Pontifax leads $17m funding round for agri robotics

Blue River plans to expand its precision agriculture technology to new crops in 2016.

Pontifax AgTech, Israeli biotech firm Pontifax’s fifth life sciences fund, has led a $17 million Series B funding round for agriculture robotics company Blue River Technology.

Blue River will use the new equity to expand its engineering team and develop the next generation of its robotic crop-treatment systems.

Syngenta Ventures, Monsanto Growth Ventures and existing investors Data Collective, Khosla Ventures and Innovation Endeavors also participated in the raise.

Pontifax AgTech is prioritising US investments, managing partner for the fund Phil Erlanger told Agri Investor.

Blue River uses specific tractor-dragged robots to mechanically care for particular plants. Its “smart machines” like the Lettuce Bot are now used for weeding and thinning on 10 percent of all lettuce fields in the US, the company’s chief executive Jorge Heraud told Agri Investor.

The company says its robots reduce the use of chemicals on farms by up to 90 percent, as well as reducing the risk for growth of weeds that are resistant to the treatments.

But with the new funding Blue River plans to roll out machines capable of treating a variety of crops, expanding on its current line of robots that operate only on lettuce fields. In addition to weeding and thinning treatments, Blue River’s next line of robots will be capable of applying beneficial treatments such as anti-fungals to crops, said Heraud.

The tractor-pulled robots must be capable of processing images quickly, said Heraud, in order to distinguish crops from weeds and assess plant health by looking at indicators like size and colour. The machines then figure out the volume of chemicals to apply to the plant.

“It’s just now that we have the computer power to be able to do this,” said Heraud. He said that the computer power on one Blue River unit is equivalent to power levels previously achieved commercially only by computer clusters.

Pontifax AgTech’s managing partner Phil Erlanger told Agri Investor, “Blue River stands out in their ability to operate at the individual plant level, in observing, assessing and taking action.”

Erlanger declined to disclose Pontifax AgTech’s current funding level, citing marketing regulations.