“No human should be in there”: $12.6 million for Kiwi startup sending robots to do dairy farmers’ dirty work

Invert Robotics

Invert Robotics founder James Robertson. Source: Supplied.

New Zealand startup Invert Robotics has raised $US8.8 million ($12.6 million or $NZD13.3 million) to expand the scope of its climbing robot technology helping keep dairy farmers safe.

The funding comes after seeing 300% year-on-year growth for the past three years.

The round was led by US agtech- and foodtech-focused VC Finistere Ventures, and also included Yamaha Motor Ventures & Laboratory Ventures, the corporate VC arm of Yamaha Motors.

Existing backers, including Allan Moss, Inception Asset Management and the New Zealand Venture Investment Fund also came in as repeat investors.

Founded in 2010, Invert Robotics produces climbing robots using suction technology, allowing for precise, remote inspection of non-magnetic surfaces.

Currently, it’s mainly used in New Zealand’s huge dairy farming industry, for inspecting large stainless steel tanks

These tanks can crack, creating a space that’s difficult to clean and a breeding ground for bacteria. Traditionally, identifying such damage would involve lowering workers into the tanks on ropes.

For Invert, “the goal is to remove the need for people to climb inside stainless steel tanks on dairy farms,” founder James Robertson tells StartupSmart.

Previously, “no one in the world had a suction crawler that could do that job”.

Now, the technology is being used in hundreds of factories across the world, and Invert has seen 300% revenue growth year-on-year for the past three years, managing director Neil Fletcher tells StartupSmart

The latest raise will fund an expansion of the startup’s global footprint and the opening of a new US office. It’s also pegged for supporting a move into the chemicals sector.

Until now, the team’s focus has been in the food and beverage space, as it mainly uses stainless steel, non-magnetic equipment.

The startup has always had a use-case in the chemicals industry, but it has put it “on the shelf” until now, Robertson says, as many tanks in the sector are magnetic, and magnetic crawling robots already exist.

However, there is a significant subsection of glass-lined or other non-magnetic vessels in use, Robertson says, and that’s where Invert Robotics is heading.

“Our focus is to grab that section of the market and bring solutions they’re wanting, that no one else can deliver,” he says.

“No human should be in there”

Robertson launched Invert Robotics fresh out of Canterbury’s School of Engineering, where he had been working on a climbing robot. Elsewhere, researchers at the university had developed suction technology, and were looking for a way to commercialise it.

The startup launched with the founder, the university and a commercialisation partner as equal shareholders.

It’s a fairly unusual origin story, Robertson admits.

All over the world, there’s a “tech transfer” problem, with a gap between research being conducted in universities and the technology coming out into the market.

“There’s academic research going on, but not necessarily to solve people’s problems,” he explains.

The development of the suction cup Invert Robotics ended up using was “a pure academic exercise”.

But the startup identified a commercial application of the product and took it to the target market, spending some two years speaking to potential customers and identifying a real problem in the dairy industry.

“It was an iterative process,” Robertson says.

Fletcher points out not only is Invert Robotics solving a real problem, it’s solving a very serious one.

While it’s a for-profit business, “the reason we’re doing this isn’t just to make money”, he says.

Robots can get a bad wrap, painted as a threat to people’s jobs and livelihoods. But these particular machines are designed to do dangerous jobs, and to get humans out of harm’s way, he says.

This is particularly pertinent in the chemicals industry the startup is about to enter.

The environments the robots will be in are “toxic, hot, confined, dark”, Fletcher says.

“No human should be in there if they don’t have to be.”

“A lot of people have ideas”

When it comes to offering advice for other startup founders, Robertson’s main message is just to get on with it.

“You have to actually do the work rather than just thinking about it or talking about it,” he says.

“A lot of people have ideas,” he adds.

“The difference between them and a successful entrepreneur is actually doing it.”

Beyond that, he recommends talking to prospective clients and asking a lot of questions about the kinds of challenges they’re facing.

“You’ve got two ears and one mouth,” he says.

“If you listen to people well enough they will tell you their problems.”

Finally, once you know the problems, design a solution based on what you’ve heard, Robertson advises.

“You can spend all day trying to get a square peg into a round hole … you could just build a round peg.”

NOW READ: New Zealand startup Sunfed bags $9.4 million to take plant-based meat global

NOW READ: Agtech Agerris raises $6.5 million in seed funding to set robots to work on Australia’s farms

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