TechBrew, an Emmertech portfolio company that builds mushroom-picking robots, first hired O’Connor as interim CEO earlier this year. O’Connor became TechBrew’s permanent new leader over the summer, replacing founder and longtime CEO Mike Boudreau, who has chosen to step back from the day-to-day leadership of TechBrew for personal reasons but remains as the company’s president while on leave.
O’Connor called Boudreau “one of the most extraordinary founders” with whom he has worked.
For O’Connor, the TechBrew transition marks a return to his operator roots following five years as an investor backing startups in the Prairies and across Canada through Regina-based Conexus and AgTech-focused Emmertech. O’Connor already knows TechBrew well, having spearheaded Emmertech’s 2020 investment in the farming robotics firm—a $2 million CAD Emmertech-led seed round—after which he retained a board seat.
In an exclusive interview with BetaKit, O’Connor laid out why joining TechBrew was a “natural” move for both parties, spoke about the startup’s progress to date under Boudreau’s leadership, and shared where the AgTech firm plans to go from here as it looks to shift from research and development to commercialization and solve a major challenge facing mushroom growers.
Founded in 1999 by Boudreau, TechBrew has a long history, largely as a contract engineering firm building one-off robotics solutions for a variety of industries, including food, medical devices, and transportation. Approximately four years ago, TechBrew shifted its primary focus to addressing growing labour issues in the mushroom industry.
According to O’Connor, every country has roughly one to four farms that are responsible for producing the majority of each nation’s mushrooms, and they all contend with 30 to 40 percent employee turnover annually. This is partly because harvesting mushrooms is a difficult gig: they are fragile, double in size every 24 hours, and grow on tall racks in cold, dark, humid industrial facilities, requiring pickers to reach up high and then hunch over all day repeatedly.
“The problem is really big,” said O’Connor. “You’ve got a workforce that turns over quickly [and] it’s a very unenjoyable job that results in a lot of uncomfortable positions you have to be in for a long duration.”
Citing these factors, coupled with the farms’ controlled environment and the well-defined task of picking mushrooms, O’Connor called mushroom harvesting ripe for automation. This opportunity attracted Emmertech to invest in TechBrew in the first place and was eventually part of what convinced O’Connor to continue on with the company as permanent CEO when it became clear that TechBrew required more than just an interim leader.
“For a lot of reasons, it wasn’t necessarily about leaving Conexus or leaving Emmertech,” said O’Connor. “It was about finding an opportunity where I can maximize the value I’m bringing to our [limited partners] in that fund, and that happens to be, hopefully, turning one of [Emmertech’s] largest investments into a success.”
O’Connor has since been joined at TechBrew by his former colleague at Grow Technologies, Chris Payne, who recently stepped into the role of chief financial and operating officer.
To date, the core challenge has been figuring out how to build a robot that can pick a mushroom at the same speed or faster than a human without damaging it. “There is a deep graveyard of companies that have tried to solve this problem and failed along the way,” said O’Connor, noting that lots of money has already been thrown at this issue.
According to O’Connor, a handful of tech firms are trying to address this issue. Some want to make humans more productive, while others, including TechBrew and Putnam, Ontario-based Mycionics, are taking a different approach.
“There are two Canadian companies trying to solve this global problem, but really no one else has had success at creating robots that actually do the harvesting,” said O’Connor.
After years of development, O’Connor claims TechBrew has now built a solution that uses patented suction-cup technology and proprietary mechanical robots to harvest mushrooms slightly faster than a human without damaging them.
TechBrew’s robots are designed to squeeze into mushroom-growing racks and gently pick, trim, clean, and pack mushrooms at all hours of the day, enabling farmers to increase yields and harvest mushrooms at the most optimal time while also reducing energy waste.
With multiple pilots under its belt and purchase orders from mushroom producers in Canada and Europe, TechBrew’s first commercial robots are set to hit the farm this December. According to O’Connor, another handful of farms are also actively exploring deploying its tech.
The core challenge has been figuring out how to build a robot that can pick a mushroom as fast or faster than a human without damaging it.
For his part, O’Connor credits Boudreau and the 30-person team he has assembled for where TechBrew sits today. “He has built one heck of a company,” said O’Connor, who called Boudreau “one of the most extraordinary founders I have worked with.”
“It’s rare you find a founder that’s as strong on both the visionary and execution perspective as Mike is,” he added.
As O’Connor looks to build on the groundwork laid by Boudreau, TechBrew is currently considering how quickly it wants to scale its manufacturing efforts as it looks to meet customer demand while also navigating an environment where cash has become harder to come by.
Amid these conditions, O’Connor said TechBrew is remaining prudent about its spending as it grows and plans to raise additional capital this year to support these efforts.
Feature image courtesy TechBrew Robotics.