Pickitwise: 20 000 euros and 3 months later

04.10.2021
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10 years ago, we would have been very surprised to see how commonly available cleaning, delivery, and lawn-mowing robots will become. Who would have dared to dream that within the next decade, we would be able to purchase a robot that picks berries and apples from a garden or a field? Pickitwise has done exactly that.

In May, Pickitwise picked up funding in the amount of 20,000 euros from Prototron to further develop their strawberry picking robot. We asked them how they’ve been doing and had a chat with Madis Merila, the founder of Pickitwise.

As for their accomplishments, Pickitwise has picked up the following:

  • The first and most tangible success has been the opportunity to see the robot actually operating in a strawberry field;
  • Secondly, we managed to overcome the bottleneck of picking speed – vision. The hardware acquired with Prototron’s financing allows the robot to see approx. 100 times faster. The first robots only grabbed red-coloured objects, but in order to identify various parts and defects of a strawberry, you need neural networks which require more computing power;
  • It has brought us great joy to see the continuous interest of investors in what we do.

However, obstacles can impede any type of progress. The interest of potential customers, i.e. the Estonian strawberry growers, may shift at any time. „It was feared until the end of spring that the situation of the previous summer would repeat – that the pickers would not be allowed to enter the country and that most of the strawberries would be left unpicked. Many Estonian strawberry growers have made large investments in the reservation of employees, accommodation and picking platforms. A new, robot-based work process must function better in order to justify itself: operational reliability, quality of picked strawberries and payback period are all important factors. This is why most growers right now have the wait-and-see attitude,“ Madis said.

Learn from the masters

He has, however, found a few enthusiastic technologically-minded strawberry growers from Estonia, Finland, and the Netherlands. „The Netherlands is the European innovation centre of growing food. During the Second World War, they were isolated from other countries and had to feed a large population with only a small available agricultural area. On average, 1 kg of strawberries is grown on one square metre in Estonia; in the Netherlands’ greenhouses, this number can reach up to 150 kg.“

Upon establishing the company, Madis was hit by a surprise. „I received Prototron’s financing on June 16, but I was first able to use the money only in August. Various agreements, the establishment of the company, opening a bank account – these are surprisingly time-consuming activities in this day and age. It usually takes half a year from the warm handshake with the investors to actually receiving the funds to the bank account. If we’d had the required hardware, we could have done much more during the picking season,“ he stated.

Great team is the key

„On the bumpy journey during this past year, I have learned a lot about creating and leading a team: the management of a team of volunteers, shaping expectations, preventing and resolving disagreements, keeping morale high, asking for help from other leaders, familiarising myself with management-related literature,“ Madis listed.

Regarding the near future of Pickitwise, we managed to lift the veil of secrecy and find out that the strawberry picking robot will get additional technological upgrades: „The next version of the robot will have more smart fingers which grab and cut the strawberries from the stalk. Over the summer, it became clear that the robot arm spends most of its time moving between the box and the bush. We use more fingers to reduce this time.“

Although the Netherlands is in lockdown at the moment due to the pandemic, the team is looking for a chance to visit the growers and see the farms. The plan also includes the introduction of the robot at agricultural fairs to see how much trust people are willing to put into this robot in Europe and globally.

This is the daily life of Pickitwise a few months after participating in and winning Prototron. We hope that the next enthusiastic visionaries, entrepreneurs and inventors find their way to Prototron.

The next round of Prototron is already waiting for the new participants: applications can be submitted on www.prototron.ee until 15 November 2021.