Ittai Marom – Tevel – Ep 37
Ittai Marom, U.S. General Manager at Tevel
In this episode of “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork,” we’re joined by Ittai Marom from Tevel, who we’ll be talking to about how their flying harvesting robots are a labour shortage solution that is helping increase yields
[00:00:00] Mitchell Denton: Hi there, 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 Ittai Marom from Tevel, who I’ll be talking to about how their flying harvesting robots are a labour shortage solution that are helping increase yields.
So with no further delays, let’s get started.
Well, good morning, Ittai. How are you?
[00:00:26] Ittai Marom: Good afternoon my time. I’m good. How are you, Mitch?
[00:00:29] Mitchell Denton: I am very well, thank you. Before we get into it, I just wanted to give you the opportunity to tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do, and maybe a fun fact about yourself.
[00:00:38] Ittai Marom: So, yeah, first of all, thanks for, uh, having me here. It’s a pleasure. My name is Ittai Marom. I’m from Israel, but I’m currently living in the US. And I’m the general manager of Tevel here in the US. As in many cases with the Israelis, my early background is with the military in Israel. Served there nine years full-time in the Air Force.
After which I did a bachelor’s degree in physics, took on several roles in both large and small companies in Israel. Did my MBA in the US and about four years ago, I received call from an early-stage startup working on this crazy idea of, uh, using flying robots to pick fruits. They were looking for a COO, so I joined Tevel in 2019 ah when we were just a team. Started the operations department, took the lead on our grower relations in Israel and globally later.
And began, uh, began to learn so much from these interactions with growers. Till about a year ago, we made this, uh, important step of starting our US business, and for which I recently moved here to manage this side of the company’s business. the other thing was a fun fact about myself. So, I grew up most of my life in Israel, but now it’s actually my fourth time moving, uh, to the US.
And over, over the course of my life, uh, you know, both growing up and now as an adult, I’ve moved around the globe quite a lot and, and now with two kids at home, me and my wife, we joke around that our, our passports are like a beginning of a joke, you know, those “a priest, a rabbi, and something, board a plane”, we’re a family of four with a total of nine different passports and the kids have now grown to move around quite a bit.
[00:02:27] Mitchell Denton: Mm mm-hmm.
[00:02:28] Ittai Marom: So that’s me.
[00:02:29] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Wow. That’s quite a bit of travel. Continuing on from you telling us what you do, would you mind telling us a little bit more about the history of Tevel and how your innovative technology works?
[00:02:39] Ittai Marom: Yeah. So, Tevel was founded a few years ago, but the actual story, our founder and, and CEO uh, Yaniv Maor, he saw this documentary on TV in Israel, I would say 10 years ago. It was about the lack of fruit pickers in Israel. And they did sort of this experiment, if you wanna call it that, taking a group of people, sort of throwing them into the orchard to, uh pick apples for one day.
And at the end of that day in the show, most of of the people said they had enough and, uh, you know, we don’t wanna do this anymore for even another day. Yaniv thought that this, I would say repetitive task, uh, of picking fruit could be solved by a robotic solution. But he realised that the level of technology available those days needed for this, still needs to mature.
So, he held onto the idea, but really didn’t do anything about it. And only a few years later with the improvements in, uh, in GPU power, uh, graphing the processing units and the advancements in, uh, artificial intelligence, he actually quit his job in the defense industry to, to start the company and went on to write the first patents for fruit picking, flying robots.
[00:03:53] Mitchell Denton: Mmm.
[00:03:54] Ittai Marom: So, the company was founded, uh, in 2017 and started with developing the robots and the algorithms, uh, running them. Long story short, five years later, uh, we’re now at a point where these flying robots have evolved into, I would say, complete solution, a system, which includes, uh, eight tethered, meaning connected tethered flying robots, with a bunch of sensors, allowing them to pick all sorts of fruits, autonomously.
The robots actually identify ripeness, identify the foliage, identify obstacles on their way. They even recognise specific diseases, and after picking, the robots place these fruits into the system and the system itself delivers those fruits into a bin.
[00:04:39] Mitchell Denton: Yep.
[00:04:40] Ittai Marom: That’s a long story short of what Tevel has done in the past five years.
[00:04:45] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Fantastic. I see that Tevel’s technology is not only concerned with harvesting fruit, but with collecting harvesting data. Would you mind explaining to the listeners what purpose this data collection serves?
[00:04:58] Ittai Marom: Um, this actually is something that really blew my mind, over the past year or so when I saw this taking shape and, and showing the growers, so, obviously we have a system that is designed to pick apples, but also we expanded its capabilities into, uh, different other fruits, stone fruits, peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, even pears. But apart from picking fruit with the flying robot, which brings obviously tremendous value to the grower in and of itself, we learned through developing this capability of the data, and I’ll explain in a minute.
While we’re showing it to growers that this capability is a game changer, uh, in its own right. So it’s cool that you pick fruits, but the data that you give me is so important, which really blew my mind. And, and by the way, accomplishing this, within the company was a really impressive achievement by, by our super sharp R and D people.
What basically we’re doing is, as the system picks the fruits down the road. Each specific fruit is analysed by the robot that is picking it, and each fruit is, is actually getting an identity. There’s a dashboard, uh, where we’re consolidating all these data points, and you can see the actual numbers. So the actual amount of fruit that’s being picked, the total weight of the fruits, the distribution of fruit sizes, weights.
There’s even a heat map that you can see where in the row, uh, the fruits were picked from. Uh, you can, uh, also see certain diseases or disorders. So, so when, when you show this to growers, you understand that this really opens up unprecedented, I would say possibilities for the growers, because now each bin, while it’s being picked or while it’s being filled, sorry, has all the relevant information about its content.
So, you know, to dive in, uh, just a minute or two more just to explain why this is so revolutionary. So, what is happening today is that, let’s say a certain block of a certain, uh, apple varieties being picked today, the grower today has no exact numbers, what this block is yielding in terms of how many fruits, what sizes, quality, so on.
So all these fruits are being picked into bins, and now a bunch of bins are transported to the packing house, most of them to refrigeration, by the way. And yet, even at this point, the grower has no idea what this block is yielding. He will know his bottom line numbers, uh, later in the process after all these fruits go through the packing house and into boxes into the market.
But he doesn’t know these exact numbers, and these numbers are very important in his, you know, value chain, supply chain, to his bottom numbers even so with the data that, uh, we provide, the grower knows at every point in time during the picking what his yield is, what sizes he’s getting, these sizes and quality really affect his bottom line.
And you can think of more possibilities here, knowing diseases, knowing disorders, seeing where they are in the heat map. Uh, maybe identify early on, uh, certain trees with problems. So really the possibilities of these data points are endless.
[00:08:27] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. That’s fantastic. So then, what’s the biggest challenge your team have encountered so far with your innovative technology and how did you overcome it? Or at least how are you looking to overcome it?
[00:08:37] Ittai Marom: That’s a very good question. I would say that in an effort, in an endeavor like the one we, took upon ourselves. In my eyes, it’s one of the most challenging robotic applications in the market. Obviously in AgTech, but probably even across, uh, more industries.
Technological challenges are something in, in, in our world, which are obviously numerous.
There’s, there, there have been tons of technological challenges that we have, have had to overcome. But I would say that the biggest challenge by far, really by far, and, and it sort of connects the dots of all these technological stuff that we are working on, is actually the development time.
Uh, in other words, it has to do with funding. So, we’re solving so many challenges and we’re dealing with so many complexities solving this task of picking fruits with a robot. Add to that, the fact that you’re working in a complex agriculture environment.
Uh, I’m guessing you’ve been hearing this from other AgTech startups.
One of the things that makes AgTech different than other tech segments is the fact that you can’t just spend your development time in the lab and after a while, BOOM! Launch your product and you’re good to go. It doesn’t work that way in AgTech, your product needs to be developed in the field as much as possible.
So, with fruit picking you only have a core time window every year to do all this testing and tweaking in the field. And this means that the development time from an idea concept into a product is, is long. And the only way to do this for such a length of time is to find the real visionary investors and people that share your vision and have the patience to support it.
Obviously, together with a visionary, exceptional team in the company that wants to join such a journey and make it happen. So essentially, I would say that the biggest challenge is, is funding for, uh, for a long stretch of time, especially in our world where we’re, uh, I would say creating this whole solution from scratch, uh, something that hasn’t been done before. By the way, this, this obviously creates an extremely high barrier for entry, but also in my mind, it makes it that much exciting, to be involved in such a, such a journey.
[00:11:06] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I find that to actually be such a great explanation of the AgTech world. It’s very much, there, there is the research and development that takes place in the lab, so to speak, but there really needs to be that groundwork getting out in the field.
So, I completely understand where you’re coming from and a lot of the other guests on this podcast completely understand where you’re coming from.
That leads me to ask, what would you say separates your flying robot technology from other harvesting alternatives on the market?
[00:11:38] Ittai Marom: Yeah, so obviously the easy answer to this is the fact that as far as we know, we’re the only ones, uh, solving this challenge with flying robots. So that’s easy out of your question.
But, but also, I would say that apart from the flexibility in using the flying robots, there’s a bunch of other differentiators, so to speak, whether it’s the, the data that we’re providing that we talked about or the variety of fruits we’re handling or basically I would say making our system adaptable and using it for as many different applications as we can.
[00:12:13] Mitchell Denton: Okay. Yeah, perfect. Labor shortages are obviously an industry-wide concern and Tevel’s flying robots can be a great answer to this problem. I see the pilot program has expanded beyond Israel.
Would you mind talking about some of the other countries that have been involved and how these programs have progressed?
[00:12:31] Ittai Marom: So talking about labour, I think, first it’s important to clear a common misconception, uh, that we often hear as, by the way, other AgTech companies hear. People see our solution and one of the comments we get from time-to-time is the, “Oh yeah, these guys are all here to take jobs away from people”.
And, I think it’s important to clear this misconception because it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Uh, the reality is that we’re actually, uh, not just us, any, any company in the AgTech space working on robotic solutions, I’ll call it stepping into fill a void.
There isn’t enough labour around in Ag and specifically, uh, where we’re targeting in tree fruit. The harvesting part is one of the most, or in some cases, the most labour-intensive task. So, uh, we’re not taking away jobs, we’re just filling in a void. Uh, so we’re complimenting, uh, labour that isn’t there.
But to your question, yes, we’ve actually, uh, expanded out of Israel over the past, uh, year and a half. So, in late 2021, apple season 2021, we did our first commercial pilot in Italy with a leading customer there. And last summer, 2022, was the debut of our US operations and we did a similar pilot in the Central Valley in California with H & C Farms, another leading grower.
Uh, later we did the trials in Apples in Washington state. So, for the company, these are really exciting times. Uh, over the past year or so, we, we started, you know, doing our, our first steps, commercial steps outside of Israel.
[00:14:13] Mitchell Denton: That’s fantastic. So then what’s the biggest revelation you’ve uncovered while working within the AgTech industry?
[00:14:20] Ittai Marom: Good question. Um, if it wasn’t apparent from the first question, I had absolutely zero experience in agriculture before I joined Tevel. So Tevel was my, uh, my door into agriculture and into the AgTech industry, as well. And honestly coming in, I had this misconception about agriculture, that it’s generally low tech, uh, traditional industry.
I had no, uh, I would say, um, assumptions about this industry being innovative. But after entering this world and, and knowing growers and understanding the industry and don’t get me wrong, me and the company and the team, we’re learning every day about the industry.
So, I learned that growers, although, you know, the, the average grower might not be the most, uh, tech-savvy individual. They are so much into data and they’re right on top of their numbers, I would say.
And this really makes them primed for all these, uh, solutions are among, among them, but growers are so ready to, uh, adopt and embrace solutions because they’re there, they understand the importance.
They’re on top of their data and numbers, and this was, this was a real surprise to me.
[00:15:42] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. You, you mentioned earlier, Tevel filling the void of the labour shortages, beyond the obvious. I just wanted to ask you, what would you identify as being one of the biggest pain points in the food industry?
[00:15:55] Ittai Marom: Yeah, so, so obviously, uh, uh, labour has its multifaceted aspects but apart from labour, it has to do with that. But I would say that the Ag industry as a whole with world population growing and the need to feed everyone, everyone knows that the Ag industry globally will need to produce more and more every year, maybe exponentially, more and more every year.
And there’s simply no way to do that in the traditional ways we’ve done that.
So, producing that much more food for an exponentially growing population on this planet can only be achieved with robotics and autonomous solutions up and down the value chain, that I would say. I mean, it’s, it, it’s not just solutions like ours picking fruits.
It’s, it’s robots and autonomous machines tackling every known test to man in agriculture.
That I would say is the biggest challenge or biggest pain point for the industry.
[00:16:57] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, absolutely. You mentioned at the start that Tevel was founded back in 2017. Obviously you had no idea that the Covid pandemic was just around the corner for, for better or worse, did the Covid pandemic have any effect on your day-to-day operations?
[00:17:13] Ittai Marom: Less on the day-to-day operations, I would say. Back in Israel, we were designated an essential company, so we were able to, uh, stay open for much of the, uh shutdowns, or closures we had back in Israel. You know, every country had its own regulations, but we were able to stay open. I would say even more that we learned in Covid that the trend to go remote is something that doesn’t work for us.
We had to move into a remote environment, uh, just a few times and we realised that the power of our team being together and developing together across different departments is it’s key to keep developing the product.
Obviously we had supply chain issues like everybody else. We did overcome them initially by ordering things early. And obviously when you talk Covid in the ag industry, everybody understands that this only, uh, you know, exacerbated the labour shortage and made the need for solutions like ours to be even more apparent.
[00:18:19] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, absolutely. So then, is there a particular group or innovation within the industry that you’re excitedly keeping a watchful eye on?
[00:18:27] Ittai Marom: I would say that I wouldn’t call them a group, but the most interesting growers at this point in time are those early adopters, the growers, which are those forward thinkers that understand that the challenge is here. The problem is here. Solutions like ours are essentially required at this point in time.
And these are the ones that we’re following and in touch with, and these are also the ones that are sharing all their Information and, and their perspective on their business. And these are actually our best partners. These are really design partners that we’re working with, helping us advance our solution.
Because you said innovation, I can’t not think about Israel as a hub of innovation and the home of so many startups, as you probably know, and, and especially in AgTech, so a lot of AgTech startups are hailing from Israel. and some of them are, have become friends of ours, so we know a lot of them.
And by the way, mid-February, there’s a very big expo in Tulare, California where we’re, uh, exhibiting along with many others. And we’ve actually, uh, received a very prestigious award there in the top 10 products. And out of these top 10 products, three products are from companies hailing from Israel.
So, it’s a real testament to what Israel has provided us in, in, in our world. The, the fact that so many crops are grown in such a small geography like Israel really helps companies like us in AgTech to develop their products in proximity to the offices.
And part of this is the fact that the Israel Innovation Authority, it’s a government branch, very innovative, as far as their name goes.
They’re, uh, they’ve supported us throughout the years and I would say, we owe them a lot of gratitude. Looking at where we’ve come, uh, these years
[00:20:30] Mitchell Denton: That’s fantastic. Yeah, there’s been a lot of great innovation coming out of Israel. We’ve had a few podcast guests actually recently from Israel and the things that they’re doing, it’s, it’s quite fascinating.
But beyond that, we’ve found that there’s a great community, uh, around the innovation that’s happening in Israel.
There’s a lot of support happening there as well, which is really cool to see.
That being said, what’s one thing you wish you had known when you began your career in developing autonomous harvesting robots?
[00:20:58] Ittai Marom: I would say that growers, farmers are hungry for data and are driven by data more than I had expected. And as I said, they aren’t as traditional as I thought. Another thing is that the complexity of solving the challenges that we’re facing and how many departments, how many disciplines, how many professions, how much know-how is needed to work together in close cooperation to succeed and to develop is something that, uh, you know, I thought it was, I thought it was complex, I didn’t, uh, realise how much.
[00:21:37] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, definitely. So, Ittai, we are coming to a close, but before we do, I just wanted to ask you, what is the main point you really want the listeners to take away from this episode?
[00:21:47] Ittai Marom: I would say simply that everything is possible. That what looks at first, like a crazy, out of this world solution or product or system, if you get around yourself a dedicated out of this world, uh, team of exceptional individuals working together, you can tackle any challenge and essentially the sky is the limit, when you put your mind to it with the right group of people.
[00:22:16] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, that’s great. Just another example of the community spirit coming out of Israel’s innovation. Well, that’s all for today’s episode of Let’s Talk Farm to Fork. Thanks for listening, and thank you Ittai for joining me today.
[00:22:29] Ittai Marom: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
[00:22:31] Mitchell Denton: If you’d like to know more about Ittai and Tevel, check out the link than the description of this episode, make sure to subscribe to the podcast so 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.