Any farmer knows that the bane of their existence is rock-picking. And no matter how many rocks you pick, there’s always more.
Where they come from is one of those eternal mysteries, but an Idaho startup, TerraClear Inc., is working to solve the problem.
We interviewed Trevor Thompson, president of TerraClear, via email. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.
How did the company come into being?
Brent Frei originally had the idea for TerraClear, while picking rocks by hand on his family farm in Grangeville. Having previously founded two companies that eventually went public, he used the same formula, and gathered a few of the smartest engineers that he knew to found TerraClear four years ago. I originally met the team six months after the company was founded and joined them seven months later. I was blown away by the quality and experience of the team, and the clarity of the company's mission to relentlessly pursue painless rock clearance at a cost that works for every farmer.
It is exactly the type of job that a farmer wants to outsource. It is difficult, repetitive, and better suited to a robot. Many on our team are farmers who have picked plenty of rock by hand.
How did you come up with the name?
The name was half process and half inspiration. Prior to my joining, the team got together and spent a few hours brainstorming, and let the ideas soak in. TerraClear is what kept sticking and we still love the name. Ultimately, the team wanted to focus the name on the positive outcome of the product, rather than the process. Farmers have enough to worry about and they really want to have a solution that delivers a simple outcome -- that their land is clear of problematic rocks – thus, TerraClear.
How did you design it?
We use the Edison approach of customer-centric iteration. We design, build, test, learn, and redesign. We will continue this until we have an automated solution that meets the needs of farmers in North America and ultimately around the globe.
How does it work?
It will work on any commonly owned tractor and picks the rocks with no intervention from the operator. Our design uses computer vision and artificial intelligence (AI) to see rocks in a field real-time and then uses the robotic picker to grab them efficiently.
Today we sell a manually controlled rock picker that sucks up rocks from fist-size to more than two feet in diameter with ease. It is hydraulically powered and runs on a standard skid loader (CTL) or front-end loader tractor.
We are selling two models: the TC80 for $20,000 and the TC100 for $30,000. Our TC80 is shipping and our TC100 has shipped in limited supply. Due to supply constraints, we hope to catch up to demand in 2023 with both models.
We also provide farmers with an AI-derived mapping tool. We provide a tool on a phone, tablet, or in-cab display that shows them where their rocks are in each field, allowing them to pick them up incredibly efficiently or prioritize the fields of highest concern. It works both as an in-field tool for efficiency and a farm-wide management platform.
Are you working with farmers on it?
Nearly every day, we are testing our robotic picker in farmers' fields. We are constantly testing these ideas with our customer base and our local community of farmers in the Camas Prairie.
Where are your offices, and how many employees do you have?
We have offices in Grangeville and in Bellevue, Washington, with a few additional employees scattered around the country. We have more than 30 employees now, and at any given time about a third of us may be in Idaho. We recently got the entire team out there for an incredible event and spent some great time in the fields of Grangeville.
How is the company funded?
Our company has been backed by farmers, individual investors, and venture capital. Madrona Ventures led the last $25 million round, and we raised $13 million prior to that.
What’s your exit strategy?
Our exit strategy is to build a company that lasts. We believe that if we can solve this problem and really give farmers around the globe freedom from rocks, we can expand our offering to bring automation to the worst jobs on the farm.
Sharon Fisher is a digital nomad who writes about entrepreneurship.