Kyle Cobb – Advanced.Farm – Ep 28

Kyle Cobb, Co-Founder & CEO at Advanced.Farm

In this episode of “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, we’re joined by Kyle Cobb from Advanced.Farm, who we will be talking to about how their robotic harvesting technology is helping reduce bruising and fruit damage while increasing yields.

advanced.farm

Transcript

[00:00:00] Mitchell Denton: Hello, and welcome to “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, the PostHarvest podcast that interviews people of interest across the food supply chain.

Today on our show, I’m joined by Kyle Cobb from Advanced.Farm, who I’ll be talking to about how their robotic harvesting technology is helping reduce bruising and fruit damage while increasing yields.

So with no further delays, let’s get started.

Hi, Kyle, how are you?

[00:00:25] Kyle Cobb: I’m great. Thank you. How are you?

[00:00:27] Mitchell Denton: I’m great. Thanks. Before we get into the podcast, I just wanted to give you the opportunity to tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do, and maybe just a little fun fact.

[00:00:36] Kyle Cobb: Sure thing. Yeah, my name’s Kyle Cobb, I’m the co-founder and president of Advanced Farm Technologies based in Davis, California. I’ll talk quite a bit about our story here in a minute, but to my fun fact, my son was born just a few hundred feet from where I met his mom, my wife.

[00:00:54] Mitchell Denton: Wow. Wow. And whereabouts was that?

[00:00:57] Kyle Cobb: That was at UCLA hospital just around the corner from where my wife and I met at UCLA as undergrads at our first campus job.

[00:01:04] Mitchell Denton: Oh, wow. That’s amazing. So what was the time difference between meeting your wife and, and having your child.

[00:01:12] Kyle Cobb: Okay. So we met in 2003 and he was born in 2012. So nine, nine years and three or four cities in between and back, right where we started.

[00:01:21] Mitchell Denton: Wow. That’s so crazy how that happens. 

[00:01:23] Kyle Cobb: Totally. Totally. 

[00:01:24] Mitchell Denton: That’s awesome. Well, before we get bogged down on on serendipity, let’s talk farm the fork. So, continuing on from you telling us what you do, would you mind telling us a little bit more about the history of Advanced Farm and how your innovative technology works?

[00:01:41] Kyle Cobb: Sure. Uh, Advanced Farm was started by me and three friends that actually have quite a long history together. I went to high school with our co-founder and CEO, Mark Grossman up here in Northern California. 

And then he went to university with our other two founders, who are together are three very bright engineers and I compliment them on the business side with a background in finance and marketing. 

And we actually started a business together coming out of school as undergrads back in 2011, a business called Greenbotics, where we did robotic solar panel cleaning. 

As the solar industry was growing and booming they were finding that as you build projects in the desert, they get soiled and there isn’t rain for months on end. So we needed to come up with a low water, low labour solution to clean those panels. 

So we built that business out of a barn in Davis using our own money, for a few years. Uh, and then we ended up selling that company to one of our customers called SunPower.

And we worked at SunPower for a few years, deploying robots all over the world. So there’s power plants and doing that also became really inspired by what was around us. And Davis is a big Ag town and we have a lot of friends who are farmers, and as you talk to a farmer, particularly here in California, the theme of labour shortages and the expense of labour continues to come up.

And that really inspired us and we decided to take the skills that we had in robotics and apply them to a new industry here in farming. And now what we like to say is, “We’re building a 21st century farm equipment company centered around automation and robotics.”

[00:03:14] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, that’s awesome. I mean the labour shortage problem is, is no different over here in Australia as well. We’re in desperate need of some of that tech. But I see that Advanced Farm has been shifting its focus from Strawberry harvesting to Apple harvesting. 

Does this look like a complete overhaul of your technology’s existing compounds, or is it more of a lateral tweak and adjustment with what you’ve encountered with Strawberries?

[00:03:38] Kyle Cobb: Great question and it’s one we get often, and to your point, the labour shortage that we see here in California in strawberries, where it is maybe one of the hardest jobs that human can do, and certainly one of the most expensive for a grower to pay for. That’s not just the same for strawberries, it’s a universal problem that we see in agriculture across crops, across regions.

And I think, apples is another really good example of that. And in fact, tree fruit in general is also very hard and expensive to harvest, and we’ve been making progress in strawberry harvesting for a few years and I’ve always been asked, “Hey, how does this apply to other applications, other crops?” 

And one of the benefits that we have relative to some of the others working on this problem is that we have developed a lot of the technology from the ground up.

So we’re not using much off the shelf. We have our own drive system, our own robotic arm gripper, stereo camera, all designed from scratch and in the case of moving to tree fruit harvesting, what we’ve been able to do fortunately, is actually repurposed a lot of those components directly. So taking the same engine block, the same drive system, a lot of the same software and algorithms for detecting bright fruit and how to pick it, and even the same robotic arms just turned sideways. 

[00:04:55] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. 

[00:04:56] Kyle Cobb: And now we’re, uh, we’re taking that same platform to tree fruit. And we expect to see similar success to what we’ve seen in strawberries.

[00:05:03] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, that’s fantastic. So then, what’s been the biggest challenge your team encountered so far with your innovative products?

[00:05:11] Kyle Cobb: I think if you were to ask me that question at different times, uh, you would hear different answers just based on, you know, how challenging this problem is and, and how it seems to change. Early on I think, it was really around picking fruit without causing damage to the fruit or the plant. As we grew, it was finding ways to go faster.

And now I’d say the biggest problem that we’ve started to see is, or that we’re, maybe I’d say the next step change that we expect to see as a company is, is just improvements in reliability. We’ve picked millions of strawberries, and we know that we can pick them fast and cheap. But now the question is, can we do it at scale as we grow from what we currently have? 16 machines out in the field to hundreds of machines. And I think that’s gonna be the next real challenge that we face.

[00:05:57] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, totally. You mentioned before that some of the alternatives are using off the shelf components. 

Is there anything else that you would say that separates your technology from other harvesting alternatives?

[00:06:10] Kyle Cobb: I think from a philosophical design point of view, that actually is a really big differentiator, I think it’s, it’s tempting to try to use a tractor and attach a standard off the shelf robot behind the tractor, and think that with some software and some vision system integrated that you’re off to the races.

But what you’ll find pretty quickly is that for problems that have never been solved before you actually need new solutions, it turns out. And so that’s why we boldly chose to redesign a lot of the sub components. And at the time of doing it, it was. I’d say a really hard decision to make, because again, it’s not the easy route, but in retrospect, now that we’re, we’re past a lot of that development, it’s proven to be the right decision because we control our own destiny in a way from a technical point of view.

 I think the other thing that really separates us is, we are very practical and very focused on being in the field. We expect that everyone from a software engineer to, you know, a business person is in the field regularly or frequently working through problems in the field because it’s so tempting again, to sit in a nice, comfortable environment and solve problems.

But often we find that if you do that for too long, you start solving the wrong problems instead of being in front of customers and demonstrating that you care about what they’re actually going through and that you’re working hard and long hours to, uh, to get to a solution faster.

[00:07:36] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, absolutely. I see that advanced farm has collaborated with UC Davis’s strawberry breeding program. Would you mind speaking more about what entails that program and what field data you hope to collect?

[00:07:50] Kyle Cobb: We’re very fortunate to be here in Davis, which in many ways is the centre of the farming universe. Certainly from a research point of view, UC Davis is a leader across many crop categories. And to our delight, uh, UC Davis strawberry breeding program is also the world leader. And so if you look at a lot of the other examples of crops that have mechanised successfully, you see that genetics has played a part in that.

Uh, and we expect the same to be true in strawberries where over time breeders will start to release what we call robot-ready varieties that have characteristics that we like. And so as part of that partnership, we’ve worked with UC Davis to pull forward some of the early cultivars in their breeding program that have some of those characteristics, and we follow them over the course of the season, see how we perform, make sure that they also have the other qualities.

Such as yield that are important to growers. And the hope is that if we continue to do this collaboration, that we will see this convergence between positive genetics and, you know, advancements in robotics that lead to an autonomous harvest solution sooner

[00:08:56] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Wow. That’s exciting. So then what’s the biggest revelation you’ve uncovered while working within the AgTech industry.

[00:09:03] Kyle Cobb: For us, I think it’s actually how clever growers are and how, how good of problem solvers they are. You know, I think, uh, it’s, it’s funny to see the ways that growers tackle problems today.

[00:09:18] Mitchell Denton: Yeah 

[00:09:20] Kyle Cobb: With relatively limited resources and oftentimes, we find that growers are not technologists, but, uh, they’ve found some other equally, uh, ingenious solution to a problem that they’re facing.

And so I think for us, that, that also means that they’re very excited, uh, when we are focusing on their problems and, you know, we see a lot of support from growers who are really just thankful and grateful to have the attention of, of people with, you know, really high talent and robotics to come to the field and try to solve a new set of problems for them.

[00:09:51] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, absolutely. So then from where you stand, what would you identify as being one of the biggest pain points in the food industry? 

[00:09:58] Kyle Cobb: Certainly for us, the easiest answer is labour. You know, it’s, it’s a really pervasive challenge and I think not only from a cost point of view, but I think as a society, we, we owe it to the workers who are in frankly, some of the toughest conditions you can imagine to doing some of the hardest jobs that, you can do to provide better alternatives to that work.

And so I think, you know, we keep that as a core tenant to what motivates us. And I think we have to come up with something more sustainable, especially on the harvest side, in order for us to continue to have the diversity in our diets and the options that we want, in the produce aisle.

[00:10:36] Mitchell Denton: Definitely. Definitely. So has the COVID pandemic for better or worse, had any effect on your day to day operations?

[00:10:43] Kyle Cobb: We’ve been very fortunate to see relatively small amounts of disruption during COVID very early on the California government deemed agriculture as an essential industry. And frankly, what that meant is that we didn’t stop. And in some cases we even tried to accelerate to be there for our growers in ways that we couldn’t be before.

And so for us, it meant that we were able to make quite a bit of progress by continuing our work in the field. We’ve actually grown from about 12 people to what we are now, 60 people from the start of 2020 into the middle of 2022, let’s say. 

So we’re again, very fortunate to not have been as impacted and in some ways you could say that. It made investors and growers, even more conscious of the challenges that can come up beyond just the day to day challenges. 

[00:11:36] Mitchell Denton: Yeah great. And also developing your own components. Would that have been affected by the supply chain at all? Or was it actually to your benefit? 

[00:11:44] Kyle Cobb: No, we are seeing supply chain challenges like everyone. I think we have tried to mitigate those in the same ways that everyone else has, you know, buying early, finding really reliable suppliers that we can work closely with. But, I’m really hopeful that we’re getting past it and it hasn’t stopped us or slowed us down much, but I think if it persists for, you know, another couple of years, then certainly everyone will be impacted.

[00:12:10] Mitchell Denton: Definitely. Definitely. So when it comes to food loss and sustainable farming, what’s the biggest area your team are curious about and why?

[00:12:19] Kyle Cobb: One of the insights that we try to convey to others is that the entire fresh produce supply chain is designed around the human worker, in most cases, the harvest worker. And what that means is that growers are asking that worker to move quickly through the field, make decisions very quickly. And oftentimes that results in sacrifices that can lead to food loss.

Just to give you one example, strawberries are picked by hand in the field. They’re picked off the plant, put right into a clam shell, and then that clam shell is never opened again until it gets to a consumer’s shelf.

And that means that any berry that wasn’t quite good enough to go in that clam shell, but maybe didn’t really have anything wrong with it, goes to a juice line that is turned into juice.

We see an opportunity to automate also the post harvest portion of strawberries, where we can disrupt a little bit of that process, where it’s not just one touch in the field, but it’s, it’s a sorting and packing process after harvest that can help create new markets for consumers, lower food waste, and also provide more profitability to a grower.

And you can see that with our autonomous strawberry packline product.

[00:13:34] Mitchell Denton: That’s exciting. So continuing on this thought, is there a particular group or innovation within the industry that you’re excitedly keeping a watchful eye on?

[00:13:42] Kyle Cobb: Yeah, I think part of it’s that I’m not a scientist and so I get wowed easily by scientific innovations.

But, uh, yeah, one of the, one of the areas in farming that I think is so cool to watch is the advances in genetics. And there’s a company that’s actually close to us in Davis or the Davis area called, InnerPlant that has a special way of modifying genetics of certain types of plants to show markers for different things that are happening in your field. 

So, let’s say there’s a disease that’s impacting some of the plants or, uh, water shortage at part of the, part of the ranch. That’s just one company I think that’s playing in the genetic space that, uh, that I, I admit I don’t fully understand the implementation, but I’m just really impressed by the ability to manipulate biology in a way that can really change an industry like agriculture.

[00:14:37] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, that’s crazy. I love that. So what’s one thing you wish you had known when you began your career in developing autonomous harvesting tech?

[00:14:46] Kyle Cobb: You know, I think the importance of good partners is understated. Good partners, not only on the, you know, co-founding side, I’ve, I’ve been very fortunate to have those naturally, but I think also good investment partners have helped us along way down the road and, and frankly, good grower partners. We’re very fortunate to have two companies, Yamaha and Kubota, really traditional technology companies based in Japan that have built businesses over a generation or two.

That understand what it’s like to start with nothing in high technology and build their reliable global business, and that sort of share our vision and what is possible in agriculture and in robotics, frankly. 

And I think that’s, um, not something that every startup is fortunate enough to have. And I’d say equally on the grower’s side.

Uh, it’s very important to filter a early grower partner to those that are really keen to adopt the technology who are open minded about making changes, but who are also willing to devote resources to, to our success. So I think those things I’d say in some way happened naturally for us, but, uh, I’m really glad that they did.

And, and I, I think I would encourage others who were starting. To find partners that really conform to their own timelines, their own philosophies and kind of working styles.

[00:16:09] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, no, definitely. So Kyle, we are coming to a close, but before we do, I just wanted to ask what is the major point you really want the listeners to take away from this episode?

[00:16:20] Kyle Cobb: I think the major point is that. A couple things actually, first we should be very grateful for all of the hard work that goes into the diversity of the fresh produce that we have available at our fingertips all over the world. 

It’s amazing the level of effort from the growers, from the workers, you know, from the breeders. And hopefully now from the, uh, mechanical harvesting groups out there working, that get that produce to the store. 

And I think the, the second thing is that we are entering into a really interesting, and I’d say transformational point in agriculture, that will be really fun to watch over the next decade or two.

And I’m just really excited for what the future holds and, and anyone who’s considering starting a business in this space or working in this space. I highly encourage you to do so because the challenges are plentiful, but I’d say the reward is also quite large, both from a personal and a professional point of view, and they’re just really wonderful people to work with in this industry. And, and I’m, I’m excited to see what’s next.

[00:17:26] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, I agree with you. I’m, I’m really excited to see what the future holds, but unfortunately this episode is coming to an end. So that’s all for today’s episode of “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”. Thanks for listening. And thank you, Kyle, for joining me today.

[00:17:39] Kyle Cobb: Thank you so much for having me. It’s my pleasure.

[00:17:41] Mitchell Denton: If you’d like to know more about Kyle and Advanced.Farm, check out the link in the description of the episode, make sure to subscribe to the podcast that you never miss an episode, and don’t forget to leave a review and share with your friends. 

Until next time you’ve been listening to Let’s Talk Farm to Fork, a PostHarvest podcast.

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