Big changes at Harvest Automation, Billerica startup that debuted new warehouse robot in 2015

A plant-moving robot from Billerica-based Harvest Automation.
A plant-moving robot from Billerica-based Harvest Automation.

Did Harvest Automation simply try to do too much?

The Billerica startup had banked roughly $30 million in venture capital funding and launched a line of rugged robots that help move plants from place to place in commercial nurseries. But when a new CEO, John Kawola, joined in late 2012, he and the company’s board decided to build a second robot with a different mission: shuttling merchandise around e-commerce warehouses.

They were trying to fill a market need that many saw emerging after Amazon acquired Kiva Systems in 2012. One of the biggest makers of warehouse robots was suddenly producing bots only for its new owner. (I wrote about the situation in late 2013.) And it had begun to seem to executives that the agricultural market was “interesting but small,” in Kawola’s words.

So Harvest introduced a new robot called the OmniVeyor TM-100 last January. It was designed to transport a plastic totebox around a warehouse, so that workers in the aisles could simply pull an item from the shelf and drop it into the tote; then, the bot would go to the next aisle where it needed an item. At the end of the process, the bot would report to a packing station where all of the items in the order would be transferred to a box, sealed up, and sent off to the customer. (It was pitched as a less-expensive, space-saving alternative to conveyor belt systems that traditionally move totes around in warehouses. See the video below.)

Harvest conducted a pilot test with the TM-100 bots last year, with Barrett Distribution, a logistics firm in Southborough. But the company was hoping it could raise money from a corporate investor — ideally a large company that already made warehouse automation equipment, says co-founder Charlie Grinnell. That didn’t pan out, Grinnell says. “We mistakenly thought there would be enough excitement to drive them into early-stage technology development,” he says. Instead, many of the prospective investors with whom Harvest spoke said the product, which didn’t yet have customers or revenues, “was just way too early for them.” There was also some concern about the patent portfolio that Amazon amassed when it purchased Kiva for $775 million, Grinnell says, and whether it would allow Amazon to take legal action against future generations of warehouse bots.

On the other hand, Harvest’s agricultural business continued to grow. Grinnell says that 2015 sales were double those of 2014, and that Harvest has shipped 150 bots to 30 customers around the U.S.

But when it became clear in mid-2015 that Harvest wouldn’t be able to raise money from a corporate investor, the company began to shed staff. Harvest had about 30 employees at its peak in 2015, and is now down to “just a handful of people trying to figure out how to reposition the company,” says Grinnell. Kawola, the chief executive who joined in 2012, departed in January, and Grinnell is now back in that job. Kawola remains chairman of Harvest’s board.

Late last year, Harvest began looking to sell the technology it had developed for the e-commerce bot; it still has a demonstration warehouse set up in Billerica. Grinnell says he is also working to raise more money so the company can keep focusing on the agricultural side of its business. “There’s definitely a viable business here,” Grinnell says of the plant-moving bots.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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