Toyota Ventures Based On Leads Seed Extension Turns Tractors Into Autonomous Vehicles
Agtonomy co-founder and CEO Tim Bucher was born and raised on a farm and was deep into his own farming business when he took a computer course while at UC Davis and got hooked.It was that parallel agriculture/technology career that led him to start Agtonomy, a hybrid autonomy and tele-assist service startup that turns tractors and other equipment into autonomous machines to provide a low-cost, technology-enabled labor force for local farms to manage such equipment. It came out of stealth mode last September with $4 million in seed funding from a group of backers that included Grit Ventures, GV and Village Global. Grit and GV came back again to invest in the South San Francisco-based company and were part of a $5 million seed extension, led by Toyota Ventures, with participation from Flybridge, Hampton VC, E²JDJ and Momenta Ventures.
The latest funding gives Agtonomy $9 million in total funding to date. Having just raised funding, Bucher wasn’t expecting to raise again so soon, but when he saw the outlook for 2022 that agtech was going to be the No. 1 “hot area” for the year and beyond, he decided to take the additional funding. “Five years ago, it was hard to get any VC attention related to agtech, but there has just been overwhelming interest from investors, and though we are just starting out, local agriculture needs help now,” he added. “The funding will accelerate our trials and additional partners and essentially turbo-charge our activities and ability to double down at the speed in which we are moving, which includes expanding the team.
”Bucher anticipates having 50 trials going and to double the company’s 20-person headcount in the next few months.Agtonomy is as simple as calling an Uber driver, he said. Using a mobile phone app, a farmer can assign a job to one of the tractors, like mowing the field. He believes self-driving technology like this, and what other companies like John Deere are doing, will help to alleviate the decades of labor shortages in farms around the world.
The company has a small fleet of what he called “proof of concept” electric vehicles that have been operating for a year at Bucher’s Trattore Farms. He says the farm work on his farm is almost entirely done with these vehicles.
Bucher expects a commercial launch to happen in 2023, and the company will initially start with a few hundred tractors. In comparison, some 300,000 tractors are sold each year, he added. The tractors can be anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million, with companies like John Deere typically going after big farms.
In contrast, Agronomy’s autonomous vehicles will cost around $50,000, which Bucher believes will encourage larger farms to purchase a swarm of smaller machines that can run 24 hours a day, be more environmentally friendly and not tear up the land.
Jim Adler, the founding managing director of Toyota Ventures and an executive advisor at Toyota Research Institute, said in a written statement that “fully autonomous vehicles will become a reality on farms where they are more desperately needed much more quickly than they will on city streets.”
Similarly, Bucher believes that many of the autonomous vehicles today cater to more “convenience technologies,” while companies in the agtech space are building similar vehicles in what he calls “necessity technology.”
“It is kind of a perfect storm with consumer demand, climate change, electrification and labor shortage in farming,” he added. “We can solve these much sooner in agtech than having the other kinds of autonomous technology in our lives. With ours, it allows all of us to eat good food.”