Research Foundation News

May 30, 2019

Autonomous robots in agricultural fields advance through $200,000 investment to Purdue startup

Autonomous robots to collect soil samples, improve and potentially reduce fertilizer use

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – The Purdue Ag-Celerator Fund  is investing $100,000, and Ag Alumni Seed, a Purdue University-affiliated not-for-profit company, is offering a $100,000 matching investment in Rogo Ag LLC, a pioneering agricultural technology company that is developing autonomous robots to collect more accurate soil samples so farmers can make better decisions about distribution of fertilizers.

The startup’s primary technology, called SmartCore, is an autonomous robot developed by Rogo and is designed to collect accurate, repeatable soil samples in fields and return the samples directly to the farmer or growers.

“SmartCore can help farmers make more strategic decisions on fertilizer use and potentially reduce the amount of fertilizer they need to use, which reduces their costs,” said Troy Fiechter, Rogo co-founder and CEO.  “It does this by getting the depth and location of each core of soil right.”

Fiechter and Drew Schumacher, Rogo co-founder and president, intend to use the funding for product goals such as simpler robot control, scalable bag labeling, and advanced collision avoidance. The startup also intends to continue scaling across the country, as well as innovate its technology further in the long term.

SmartCore uses a Bobcat skid steer chassis and navigates the fields using boundary algorithms and Lidar sensors, which send out laser light beams to detect objects. The operator only needs to identify trouble spots, such as ditches. The autonomous robot collects samples through a hydraulic auger bit, which is configured so that no soil escapes the core, guaranteeing accuracy, purity, and depth control. SmartCore is able to return to each core every season using RTK GPS and navigational algorithms. Farmers can hire Rogo as needed. A video is available here.

Fertilizer costs are one of the biggest expenses that row crop farmers face. Inconsistent soil sampling depth and lack of location accuracy skews sampling test results, which leads to suboptimal fertilizer application. This can be costly to farmers. In traditional sampling practices, the variance in both depth and location can lead to a sampling error as high as 20%. This addressable percentage of error, multiplied by the cost of fertilizer per acre and the number of fertilizer applications per sample, leads to an average profit loss of $30 per acre.

The Ag-Celerator is a $2 million fund devoted to supporting the commercialization of technologies enhancing plant sciences. The College of Agriculture and the Purdue Research Foundation co-founded the Ag-Celerator fund as part of the Purdue Moves program. The program is managed by Purdue Ventures, the investment arm of the Purdue Foundry.

“The purpose of the Ag-Celerator Fund is to provide entrepreneurs involved in plant science innovation with momentum as they advance their startups,” said Karen Plaut, the Glenn W. Sample Dean of the College of Agriculture. “Rogo is the 11th startup Ag-Celerator has funded to help gain that momentum.”

Previous recipients are Heliponix, Karysoft LLC, Ongenia LLC, JUA Technologies International LLC, ZeaVaxx LLC, Phicrobe LLC, VinSense Technology LLC, Akonocure Pharmaceuticals, Progeny Drone Inc. and Gen3Bio Inc.

“Ag-Celerator also aims to help Purdue entrepreneurs be better positioned to gain customers, secure development partners and obtain more investment funding,” said John Hanak, Purdue Ventures managing director.

The Ag Alumni Seed is a leading breeder, producer and marketer of hybrid popcorn seed, marketing seed in more than 40 countries. As part of its mission it supports research at Purdue University’s College of Agriculture and commercialization of that research.

“We’ve participated in every Ag-Celerator session to date including making investments in two previous winners,” said Jay Hulbert, president and CEO of Ag Alumni Seed. “We are extremely pleased to be able to offer Rogo a matching investment of $100,000 alongside the Ag-Celerator fund. Startups like Rogo are vital to growing the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Indiana, and we think Rogo is a company poised for rapid growth.” 

The judges who awarded the funding were Hanak, Hulbert, Beth Bechdol, president and CEO of AgriNovus Indiana; Marshall Martin, senior associate director of research in Purdue’s College of Agriculture, assistant dean and professor of Agricultural Economics; Jessica Murphy, business development manager at S2G Ventures; Collier Bern of R7Partners; and Drew Peyronnin of EVVangelist (Evansville Regional Angel Investor Network).

“Rogo and its Smart Core technology combines engineering, robotics and agronomy and exemplifies the agbioscience entrepreneurial sector here in Indiana,” Bechdol said. “The recognition and investment Rogo has received not only from the Ag-Celerator Fund, but also participation at the 2018 Forbes AgTech Summit and the Farmers Business Network start-up pitch contest positions the company well for growth.”

The technology aligns with Purdue's Giant Leaps celebration of the university’s global advancements made in sustainability as part of Purdue’s 150th anniversary. Sustainability, health, space and artificial intelligence are the four themes of the yearlong celebration’s Ideas Festival, designed to showcase Purdue as an intellectual center solving real-world issues.

About Purdue Research Foundation

The Purdue Research Foundation is a private, nonprofit foundation created to advance the mission of Purdue University. Established in 1930, the foundation accepts gifts; administers trusts; funds scholarships and grants; acquires property; protects Purdue's intellectual property; and promotes entrepreneurial activities on behalf of Purdue. The foundation manages the Purdue Foundry, Purdue Office of Technology Commercialization, Purdue Research Park and Purdue Technology Centers. The foundation received the 2016 Innovation and Economic Prosperity Universities Award for Innovation from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. For more information about funding and investment opportunities in startups based on a Purdue innovation, contact the Purdue Foundry at foundry@prf.org.

Writer: Jacqueline Lenz, 765-588-3342, jvlenz@prf.org

Purdue Research Foundation Contact: Tom Coyne, 765-588-1044, tjcoyne@prf.org 

Sources: Karen Plaut, kplaut@purdue.edu

John Hanak, jmhanka@purdue.edu


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