Start-up series won – Henry Acevedo, Fox Robotics
One of the pain points with Brexit has always been the shortage of EU migrant workers who came to the UK for the summer fruit picking season. The government is testing a program that would only allow a maximum of 30,000 EU migrant workers to pick soft fruits and vegetables this summer. It is estimated that the UK needs 70,000 fruit and vegetable pickers each season.
The Colombian computer scientist Henry Acevedo has developed a robotic transport system that will soon be tested on a fruit farm. With nearly a quarter of a fruit picker’s time moving fruit and vegetables to collection points, Acevedo and his Fox Robotics team believe that if pickers can focus on picking fruit, they can increase productivity.
As this year’s Start-Up Series winner, his childhood passion for robotics turns into a business that can help farmers avoid fruits and vegetables rotting unpicked in the fields.
What is your background as a tech entrepreneur?
I am a Colombian computer scientist with almost 30 years of experience in industry in many areas such as telecommunications, work systems engineering, software development, information security, automation and of course robotics. I’ve worked with blue chip companies throughout my career. This enabled me to gain experience and insights into the most important aspects of how a successful company should be built and run, and into all end-to-end ideas from conception, R&D and product development to sales and marketing.
How did you come up with the idea for Fox Robotics? It seems like a big step getting yourself set up.
I was interested in robotics at a young age. However, around the early 2000s, I began to imagine what a robotics company could do to improve our lives and make an impact on the industry. In 2016, I started taking more determined steps towards ideas for a robotics company. At the end of 2017, in my spare time, I started using my own resources to develop a robot prototype especially for logistics, which basically led me to found Fox Robotics. And after a few meetings with angel investors, farmers and software companies, I decided to start Fox Robotics.
What problem is Fox Robotics trying to solve?
In agriculture, the margins are very small. And the work is very exhausting. Most of the logistics involved in the fruit harvest are divided into very clear tasks: from order picking, transporting and queuing to waiting, paperwork and other activities. Transporting fruit trees for collection alone takes an average of 21 to 25 percent of the time. This is a waste of time that a robot could take over to help the order pickers and runners move all the products back and forth. In fact, the runners currently doing the transport could become pickers, which of course increases agricultural productivity exponentially. A robot will help increase the efficiency of the picking activity. A picker would also spend less time going to collection points and more time picking, increasing the productivity of the farm.
Why did you choose to use a robot to collect instead of picking fruit?
With today’s technology, the clear option is to support the pickers, because humans make decisions 100 times more efficiently and quickly when harvesting fruit. A robotic arm is very slow compared to a human, it lacks dexterity and quick decision-making. A fruit picking robot takes a lot of trial and error just to pick a piece of soft fruit. So the idea for us was to support human order pickers with the current technology available.
We are currently starting a pilot project with a fruit farm and want to show what automation can do and how our robots can improve productivity. Our robotics reduce the inefficient task of moving collected products from order pickers to collection points by using autonomous robots.
One of the concerns about Brexit was that there would be labor shortages, particularly in agriculture and especially in the fruit and flower harvest. Did Brexit actually help farmers understand what Fox Robotics is doing and make its concept more attractive?
Absolutely. Brexit is a problem for UK agriculture. The government’s current immigration policy has reduced the potential number of annual migrant workers from the EU to just 30,000. What agriculture needs is twice the capacity. So there is a clear need and the stress farmers feel when they lose this productivity is considerable. In this case, robotics can help to use human resources more efficiently. We relieve a person of the unproductive tasks and give them to the robot. In this way, a farm can optimize the number of human pickers to a level that would be close to if the UK had stayed at the 2016 EU migrant worker level.
Agriculture, especially soft fruit growing and even flower harvesting, is always looking for technological improvements. And since Brexit and now the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been greater interest in what and how robotics and automation can help this industry.
What was the biggest challenge for you in getting Fox robotics to where it is now?
When I started the company, the biggest problem was getting funding and of course finding the right people for the job. But also choosing a leadership team that will make up for my own lack of skills in some areas, fill in my gaps so that this can be a successful company.
You have just been named one of this year’s Start-up Series competition winners. What made you decide to take part in the Start-Up Series?
Well, I was looking, among other things, for the experience of other founder-managers, as well as for capital and the support that could possibly give us. Most importantly, the business mentoring side, the experience and knowledge we were able to get as a company, because that will allow me to develop and mature Fox Robotics. Worth Capital’s support will help us forge a successful path in this industry as well as all of the connections and benefits you have with fellow founders.
So for you, it wasn’t just the participation that attracted you, but rather the mentoring and networking with like-minded people?
Well, of course, the investment is practical! That will allow me to move on and reach our own milestones. But mentoring will help us find the right path and be successful.
I’m sure some readers will think they want to enter this year’s competition. What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs considering taking part in the Start-Up Series?
If I had any advice it would be brave. If you have the right idea, tested the right concept, checked it with experts in your own branch, and can demonstrate the need, you can win.
The Start-Up Series competition
The series opens for entries each month with the aim of selecting one or two winners who will receive:
• Up to £ 250,000 SEIS / EIS Equity Funding (subject to due diligence, terms and conditions).
• At least 2 years of valuable practical help from experienced and battle-tested entrepreneurs
• Media coverage on smallbusiness.co.uk and other channels to promote your business and track your journey.
We are looking for B2B or B2C transactions across all industries. As long as your company is entitled to SEIS or EIS HMRC pre-protection, we will consider your application.
We will be impressed with innovative products or services in high growth or underserved markets that have the potential to build a popular brand. If you can prove this, you have a chance of a fight.
As the investment comes from an EIS & SEIS FCA regulated fund, companies considering joining must meet the following criteria set by the HMRC:
• You must be a UK resident and run a UK based business
• You must be over 18 years of age at the time of entry
• Certain financial services and real estate companies are unlikely to qualify.
Find out How to take part in the start-up series Here
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