Enterprising Brothers Build ‘Rowbot-ic’ Delivery System to Stem Nitrogen Waste In Corn Production
December 12, 2013 | Helen Weatherall
With each passing year, 100 million acres of corn are sown in the United States. As these acres are fertilized, an estimated 50 percent of the nitrogen applied is wasted due to runoff and other factors, so that half of the hefty sum spent annually by corn farmers to feed their fields might as well be poured down a drain or tossed to the wind.
The enormous scale and consequence of this waste is what motivated a team of three very bright brothers with expertise in environmental science, dairy farming and robotics to devise a solution called “Rowbot.”
The idea first took shape in a conversation between Kent Cavender-Bares and his brother Charlie Bares. Charlie is a farmer in upstate New York. In discussing the problem of how best to fertilize his crop of corn, Charlie raised the issue of height. Once the corn becomes too tall, his machinery is inhibited by the stalks and cannot navigate the rows.
“So, I said, ‘what happens if we go low?’” recalls Kent.
And with this simple idea they were onto something. He and Charlie talked further and worked out a concept for a compact machine that can run between rows of corn, delivering fertilizer directly to the roots.
“Then we began to talk to our other brother,” says Kent. The third brother, John Bares, is the president and CEO of Carnegie Robotics LLC, and happens to be one of the world’s leaders in robotics.
In May 2012, the three men founded Rowbot Systems and appointed Kent CEO.
“We founded, got organized and started spending money,” says Charlie. “It took us a year and a few months to get a prototype. There were a lot of steps and missteps. We worked on it together, it was definitely a group effort.”
The Rowbot team began to shop their invention to investors. As a means to this end, Kent, a Minnesota resident, entered Rowbot in the Minnesota Cup, the largest new venture competition in the country. Entered in the CleanTech category, Rowbot withstood rounds of evaluations and in August emerged as one of 18 finalists and ultimately finished as runner-up.
“Our mission with Rowbot is to revolutionize how corn is managed,” says Kent. “We believe it provides a win, win, win solution,” says Charlie. “By delivering fertilizer to corn crops when demand peaks, when the plant starts developing seed heads, Rowbot will help increase yields, save farmers money, and reduce the amount of nitrogen released into the atmosphere.”
Nitrogen is unstable, and whatever doesn’t bind to the soil during application leaks into water or the atmosphere.
“Nitrogen is 300 times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas,” Kent notes. “It’s a noxious gas, it’s hard to deal with and has safety issues,” says Kent.
The Rowbot system involves 22-inch vehicles that will work in teams with multiple machines running 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. The type of fertilizer used will most likely be the widely available liquid urea ammonium nitrate. The plan is to offer the Rowbot system as a service to farmers in the corn belt, starting with Minnesota, then Iowa, Illinois and Indiana beginning in summer of 2014.
The cost to farmers will be $10 per acre. Initially, the service will be provided through retailers who will be given a cut of the profit for brokering the deal. Long term, the intention is to provide the Rowbot system to farmers directly.
Having spent a million dollars of their own money to reach this stage of the game, Rowbot’s founders are eager to expand. The immediate goal at present is to raise a large round of venture capital. Two key points keep Kent’s outlook positive: the pressing nature of the unmet need the company seeks to address, and his confidence in the product.
“We stand out because of the scale of the problem,” says Kent. “It’s exciting. With Rowbot, we can turn the dial to apply only the fertilizer that is necessary. This will prevent money leaving the farmers’ pockets they didn’t need to waste.”
In practical terms, all systems are go. Ag partners have been lined up and the all-terrain Rowbot has been successfully field-tested in four states, three of which are in the corn belt.
“We’ve achieved a key milestone proving to investors we’re on the right path,” says Kent.