John Deere acquires automated agritech start-up Bear Flag Robotics

6 Aug 2021

Image: Bear Flag Robotics/John Deere

The $250m deal will see the autonomous tractor start-up continue to operate from its Silicon Valley base.

Agricultural machinery giant John Deere is acquiring Bear Flag Robotics for $250m.

The California-based robotic tractor start-up was founded in 2017 by Igino Cafiero and Aubrey Donnellan and raised around $12.5m in funding before the acquisition deal. Bear Flag has been working with John Deere for some time, having joined its Startup Collaborator programme in 2019. The start-up is also an alumnus of Y Combinator.

“Deere views autonomy as an important step forward in enabling farmers to leverage their resources strategically to feed the world and create more sustainable and profitable operations,” said John Deere’s CTO, Jahmy Hindman.

“Bear Flag’s team of talented agriculture professionals, engineers and technologists have a proven ability to deliver advanced technology solutions to market. Joining that expertise and experience with Deere’s expertise in autonomy, along with our world-class dealer channel, will accelerate the delivery of solutions to farmers that address the immense challenge of feeding a growing world.”

This is just the latest in a series of partnerships and acquisitions in the agritech space for John Deere. Previous moves have ranged from buying AI start-ups to partnering with Volocopter on agricultural drones.

Bear Flag converts tractors to be able to operate autonomously, selling both the platform and ongoing service to farming customers. Tractors are monitored by human supervisors from computers or other devices at a distance, and the company says its software is capable of planning “optimal field patterns based on growers’ implements” and providing analytical data to help optimise farming operations.

Cafiero, who serves as CEO of Bear Flag, said that one of the biggest challenges farmers face today is “the availability of skilled labour to execute time-sensitive operations” in agriculture.

“Autonomy offers a safe and productive alternative to address that challenge head on,” he added. “Bear Flag’s mission to increase global food production and reduce the cost of growing food through machine automation is aligned with Deere’s and we’re excited to join the Deere team to bring autonomy to more farms.”

Bear Flag has long been clear that its mission is to address labour issues in the agriculture sector. Donnellan told TechCrunch in 2018: “We got a tour of an orchard and just how pronounced the labour problem is. They’re struggling to fill seats on tractors. We talked to other growers in California.

“We kept hearing the same thing over and over: labour is one of the most significant pain points.”

Post-acquisition, Bear Flag will continue to operate from Silicon Valley and “work closely with Deere to accelerate innovation and autonomy for customers across the world”.

Agritech is a growing business in Ireland. In the Irish agritech start-up scene, University College Dublin announced in June that it’s establishing a new ‘Agcelerator’ programme, while Irish start-up Iamus Technologies was recently a finalist for the Future Food Asia Award.

Jack Kennedy is a freelance journalist based in Dublin