Community-backed Afterwork Ventures is backing a company founded by first time entrepreneurs taking on a challenge where others have had mixed success – robotic fruit picking.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, as the Afterwork team concede, plenty. But that was part of the attraction of this deal. The founders of Ripe Robotics anticipate having to deal with new problems and emerging new technologies as they build and have structured a business plan around that.

Timing is another compelling driver for this deal, according to Afterwork. While fruit growers have long recognised the potential for automated fruit picking, the pandemic and the resulting scarcity of casual labour has brought it into sharp focus.

The Australian fruit industry is worth around $5.5 billion annually but picking fruit has historically largely relied largely on itinerant workers, mostly overseas backpackers but they have stopped visiting because of the pandemic. At the peak of the harvest in February there were around 7,000 fruit picking vacancies in Australia and millions of dollars of fruit went to waste.  

Fruit growers have never been more prepared to experiment with new solutions.

Shepparton, Victoria, based Ripe Robotics was founded by friends Hunter Jay and Leopold Lucas and the company recently graduated from accelerator Startmate’s winter cohort.

Hunter is an engineer while Leo has worked in business development and sales and was most recently a strategy consultant at Accenture.

They built three prototype robots on a $70,000 budget, secured a provisional patent and have signed three initial contracts with average values exceeding $1 million. The technology has so far been used to pick oranges and apples but should be convertible to other crops such as stone fruit.   

The Ripe Robotics technology picks fruit and changes bins at a similar speed to a human picker but can work for longer periods including at night. Sensors ensure that only ripe fruit is picked and the handling system minimises the potential for bruising as fruit is transferred to a collection bin.

Despite being a hardware-based operation, Ripe Robotics is highly capital efficient. The robots are modular: constructed from off-the-shelf components which can be swapped out and upgraded as computer vision and sensor technology improves. The robots can currently be built in two weeks at a fraction of the cost of some direct competitors.

The modular form also enables the robots to be rejigged to perform other tasks such as pruning and thinning so they have year-round application.

Cost is a big impediment to implementing technology in agriculture but Ripe’s business model goes a long way to removing this barrier. The company has replicated the software-as-a-service (SaaS) offering providing robotics as a service. Under this system, Ripe leases robots to farmers and charges per bin of fruit picked.

Over the last six months the company has built up a pipeline of interest which could generate work worth more than $100 million.

Image: Ripe Robotics founders Leopold Lucas and Hunter Jay with a grower in Orange, NSW, and one of their robotic fruit pickers.