September 22 (Reuters) – As California grapples with another devastating drought, a Silicon Valley startup that believes robots can produce more sustainable products said on Wednesday it had raised $ 50 million as part of the a funding round led by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
Iron Ox uses robots integrated into a hydroponic system that consume 90% less water than traditional farms, CEO Brandon Alexander said.
The company uses this system in a 10,000 square foot (930 square meters) greenhouse in Gilroy, California, where an autonomous robot named Grover moves pallets of Genoese basil and a robotic arm system lifts the pallets for inspection. Sensors check the nitrogen and acidity levels of the water for healthy growth.
“Then they say, ‘What’s missing? What does this plant need that we don’t give it, “” Alexander said. Any unused water can be pumped into the system for reuse later.
Agriculture plays an important role in California’s economy, but the use of water is increasingly in the spotlight. The last major drought of 2012-2017 reduced irrigation for farmers, imposed strict household conservation measures and stoked deadly forest fires.
Iron Ox grows Thai basil and strawberries and works on cilantro, parsley, and tomatoes. The company is also building a new 535,000 square foot greenhouse in Lockhart, Texas, 30 miles south of Austin.
Alexander said hydroponics – saving water by growing plants without soil – is just one piece of the puzzle for future agriculture.
“To really eliminate waste, to really achieve that next level of sustainability and impact, we need to rethink the whole growing process,” he said.
The funding round included investors from Crosslink Capital, R7 Partners and Pathbreaker Ventures, among others. Iron Ox declined to comment on its rating.
Reporting by Nathan Frandino in Gilroy, California; edited by Richard Pullin
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