Investment Memos
September 5, 2017
Kathryn Schox

Autonomous farming to feed the next millennium (Why we invested in Bear Flag Robotics)

Bear Flag is building products and services which help farmers by automating tractor and utility vehicle tasks. This automation of agriculture vehicles will allow farmers to save labor costs and ultimately make more money and feed more people.

By 2050, farm yields need to increase by 70% to meet global demand, yet farmers today face severe labor challenges that put future production at risk. Depending on the crop, this translates into 15-20% of land going unfarmed due to labor shortages. As a result, farm production wages have risen; California recently expanded overtime rules to include migrant farm workers starting in 2019.

This forces farmers to make tough decisions. Do farmers abandon labor-intensive crops or shut down operations? The answer is found in another option: fill the labor shortage with technology. Bear Flag's solution is an automation kit that is compatible across all tractor types and OEM platforms. This enhances farm productivity and does not require the purchasing of new tractors -- Bear Flag's kit turns any old farm utility vehicle or tractor into an autonomous one.

The revenue model for the company is a hardware-as-a-service platform. Their initial target market is large orchards (500+ acres), which have significant, year-round needs for spraying and mowing. Orchards require frequent spraying of herbicides and pesticides and mowing cover crop between trees. Compared to current solutions, Bear Flag's pricing model is 1/2 the cost, yet can operate as much as 24 hours per day instead of just eight, making it more akin to 1/6 the cost at full utilization.

The kit does not require hardware modifications, and in most cases can be done with no holes drilled. The early prototypes of the system contain one LiDAR, GPS and physical actuators which control braking, accelerator and steering. Future versions of the kit will eliminate LiDAR in favor of a camera solution, further bringing down the material costs. Prior to service, Bear Flag does a high-resolution mapping prior exercise, which the vehicle uses to localize in its routing.

Bear Flag will face a number of challenges in the coming years. The most significant is that they are selling their solution as a development unit to a customer not used to buying development units. In other words, their system will be placed in the hands of farmers who will have a lot to lose if the Bear Flag system has a failure or destroys part of their crop; these farmers aren't like typical software buyers -- they won't have a great deal of flexibility should the early Bear Flag systems have a thorny 'beta' period of issues. And because the farming community is especially tight-knit, the company could potentially risk destroying future leads with a few early mistakes. The next big hurdle is competition from Big Tractor -- aka the John Deere, CNH Case, Agco and other large tractor manufacturers who have made announcements about autonomous systems but have yet to deploy AV systems for lower priced models. We antificipate that Bear Flag can move faster than the encumbents and that ultimately one of the large tractor manufacturers will have to partner with or acquire Bear Flag.

We look forward to helping the Bear Flag team in the coming years as they build their business.

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