexit.
In response, the UK government announced that it would match EU subsidy payments until 2022, but only where farmers meet certain criteria.
“One of the big things about the industrial policy and how it applies to farming is that it’s expected to be driven by environmental schemes,” explained Ben.
“Our AI-driven operating system will give farmers a more detailed knowledge of their crop and their land, allowing them to be more efficient and environmentally friendly. This means they can generate subsidies for a far larger area of their farm than they may previously have been able to. It’s a system with a lot of potential.”
And it seems the government agrees. The company recently won a sizeable Innovate UK grant to develop its AI-driven operating system. This, paired with £100,000 of Sam’s own investment, plus the £50,000 the company is currently crowdfunding on Indiegogo means the company is well on its way to achieving its mission.
Growing the business
It was time, then, to start spreading the word. The appointment of Sarra Mander as CMO of the company has come at a critical time for the business, as it starts to garner more support and attention from the market and the press.
Its entry into The Pitch 2018 is part of this growth and acceleration stage, explained Ben: “We’re always on the lookout for opportunities for funding and greater exposure, but for us the biggest attraction of entering The Pitch was all the elements that go around this – the mentoring and the support.
“The competition being backed by such a powerful and respected organisation as Deloitte means we can tap into the expertise they have in growing companies into big businesses, which is ultimately what we want to do.
“Our vision is feeding the world. It sounds like a really big aim, but the situation is desperate now and this solution has never been needed more. The world is ready for it and so are we”.