Laser weeding is going to be a game-changer in precision agriculture according to Jānis Jaško, CEO of WeedBot Ltd. The company, originally from Latvia has demonstrated its prototype and plans to launch a commercial unit in Spring 2022.
We asked Jānis about his plans for the company and why they chose the UK to set up the business.
“WeedBot started as a research project as we were being asked by farmers in Latvia for an alternative to hand weeding. As we explored the possibilities of using a laser beam, we saw the potential to offer an affordable, cost-efficient, chemical free weeder that offers precision and speed. So, we decided to set up a company to commercialize laser weeding technology.
At WeedBot we started to develop our first product with a clear focus on the problem and end-user. We selected carrot growers as our first target customers because there is a lot of manual work for this crop. In 15 months we have built 3 prototypes, the latest one a full-scale machine attached to the tractor, and we have raised €190k from investors in Latvia and the UK.
Carrots are just the beginning
Our laser weeding system can recognize crop (at this moment carrots but other crops will be also added in couple of months), distinguish it from the weeds and zap the weeds with high power laser light.
There are other companies developing different high precision weeding systems (robotic arms, electricity, microwaves, spot herbicide spraying, small hoes), but there are several advantages to our approach:
- Precision – the laser treats weeds very close to the crop – just a few millimetres away.
- Speed – as we don`t need to move heavy tools
- No environmental hazard – no chemicals are involved and less CO2 is emitted
- Minimal soil disruption – the laser treats weed parts that are above surface without moving the soil
Setting up in the UK
We chose UK as our first market in Europe for several reasons: it is one of the largest carrot growing countries; it has a consolidated organic carrot grower network; and it has a well-developed innovation ecosystem.
We participated in Riga-Cambridge Venture Camp in 2021 and as part of this spent one week in Cambridge engaging with local start-up ecosystem. Alan Barrell has been our business mentor since then.
This encouraged us to set up a subsidiary in the UK. There are differences between countries – climate, weed species, soil type – but the need to keep weed pressure low is universal. I would say that the difference between a large and a small farm within one country is more substantial than between large farmers in different countries.
Fortunately, the business environment in the UK is not too different from Latvia, although there are some peculiarities. In this respect we have had a good service from the DIT; introducing us to the business environment as well as providing introductions to local service providers. This is so important when you are totally new in the country. DIT are proactive, which is excellent, and it was great to see our contact, Jane, at our technology demo in Shropshire.
Demonstration gains good feedback
It is important for us to engage with growers as much as possible and get their feedback as often as possible. Due to Covid and Brexit it was not so easy to bring machinery to the UK for demo so we were pleased that everything went well and we were able to be in the field and showcase our development. We were grateful to Nick Tayler farm for hosting us and providing all the support necessary to be able to demonstrate the laser weeder in the carrot field.
It is always a bit tricky when demonstrating equipment to end users that is not 100% finished – so I do my best to explain what is current development stage and the functionalities that are going to be added or enhanced a bit later. We are happy for any feedback – as we get external validation on things that work well and things that need to be improved, either in the machinery or in the way we present it.
As several in our team has academic background in agriculture engineering it was very interesting to visit Engineering Department at Harper Adams University, including the Hands-Free Hectare concept that has now evolved into the Hands Free Farm. This is very good way to bring research closer to producers and vice versa – allowing companies to test and demonstrate their latest products for researchers, students and a wider audience.
Commercial laser weeding to launch in 2022
Our next large milestone is to deliver the first commercial unit for UK growers in Spring next year. We also plan to add at least 2 more crops to our recognition software, to expand application of the laser weeder. To accomplish this, we are now actively looking for investors as we plan to raise €2M as our next funding round in the coming few months. We already have 3 investors/shareholders from the UK from our previous round, kindly organized by Cambridge Agritech at the beginning of this year.
Organic carrot and vegetable grower RB Organic is one of our shareholders with whom we keep a close relationship, and they are an excellent example of how forward-thinking growers are investing in agri-tech start-ups. This is beneficial in two ways – firstly, it provides financial capital to develop the technology and second (maybe even more important) it provides an indication for institutional investors that technology is desired from end-users.
Alongside this investment round, we are planning to recruit new team members, of which Chief Business Development Officer would be the most senior position.
So raising general awareness about WeedBot and informing about our future plans is a great added value that Agri-TechE brings.”