Following acquisition by Bowery, Traptic’s strawberry-picking robotics pivot to vertical farming

We’ve been charting Traptic’s progress ever since the South Bay-based startup appeared on the Disrupt Battlefield stage back in 2019. The company carved out a potentially meaningful agtech niche in California’s vast strawberry fields — farmland that accounts for around 88% of the fruit’s U.S. yield.

Fieldhand shortages are a problem that dates back well before the pandemic, but the problem has been dramatically exacerbated for many over the past two years. The company’s combination of picking and vision system were enough to land it a healthy $8.4 million raise last year, as it deployed its autonomous bots on California farms through a per-pound pricing system.

Those robots are set to call it a day, however. Last Friday, New York-based vertical farming company Bowery closed its acquisition of Traptic for an undisclosed sum. It’s a surprising move for the companies and one that finds the latter making a pretty dramatic pivot under its new bosses.

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Traptic’s Lewis Anderson speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2019 at Moscone Convention Center on October 04, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

“As of today, Traptic’s technology will be exclusive to Bowery’s network of smart indoor farms,” co-founder and CEO Lewis Anderson said in a conversation with TechCrunch. “We developed our technology to operate in a harsh, outdoor farm environment, and it’s going to work even better indoors. Bowery will be the first indoor farming company to use that Traptic technology.”

The news comes, fittingly, as Bowery gets ready to sell strawberries as part of its retail offering . When I visited the company’s New Jersey farms last year, it was in the testing stages for its first berries, which finds it moving beyond more traditional indoor farming fare like leafy greens and herbs. The company says the launch is “imminent,” though has yet to give a firm date. Bowery’s CEO further clarified a spring timeframe. Nor will it say whether Traptic’s technology will be helping to harvest that first batch. Given the timeline, however, I’d say it’s likely that it will be a while before the startup’s technology is integrated into the process.

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Image Credits: Traptic

What Traptic offers is underlying vision systems and an arm capable of picking the fragile fruit crop without damaging it. That technology will need to be isolated outside of the existing autonomous tractor-like system and integrated directly with BoweryOS — the company’s proprietary software system — and existing robotics. Bowery already deploys some robotics in its farms for tasks like moving plant trays around.

“Traptic’s team and their technology will be able to integrate into our existing farm operations providing further opportunities to create efficiency and scalability in our farms. At the same timetheir experience and expertise around strawberries and fruiting crops are an important extension for us in this next phase of the business,” Bowery cofounder and CEO Irving Fain said in an email to TechCrunch. “This acquisition aligns with our existing plans to commercially launch strawberries this spring, and will fuel our growth with other fruiting and vine crops while driving increased productivity and efficiency.”

Strawberries are the tip of the spear for the tech, which will likely eventually be used for future crops like, say, tomatoes, and even existing Bowery offerings, including lettuce and other leafy greens. Anderson will serve as the senior director of Bowery’s Robotic Solutions team, which will integrate into its existing Robotics and Automation division. Traptic plans to maintain its operations in California.

The news comes at an interesting time for agriculture robotics. Interest is stronger than ever in the category, but even a well-funded, good idea can have difficulty navigating the tricky world of robotics startups. That’s probably best evidenced by apple-picking firm Abundant Robotics, which went under last year, only to be potentially relaunched soon under new ownership .