In 2020, Rich Wurden and Kenny Lee cofounded Aigen, a solar-powered autonomous robots startup, to connect farmers with breakthrough technologies, while decarbonizing agriculture, and improving human and planetary health.
According to the startup, using machine learning, its “Element” robotic fleet can autonomously navigate, weed, and analyze row crops with precision.
This eliminates the need for pesticides that not only have adverse effects on the environment by contaminating drinking water and surrounding ecosystems but are linked to a wide range of chronic illnesses, from cancers, birth defects, and reproductive harm, to developmental issues and disruption of the endocrine system. It’s estimated that 44% of the world’s 860 million farmers are poisoned by pesticides every year.
On top of that, pesticides are linked to climate change. About one billion pounds of pesticides are used in the United States each year and approximately 5.6 billion pounds are used worldwide, and when 99% of all synthetic chemicals – including pesticides – are derived from fossil fuels, that’s a lot of emissions. This doesn’t even begin to take into account the amount of energy needed to manufacture pesticides or the greenhouse gases they release upon application.
However, as a renewable-powered device, its robots are completely fossil fuel and chemical-free.
On top of being solar-powered, the solar panels double as “sails” that allow the robot to take advantage of winds on the farm. Plus, its four motors are regenerative, meaning that they capture and reuse energy gains from wind and down hills. In addition to doing the work traditionally fulfilled by pesticides, by analyzing the crops, it also provides farmers with data needed to make crop-management decisions.
As announced last week, the Washington-based company will be unleashing its solution onto farms in the spring of 2024, just in time for the beginning of the crop cycle.
With funding from ReGen Ventures, New Enterprise Associates, Cleveland Ave, Incite, and Susquehanna Private Equity Investments, Aigen raised $12 million to do it. With a total of $19 million already raised, the company is building a 7,500-square-foot manufacturing and R&D facility to bring its solar-powered robotic fleet to life.
"Aigen is defining a new era for agriculture, where farmers prosper and people are healthier,” Swati Mylavarapu, managing partner at Incite, said in a statement, adding, “Getting chemicals out of our food is not only incredibly important for fighting climate change, it's also personal for Kenny and Rich.”
As indicated on its website, both Lee and Wurden started Aigen with roots in not only electric vehicles, robotics, and impact investing, but also in farming, working with the very harmful pesticides they’re hoping to rid the world of. They both have experienced the impacts of chemicals on human health firsthand and live with diseases linked to pesticide use.
"Agriculture is the intersection of human health and planetary health and that's why we focused on creating technology for farmers that is both profitable and sustainable,” Kenny Lee, who serves as the startup’s CEO said in a statement, “Our robotic fleet empowers farmers to escape the conventional system of chemical dependency.”
With high pre-order demand, the startup says the funding will help them expand manufacturing capacity. Earlier this year, it was reported that its 2024-2025 fleet sold out in one day.
The company delivers its robots as a service that will debut on over 20,000 acres of U.S. farmland this coming April. The service allows Aigen to deliver, run, and maintain the fleet throughout the growing season while putting the data in the farmers’ hands. However, as CTO Rich Wurden explains, a few years ago “Aigen wouldn’t have been possible.”
“Today, we have a great team working on the cutting edge of AI, robotics, electric motors, and solar power,” he said in a statement. “Thanks to technological advances in all those areas and the incredible work of our team, we are automating farming solutions that have worked for thousands of years and helping farmers get chemicals off their farms and out of our food."