We caught up with Chris Chavasse, CTO and Co-Founder of Muddy Machines as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. Muddy Machines have produced the only field robot, called Sprout, capable of net-zero farming and selective harvesting. Sprout is able to harvest asparagus with precision, leaving unripe stems for another day. Muddy Machines are farmer focused, constantly incorporating feedback from growers to better develop this robotic farming service.
The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.
Chris: I am the CTO and one of the Co-Founders of Muddy Machines and we are developing robots that automate labour intensive processes in horticulture, to help solve farming issues related to hiring many seasonal workers. Our initial product is a green asparagus harvesting robot called Sprout. We are going into commercial operations this year at the end of March/beginning of April in-line with the asparagus harvesting season. We are also developing harvesting tools for other crops and starting to look at other service offerings too, such as weeding and in-time field data analytics. No one else is trying to solve these issues in this way and a lot of other companies have gone down combine routes and harvesting whole crops at the same time but this results in huge yield losses due to immature growth or flowering produce. We have a prototype ready for commercial operations and we are about to start raising a seed round.
Chris: Yes, one of the biggest challenges was keeping the machine lightweight and electric powered so that it can run on solar power. It is 1.8m wide by 1.8m long and weighs 350kg.
Chris: There are a few different reasons why we chose asparagus to start with. One is that it is a very high value crop; per kilo, it is on par with red meat. On a technical front, it is one of the most suitable crops for robotic harvesting as you don’t have leaves or foliage on the bed. You also don’t have to rely on colour or texture to determine when it is ready to harvest as length dictates ripeness. We are looking at other crops that are similar in shape and dimension to asparagus, such as tender stem broccoli. However, that has the added leaf and foliage challenge to overcome.
Chris: Florian and I met in March 2021 at Entrepreneurs First which is an accelerator in London. We bonded over the hypothesis that there was not a lot of technical innovation going on in agriculture. We went on a journey to determine the technology that was available, and the challenges were in this space. On this journey, we realised there is a huge amount of technical innovation in agriculture, but these weren’t related to overcoming seasonal worker shortages, the problem many farmers are facing. Some of the farmers we work with require up to 1,500 people for 2-3 months of the year. Brexit made it harder to find these workers, and it was compounded by COVID. The workforce who were reliant on seasonal agriculture jobs have turned to alternatives, such as warehouses, Uber drivers or other, more enjoyable jobs that aren’t in a challenging environment!
Chris: Yes, most start-ups will relate to hiring challenges. You start as a small, not very well-established company and have a questionable runway and people would be taking a risk in job security by joining you. Luckily, we have been able to hire some fantastic people who really buy into our mission. We are offering a unique opportunity to reshape agriculture practices in a green sustainable way and so it is important that everyone who joins us has the same motivations and are mission-driven. If you are in a similar position and can offer mission-driven work, then I think that helps people take on the bigger risk of working for you.
Chris: On the product development cycle, we are very closely coupled to the seasons so when we are developing products, we have to have it built and ready for the start of the season. These are deadlines you cannot move so we have quite tight product development cycles there. In terms of ensuring our products meet market needs, we work very closely with different farms and growers and meet with them most weeks to update on our product development to incorporate their feedback into our product. This is important to us as one of our core values is that we are farmer focused because at the end of the day, we are trying to solve their problems.
Chris: Sprout as a robot platform and software would stay the same but the harvesting tool within the machine can be changed out. One of the reasons we chose tenderstem broccoli is the fact that the season follows asparagus. If Sprout is harvesting asparagus and tenderstem, it would be used from March-November.
We are not anticipating that Sprout will ever be fully autonomous and will always require some level of human supervision.
Chris: Sure, there were two main things, one on the technical front and one on the business front. The weather is very challenging, and we are building outdoor robotics. When creating software in the middle of the field, the environment can make it tough to get everything working. You must keep going and power through despite the weather!
On the business front, our product is very technical, and it is replacing growers at the most critical point as if they cannot harvest, there’s no revenue. Farmers are used to large pieces of machinery that are supported by an extensive network and have a proven track record. We are offering something that doesn’t fit within these boundaries and so required us to innovate on the business front. We now offer robotics as a service and harvesting in real-time which allows for cash-flow forecasting. Therefore, they can also plan for the number of machines they will need, and we can be paid for every kilo of crop they are harvesting.
Chris: I think hardware and Agri-tech are two of the hardest sectors to raise funding in. During the lockdowns, investors were taking their time to really decide where they wanted to put their money. We had many investors respond to us that said they didn’t believe we could construct a machine that could harvest asparagus and be commercially viable. We were seen as a high-risk investment.
What our approach has been is that we go back with more evidence of the development progress we have made and then the investors believe what we are doing can be successful. One of our companies’ core values is being relentless and evidencing our progress if you can take investors on the journey with you, that builds their confidence and allows us the raise funding. I would say don’t be put down just because somebody says no.
Thank you for your time, Chris!