TRIC Robotics wins Swim with the Sharks competition
WILMINGTON – Adam Stager was still amped Wednesday morning, hours after learning Tuesday night that his Newark-based startup company TRIC Robotics was named the winner of the eighth annual Swim with the Sharks pitch competition hosted by the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce’s Emerging Enterprise Center.
With the COVID-19 pandemic still challenging the organizing of a traditionally large gathering like the “Shark Tank”-style pitch competition, the EEC took a different route this year by broadcasting the event via DETV on Comcast cable and on its Facebook page.
Stager’s TRIC Robotics ultimately bested pitches from Ajit George, founder of Second Chances Farm, and Eric Gottlieb, CEO and co-founder of Lignolix, to win a $10,000 grant provided by the New Castle County Office of Economic Development’s NCC Innovates initiative and services and prizes to help grow the business. While the other finalists pitched their ideas in the 2019 competition, this was Stager’s first time pitching his company at all.
“I have been waiting to do it and watching the competition since 2017,” he said, noting his startup has been supported by the Horn Entrepreneurship program at the University of Delaware as it has matured over the last three years.
Stager, a roboticist who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from UD, didn’t originally set out to revolutionize agriculture, but rather was working in robotics with the military and law enforcement. He said it was a realization that his work wasn’t going to have the large-scale impact he wanted that led him to consider new avenues for his expertise.
After connecting with UD colleagues working in agriculture, Stager contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture about any projects where automation and robotics could be utilized. The department connected him with the Appalachian Fruit Research Station in West Virginia, which has been studying how ultraviolet (UV) light could replace pesticide applications.
That partnership has grown, and TRIC now has pilots at strawberry fields at the USDA research station as well as UD’s Carvel Research & Education Center in Georgetown and Fifer Orchards in Camden. As it happens, strawberries became TRIC’s focus due to the USDA research, but they are also the most pesticide-treated fruit in the United States, with an average of 22 pesticides used.
In less than a year, TRIC was able to produce a prototype robot that crawls across strawberry fields in the dead of night, shining UV light on the crops to kill harmful pathogens like spider mites and gray mold. While there are two similar competitors in Europe, Octinion and Saga Robotics, working with UV light, Stager noted they are currently focused solely on the European market.
Stager intends to build a robot that will eventually be able to be packaged and shipped nationwide to farmers who can open and assemble the tool themselves. The continued adoption of 5G cellular networks will aid the team’s ability to troubleshoot far-afield robots and they have shown it’s possible for the robots to dock and charge its batteries using solar panels as well.
Stager expects one robot to cover about 5 acres of crops and cost about $30,000 a year for a farmer as a service – potentially enabling the startup to turn a profit as early as 2023. Strawberry farmers spend an average of $2,500 an acre to treat their crops with pesticides, meaning the UV treatment would be more expensive, but it would also potentially decrease crop losses and increase profitability by allowing the fruit to be sold as organic.
The company has already been talking with larger farms in California about opportunities for paid pilot programs that would help their bottom line as well while they perfect the technology. Other produce that could be effectively targeted in the future with the UV technology include grapes, apples, spinach, and kale, Stager said.
The Swim with the Sharks competition’s prize money will help TRIC advance their Delaware pilots and prevent Stager from having to dip into his own savings, he said.
“I think this is going to really allow us to focus on the business a lot more and stress a lot less,” he said of the team of four part-time members.
When he learned that The Frozen Farmer co-owner Katey Evans, a Bridgeville farmer who found success on ABC’s “Shark Tank” last year, was going to be this year’s guest judge, he was excited. Evans found fame by taking “ugly” strawberries and other fruit not suitable for grocery store sales and making sorbet and ice cream with them.
“The best validation for when you have a problem is that people are interested in solving it,” Stager said, noting he was elated that Evans sought to learn more about the UV technology.
By Jacob Owens