Break Through is a podcast series about making. Making discoveries, making a difference in the community and making the world a better place. It’s the stories of startups and inventors who are developing products that have social value by solving real world problems. It’s about artisans and entrepreneurs who have broken through the mold to live their best lives.
Welcome to episode number two of Break Through, a NextFab-Made podcast series. I’m your host, Ron Bauman, founder of Milk Street Marketing and NextFab member. This time, our guest is Charlie Andersen, CEO of Augean Robotics, which develops autonomous machinery to solve outdoor labor problems. Augean is a graduate of the NextFab accelerator program and recently raised a $1.5 million seed funding round. We sat down with Charlie to uncover his story, which begins on a 191 acre working fruit and vegetable farm outside Philadelphia, and how a love for robotics and automation was cultivated during this time.
Ron Bauman: So why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do here at NextFab?
Charlie: Yeah, so… I guess I grew up on a working farm outside of Philadelphia. Got out of business school… Growing up, I was fairly obsessed with robotics and that obsession was driven in part by love for mechanization and technology within agriculture, and a hatred for doing things by hand. I would way rather sit in an air conditioned tractor cab doing something, then go out and do some tedious tasks in the heat. Got out of business school. Wanted to be in the Philadelphia area, went to go work for a big company called Case New Holland, which is Deer’s largest competitor. Trying to figure out a way to get into robotics and couldn’t find a path within that larger company. Finally quit that job, moved into Philadelphia into NextFab and build a team out here. That’s effectively what we led me here.
Ron Bauman: So let’s talk a little bit more about life on the farm, and now let’s make that connection to robotics because it’s not something you hear every day. Obviously, there’s farms, farming industry has technology, there’s technology in place to help make the farming work easier. Tell us a little bit more about how your love for robotics and automation grew out of that farm life.
Charlie: Yeah. So I guess, so my family farm is 190 acres near Valley Forge or King of Prussia. In the U.S., really in agriculture today, a lot of fruit and vegetable production is largely done with hand labor. And so my family farm, I started running farm equipment by age four or five. And I always wanted to do something where I can move a lever to do it, not do it. And so you know, again, I would way rather be in an air conditioned tractor cab doing something at scale, then out weeding, picking, pruning, spot spraying, doing things by hand. And so that kind of led to a logical progression or interest in the autonomy within agriculture. And at the same time, I’m not an engineer by training. I kind of grew up wrenching on stuff but don’t have a mechanical or an engineering background, if you will. I kind of always saw my role as building a team and trying to build a company around solving issues with an agriculture. From a macro perspective, I think what you see within the world of autonomy is the… It’s very difficult to build something like a self driving car. A lot of the technologies that you read about, it’s not really there. It’s not really commercially viable. And the beauty of working on a farm is you’re not on a city street, you’re not going 80 miles an hour, you’re going three or four miles an hour in an environment that’s relatively constrained. So it’s actually environment that’s much more suited for a lot of autonomous technology today more so than some of the things you might see in a major setting.
Ron Bauman: So you weren’t too, too far out of the city. I mean Valley Forge, King of Prussia area.
Short drive back. Did you find yourself dreaming of life in the big city?
Charlie: You know, I love space and I love… I guess, not an engineer by training but love building things. So I grew up building furniture and wrenching on equipment. Rebuilding Jeeps and doing stuff like that. So I’ve always wanted, I guess, access to space. The draw for Philadelphia for me is really the talent that you have here. You’ve got some of the best robotics programs on the planet right here in Philadelphia, and a group of people that are really enthusiastic about building autonomy with very few companies here, which is something we’d like to change.
Ron Bauman: Now you went off to Harvard for college?
Charlie: Yes, I went to Amherst College for undergrad. A liberal arts degree undergrad. So not… I got exposure to the broader world and then got an MBA from Harvard Business School.
Ron Bauman: So talk to us a little bit about how you came back and what your goals and what you were looking to do once you got back.
Charlie: I’ve worked in a bunch of different places. I’ve worked in Richmond, Virginia, and New Jersey, Boston quite a bit. I always wanted to be back in this area. And I have a fiancee who lives in New York City, so I’m in a bunch of different geographies. But for me, I grew up here. I love the Philadelphia region. I really wanted to be back in the area. At the same time I wanted to do something in autonomy. I really loved companies like Kiva Systems and companies who are doing robotics work. When I got out of business school in 2014, I called hundreds and hundreds of people trying to find robotics or autonomy or something related to that type of technology in the area. And there really wasn’t much that I could find. Instead I went to go work for Case New Holland again, which is Deer’s largest competitor and spent about four years there selling and marketing farm equipment to people all over North America.
Ron Bauman: Well, you know that business, right?
Ron Bauman: And you spoke the language.
Charlie: Yeah. Yeah. No, cause I, I can talk tractors all day long, better than pretty much anybody. But yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time selling and marketing equipment. At the same time trying to out how do I get from technology-enabled machinery to something that’s truly autonomous. That was really kind of where my interest lay. Started wrenching on stuff kind on the side, while at work, and that led towards a progression of, “Okay, the only way to do this is to start a company myself.”
Next Charlie offers his definition of entrepreneurship by approaching big problems and surrounding himself with talented people that share a common vision.
Charlie: I kind of define entrepreneurship as the pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled. The way that you, accrue resources towards some opportunity and, opportunities largely solving problems, is by approaching a big problem that a lot of people can get around. Or, get behind solving. When you look at agriculture today in Western economies and elsewhere, what you see is an ever dwindling number of people that want to go out and work in a 110 degree heat doing things like picking. It’s no longer something that people aspire to do, which is why often times it’s done by people that migrate into the company and are proportionately not as well paid as as other people in society. For me, having grown up on a working farm and having done a lot of that work myself, I guess for me, my purpose is when I look at my own small family farm, I imagine a world 10 or 20 years from now when you have robots running around doing different tasks and doing a lot of work that nobody in society increasingly wants to do. I think people are have better things to do, then go out and do a lot of the work that they have to do by hand, which is quite tedious.
Ron Bauman: So talk to us about, you mentioned, you know, building your team. I think that it’s one of the things that I’ve seen that I really like. In terms of what you’ve done, talk to us about how you build your team and the story about how you got to that point, because I find it very interesting.
Charlie: So, in November of 2017 I quit my job. I’m sitting in my parents’ basement being like, “Okay, well how do I, how do I figure out how to build robots?” Thinking where that could lead I, for one, started hacking together things. So just, on the side, I have a MIG welder and a Bridgeport mill and, access to some of those tools. So I started building prototypes. At the same time I reached out to literally every single robotics or autonomy engineer that I could possibly find. I have a list of a couple of hundred of them in this area. The beauty of this area is there’s a ton of talent in that particular field. Which is largely very accessible. People want to work in that space. And secondly, there’s not enough opportunity for them, or at least I certainly found it. Through that search I found Terry and Dennis, who are our Chief Robotics Officer and our CTO, and then also Vibhor, Magna, and Anthony.
Charlie: This team I view as one of the best teams in the world to build robotics in Ag. Dennis has a PhD from Penn. He’s spent the past couple of years with COSI, which is where Terry worked as well. And there they built a robot that can autonomously navigate a grocery store and scan the shelves using cameras to tell you what inventory is where. You can imagine the skill set that you need to develop that kind of technology. It’s pretty incredible. And then Vibhor, Anthony and Magna all really, really talented engineers with backgrounds in computer vision, mechatronics, deep learning and artificial intelligence. All of the things that you need to build robots that can reliably localize outdoors, navigate around, and handle all of the complexity of the great outdoors, which is where we work.
Ron Bauman: I think you told me at one point… I think that’s the best part is that you’re trying to find a job at some of these other companies, but not being an engineer by trade. No such luck. So then you went out and you found the most talented engineers and automation experts that you could find, and applied your skills to that. And I think that’s really, really creative, very ingenious. And I think that’s what real entrepreneurs do. I think they surround themselves with the experts. The people who are the best in their field and are good at what they do. Understanding, “Okay, that’s what they do and I’m good at what I do. So let’s all get together and do something special.”
Charlie: Often times, looking in the rear view mirror, it could seem like it was a very clear process and everything worked out because of some genius in the room. And the reality was it was very much an emergent thing. Finding great people. For me, thematically, it’s always been this notion of, “Hey, I want to be in this region. I can see some of the skill sets that it has to offer and maybe I can go out and find them.” There’s a real, at least for me, trying to start a company or starting a company has been the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do. It is the hardest thing. I have slept in more cars and more airports. I’ve been all over the country scrambling together capital and people and finding customers. It’s a really, really hard thing to do. And the best way to do that is to find a great group of people that share your mindset and your sense of purpose.
Ron Bauman: Where do you find inspiration now? I mean, obviously, you have your background in agriculture and farming. Your love for automation obviously grew out of that, in terms of solving a problem or making life easier for people who work on farms. Where do you find inspiration today?
Charlie: Yeah, I love anything with, with gears, motors, a computer inside. So you can definitely, I’m an avid tinkerer. Certainly on my family farm, I go back all the time and I’m working on stuff, fixing stuff. Build a lot of furniture. Ride mountain bikes quite a bit. Go running every day. Do those types of things. Do a little bit of traveling. Not as much as my fiance probably would like. I owe a lot back to her on that front.
Ron Bauman: Sure. When are you getting married?
Charlie: In October.
Ron Bauman: Oh, congratulations.
Charlie: Yeah, I think for me, having a partner is incredibly important. Important as you go through trying to build something and it’s incredible that people put up with me, effectively, along the way.
Ron Bauman: So is there any particular individual or people in your life that you’re drawing inspiration from that you consider a source of mentor-ship now?
Charlie: Certainly. Formally, as a company, we have a group of advisors. We were very kind of selective or deliberate in terms of picking those people. A friend of mine, who’s quite a bit older from business school, who is a successful entrepreneur named Simo. He has been exposed to a lot of similar scenarios to the types of ones that we’ve dealt with or are dealing with now. Then two of our other advisors are both academically inclined. They’re both professors, one at Penn and one at Lehigh, who have backgrounds in autonomy. We consult them quite a bit, kind of as a source for inspiration, and also really to push back on us. I am looking for people to question what we’re doing. So, them quite a bit. And then for me especially, I come from a big family, so always my older sister or other family members, many of whom are entrepreneurs as well, what they think about different scenarios.
Charlie then told us about how he moved out of the basement of his farmhouse with no heat to NextFab, which did have heat, and Augean’s progression through their RAPID accelerator program.
Charlie: I guess we got into their hardware accelerator around March of last year, I want to say. At that point in time I was literally doing it out of the basement of my house. So I had a basement out of a house and an unheated barn to build stuff. And this was in the winter, things were rough. So we moved into the here-
Ron Bauman: Got yourself a heater.
Charlie: I tried, actually, to get a wood fired stove in a old barn became a fire… Yeah. So there’s a whole line there. But yeah. So I got into NextFab. It’s a heated building. It’s right in the center of Philadelphia.
Ron Bauman: Check.
Charlie: Yeah, check. You’ve got access to literally every single tool under the sun that you possibly can need. Almost an excess amount of tools. I mean we do stuff sometime that… Sometimes our team will print out rubber grommets cause they have access to a 3D printer. We should buy that stuff. We don’t need to do that. But you’ve access to make anything you want under the sun here. And then also just the people. I think doing… Trying to build a company is incredibly isolating and if you are exposed during an area where you can reach out to 10 people any given day who are walking by, who are doing something kind of similar to what you’re doing, but in a totally different industry, that can be enormously helpful. I have questions that come up all the time. Like, how do you charge sales tax in California? And being able to, you know, talk with somebody who’s dealt with that issue or knows the right CPA to call is a huge help. Those areas of expertise go everywhere from how do you make something to, how do you structure a company, to how do you deal with the kind of the, the nitty gritty everyday things that inevitably come up.
Ron Bauman: So have you ever entered any other robotics competitions or…
Charlie: I guess not, not competition specifically. We certainly have been, we certainly have pitched a couple-
Ron Bauman: It seems like there’d be a lot of them, that’s why I asked.
Charlie: Yeah. It’s an increasingly crowded space in terms of companies getting into it. There are very few, and especially within Ag tech and I guess within kind of urban technology, there are very few truly autonomous devices you can actually buy or use. And when I say autonomous, I mean vehicles moving around autonomously. So within agriculture today there’s about $3 billion worth of robotics solutions in some form globally. Most of those are robotic milking parlors. So they’re not robots on a farm. It’s something milking a cow autonomously, which is a very different kind of bucket in my head. At least within our space there is an evermore emerging space with more people getting into it. We believe we’re the first mover or we see ourselves as the first one. There’s nobody directly comparable to us. We’re moving pretty quickly.
Ron Bauman: Talk to us a little bit about the accelerator program, how you got involved in that, how you were accepted into the program. What that process was like for you.
Charlie: A year and a couple of months ago, I was looking for places in Philadelphia where I could build a robot, which means hardware, software and data. Also access to a set of resources that we needed to do so. We were looking for awhile, I mean there are a number of programs in Pittsburgh and other areas. But NextFab is really the only program I’m aware of in Philadelphia where have access to a facility like this and also into all of the expertise it takes to, to grow artists, you know, starting grow a company. We applied to it and at the time I had a barely functioning prototype. Came and we were accepted for an interview. So came in and I think they expressed interest in what we’re up to. I’m using the term “we” quite broadly. At that time it was pretty much just me. I was accepted and so then I moved in here, found a couple of my co-founders. It was an incredible amount of support.
Charlie: At the same time we also had applied to a number of other programs. NextFab was one of our earliest investors. On a weekly basis, we were doing some sort of meeting with somebody here within the facility, talking about some of the things that go into starting a company, whether it’s, I don’t know, using Carta to set up a cap table or how to structure an LLC versus a C-Corp and the benefits of going through that, or how do you protect some of the intellectual property that comes off of what you’re doing.
Charlie: As a founder you’ve got to do so many things at once. It’s not like being in a role where you’re doing one thing and just one thing, you’ve gotta be able to do everything from A to Z in terms of starting a business. So everything from accounting to how do you protect IP to how do you hire to, how do you find customers to… All of those things.
Charlie: The NextFab accelerator, for us, was access to on a weekly basis some feedback on what we were doing. Really good access, as well, or kind of exposure to other entrepreneurs and entrepreneurially-inclined people in this area. It provided a framework through which we could gain access to that as well, on a weekly basis, over the course of the program. Extremely helpful for us. I think out of that we built something pretty cool.
We then heard how solving a small but common problem led to the development of Augean’s pilot product. The Burro.
Charlie: I don’t typically necessarily admit this, but believe it or not, I was go to work every day. I had a colleague whose family had a chicken farm. Every single day his parents would walk through 12 chicken barns, a half mile through each barn, and they would clean them out. And so they would have to collect debris and, believe or not, some chickens die in a barn, so you have to pick them up into and carrying them out. So idea number one was to build up a robot to clean up chicken barns. And that did not go well. A very complicated thing to do. How to move out and around a very crowded indoor environment with tons of dust and a lot of ammonia in the air. It’s just a hard thing to do.
Charlie: From that, started wrenching around and fooling around. Going on robotshop.com and all the hobbyist websites, trying to figure out how to build things. Along the way what I discovered while talking with a ton of people within agriculture, was that people within Ag spent a lot of time and waste a lot of energy just carrying things around. If you can build a platform that just carries stuff around initially, as you evolve that thing commercially, you can start doing a lot more things autonomously as well. That general instinct became the driver behind Burro. And what Burro is, is a computer vision-based autonomous platforms. We’re not using high precision GPS to navigate, which means we can go in areas where there’s no machinery or whatsoever. It’s people doing work by hand, and by using computer vision you have something that is, believe it or not, actually cheaper than more expensive types of hardware and autonomy sensors. Simultaneously leads you to create a lot more value surrounding software and data.
Charlie: What we are using Burro for today is as a labor-saving device in handpicked crops. Think things like table grapes, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, all the things you recognize as food. And what we found as we talk with those customers is that if you’re out there picking table grapes in Coachella in 110 degree heat this summer, you’re picking them into these 40 pound bins and then running them literally a couple of miles every single day on 150 pound a wheelbarrow in the heat. People doing that tend to, instead, prefer to just pick the shade with a virtual conveyor belt, running back and forth from where they’re picking to where stuff is being collected. Burro was designed initially to do that type of thing. And then over time, as it acquires more data, start delivering more and more autonomy in the space as well.
Ron Bauman: Awesome. That’s great. That’s amazing. Now, it does the picking as well, or is just that more of a transport?
Charlie: Just the transport right now. There are tons of companies working on autonomous harvesting right now. That has proven to be a very, very difficult task.
Charlie: You can imagine, if you are harvesting something autonomously… One, you have to figure out how to get to it. Literally like how to move autonomously up and down a row. Then once you get to it, you have to be able to recognize it as something that is ripe or not ripe. You have to see it through occlusion. So oftentimes it’s behind, it’s behind weeds or behind the other berries themselves, or behind vegetation. And then you have to reach out to it, grasp it, twist it off or remove it. And you have to do that every couple of seconds to be able to even remotely replicate what a person can do.
Charlie: There have been literally tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital funding flowing into that space, especially in strawberries. We’re not in strawberry so much, but especially in strawberries. Even with all of that funding flowing in, most of the people that we interact with and most of our customers are suggesting that that’s still probably five or 10 years out before it starts being more widely present commercially. In the meantime, if you’re picking stuff autonomously, you still need to move it out of the field. It really helps to have a mobile platform that can carry your picking device to where stuff is being picked. Our platform is very compatible with a world in which stuff is autonomously picked. But at the same time, we’re not trying to do the autonomous picking today.
Ron Bauman: Gotcha, gotcha. So any other ideas in the works? I mean, what’s next after the Burro?
Charlie: Yeah. So each, each Burro is packed with cameras. It knows where it is in the world as it’s moving around. It’s cloud connected and very data inquisitive. If you imagine a world in which you have robots, akin to Wall-E, running around and doing all of the tasks that people no longer want to do. Whether it’s picking, pruning, weeding, spot spraying, all of those other tasks, especially within agriculture, the way that platform starts… The way that that business evolves, we believe, begins with something like Burro.
Charlie: At this the second stage, what we’re working on is a lot of things surrounding crop scouting. So as you’re moving through a field, you can with with cameras, visually start to identify what yields look like, where are pests, where particular weeds, what’s going wrong where. And then at that third stage, so it’s our second stage being crop scouting, and then the third stage, once you know how to move around, what’s going wrong, where. Then we can close that autonomy loop and start actually treating or doing the tasks that crop scouting highlights. But that’s kind of, you know, a little bit further off in the distant future.
Ron Bauman: But it all ties back to the Burro? Burro’s going to sort of evolve it Burros as an autonomous being.
Charlie: I think maybe an analogy helps a little bit with this. If you imagine kind of the PC ecosystem that emerged. Early on, there were tons of companies that were trying to build stuff from the ground up. What enabled a lot of advancements was the development of a couple of platforms that everybody used, whether it’s Microsoft with Windows or the Mac ecosystem. You have kind of one set of hardware or one set of software that a lot of people can leverage and use to do more things.
Charlie: We view Burro as a platform. It’s a collaborative robot. For most of the people within agriculture it works. It enables them to work more productively. It’s collecting data and it’s modular expandable. Meaning that if others want to bolt their autonomy on top of ours, we really want to encourage that and want to enable that.
Ron Bauman: So more of a collaboration as opposed to competition.
Charlie: Exactly. I mean you, you know, you imagine, the simplest tasks that a toddler does is incredibly hard to automate. And so if you imagine a world in which a lot of this stuff has done commercially and autonomously out there, it can’t be one big company. It can’t be one single company. It has to be a lot of companies tackling different problems. That’s the world we imagine painting.
Ron Bauman: Do you ever get scared about machine learning and the robots taking over and wiping us all out?
Charlie: I think we’re a long, long, long, long way from that happens. I’m-
Ron Bauman: If it happens you’re going to be one of the ones I blame. I’m coming back and finding you.
Charlie: No, I think it’s a valid question. It’s one that comes up consistently, right? There’s something scary about autonomy to people in the sense of you’re replicating what people do. To me, the impact of technology consistently has been to magnify the force or the input that a person can… To magnify or increase the impact of the command that a person can give to the output side. So, a tractor allows one person to push a lever and move tens of thousands of pounds, whereas before they would be behind a horse moving a thousand pounds. I think the impact of autonomy will be to enable people to do things more productively and also to do things with a much more finessed treatment of each individual scenario.
Charlie: You can imagine in your garden if you see a weed, you kill it. If you see a particular type of beetle, you kill it. On a big industrial scale, if you see one of those things, you do the same thing everywhere. The impact of autonomy is being able to very selectively treat things on a plant by plant or on a specific case basis, which I think actually has a lot of benefits for all of society. Using less herbicides. Less inputs to get more and more output.
Charlie: If you imagine a world in which global population goes from 7 billion to 9 billion or 10 billion people, which is what supposed to do in the next couple of decades, autonomy has got to be part of that thing; the alternative is not enough food for a growing population.
Ron Bauman: There is a real social impact to what you’re doing as well?
Charlie: Yeah. I would absolutely make that point. I think where people oftentimes get hung up on autonomy is the notion of people losing their jobs as things are taking… I think if you were a bank teller you didn’t like an ATM machine. I know that’s a very blunt assessment, but the reality is that autonomy will usurp some tasks that people are doing. It’s my perspective that it actually creates a lot more opportunity in other areas and ones that are more consistent with, I think the work that people typically want to do.
Ron Bauman: You can apply the human talent to areas where it’s going to have more of an impact, not these routine mundane tasks. Carrying something, or picking fruit or… That’s awesome.
After having our fears quelled that the robots would not be taking over anytime soon. We concluded the discussion by getting Charlie’s advice for aspiring entrepreneurs and the origin of his company’s name.
Charlie: I think persistence really pays off. Starting a company is the hardest thing you will ever do. It takes every single thing out of you. You will, almost inevitably… You read a lot of things in the press about people and in a retrospect, things seem like they were incredibly successful and really, really easy to get going. And the reality is far the inverse. Nobody’s brilliant. People start out with an idea and they keep at it and keep at it and keep at it. And that leads, or potentially leads, to a big pay off our big reward, in terms of creating more impact in the world than you might otherwise get if you were in just a job.
Charlie: I think my advice would be that persistence really does pay off. There’s some pain in that, but the reward is definitely worth it.
Ron Bauman: I’m curious, where did Augean… Augean, am I saying all right?
Charlie: Yeah. There’s the Augean stables. It’s a Greek story. So Hercules routed a river through a stable instead of cleaning it out by hand. It’s this notion of doing a distasteful task that nobody should do in a clever or creative way. That’s the original source of the idea.
Ron Bauman: Charlie, thank you so much. We really love what you’re doing-
Ron Bauman: Wish you be best of luck. We can’t wait to see ya make a huge splash.
Charlie: Yeah. Thank you.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Break Through. I’m your host, Ron Bauman, serial entrepreneur, founder of Milk Street Marketing, and NextFab member. To learn more about how NextFab can make your ideas come to life, and be sure to follow #nextfabmade on social to see what our members are making.