RoBotany, a company co-founded by Tepper School MBA students Austin Webb and Daniel Seim, has been selected as one of Inc. Magazine's top 16 student-run companies, recognizing the best of the best in startups that were founded by current undergraduate and graduate students. This designation qualifies RoBotany to compete for the title of “Coolest Student Startup.” Vote for RoBotany here, and learn more about the company below.
The following Q&A with Austin Webb originally appeared in the Tepper Magazine.
The elevator pitch?
RoBotany is an indoor vertical farming technology company that is transforming the industry with automated robotics and software analytics. Current vertical farms are inefficient. Labor is more than 40 percent of operating expenses, and over half of production space is lost due to extremely manual processes and wide aisles. Further, data analytics are extremely limited. RoBotany’s patent-pending technology solves these problems by bringing plants to the worker, allowing for the first-ever human-free grow room and an increase in labor efficiency by more than 50 percent. It also allows us to bring our grow racks closer together to increase crop output by more than 1-1/2 times, and our software data system not only controls our entire farm but also allows us to collect growing analytics for optimization and production analytics for operations.
What was the “AHA!” moment?
The idea was formulated by Austin Lawrence and myself last year over coffee, then dinner, then a long conversation/meeting. Then, over time, we formulated the vision as we spoke more to people, gathered more market information, and truly identified and validated the market need.
What did you do for your summer entrepreneurship “internship”?
This past summer, I worked on RoBotany full time with my team instead of working for a company or firm somewhere. “Internship” with quotes around it is exactly how it felt. Being the CEO of RoBotany is my job; I just happened to start it before I finished school.
How did the Tepper School change your idea and company?
I came to Tepper and to CMU to partner with the best and brightest, and to start a company. I am extremely fortunate and grateful to have been able to do just that. It goes to show how robust the ecosystem is here and how good a job Tepper and CMU do at encouraging cross-campus collaboration.
What key piece of information gets overlooked when getting started?
The “idea” doesn’t mean much. Market validation and execution, and the vision that guides those two things, are what’s important. And this is why it’s all about the team. If you don’t have the right skills and abilities, you can’t execute, develop the right business model, set the right vision, etc.
What were your pivotal moments?
Our first major pivot was when we decided to leverage our technology to be a farm operator instead of a technology supplier. Who knows? Maybe the market dynamics will change so much that we’ll pivot back, but we’ve got more than 10 reasons why we’ve chosen the superior business model based on the current and projected competitive landscape.
Pivotal players who get included in the thank-you speech?
I have awesome co-founders. They are the most brilliant engineers I’ve ever met. Austin Lawrence has more than six years of robotics and mechanical engineering experience. Before co-founding RoBotany, he co-founded his first agricultural technology startup, where his automated solutions for consumer hydroponics were recognized in the New York Times and NPR. As the robotics expert with tons of hydroponic farming knowledge, Austin focuses on everything robotics, product development, farm-system engineering, intellectual property and farming. Interestingly, he grew up on a blueberry farm and we call him “Larry” — while we call me “Eddy” — to avoid confusion. Danny Seim is a multidisciplinary engineer. Throughout his career, he has designed and built state-of-the-art manufacturing, assembly and fulfillment facilities, which included integrating industrial robots and enterprise resource planning systems. As an everything expert, Danny focuses on farm system engineering and construction, operations and designed experimentation at RoBotany. Brac Webb has more than 12 years of electrical and software engineering experience. As our Internet of Things (IoT) and software expert, Brac is focused on farm-system engineering, the overall software system architecture, database and back-end design, IoT firmware, front-end user interface, and product development. He is my older, sometimes wiser brother.
What were your experiences with initial funding?
Initially, we were offered approximately $100,000 through a government organization and an accelerator. It was an honor, but we made the tough — though correct — decision to pass on both investments. It just wasn’t the right fit. Fortunately, since then, we raised a $400,000 tranced seed investment from Robotics Hub, Pittsburgh’s robotics VC firm. We are very grateful and extremely excited. It allows us to conduct robust grow testing on our Version 1 Miniature Farm as well as design and build our Version 2 Miniature Farm.
How about growth?
After identifying the market need, we started construction of our Version 1 Miniature Farm in May 2016. As of mid-August 2016, Version 1 was built in front of Project Olympus, and we are now growing plants with robots and software. The mini-farm is 4 feet wide by 9 feet long by 7 feet tall. We are very excited to build our Version 2 Miniature Farm, which will be much bigger — 12 feet wide by 25 feet long by 15 feet tall.
Does anything keep you up at night?
The success of our startup is a race against time, and every day there are many strangers out there trying to take our lunch and undo everything we’ve been working so hard for. Every day is another round in the game, and I’ll always want to go faster and have it done yesterday. It’s also what gets me out of bed every morning.
What was the best advice you received?
That’s hard to say. Dave Mawhinney [executive director of the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship and associate teaching professor of entrepreneurship] gives RoBotany great advice daily.