For a number of years now a bottle of whisky has shared space on my office bookshelf with a ring-pull can of ‘potato beverage’ given to me by China’s self-styled King of Potatoes, Liang Xisen.

While the potato juice remains unopened due to a degree of trepidation as to what raw potato juice might do to the Western digestive system, for different reasons the bottle of whisky might also now remain undrunk for the foreseeable future.

For the diminutive size of the bottle reflects the philosophy of the company which kindly sent it to me –the Small Robot Company.

Part of this reluctance to partake of the drams it contains might be due to me wondering how much it might fetch on eBay – but the deeper reason is the sadness I felt when I heard that the company has gone into voluntary liquidation after it had failed to secure enough backing to see it through to the next steps of scaling up what was both a successful and growing commercial concern.


The innovations developed by the company were pretty groundbreaking too – a range of robotic machines which could be either bought or hired to take to the UK’s fields in order to carry out weed control and a host of other tasks.

In contrast to the ever-growing size of tractors and other equipment, the small scale of these robot machines offered the prospect of greater accuracy and “per plant” treatments for both pesticides and fertilisers – an approach which it was claimed could reduce pesticide usage by 90% and fertiliser by 24%.

Three different robots were developed and tested, going under the names of Tom, Dick and Harry, to digitally map and treat weed populations and disease, with the addition of Wilma as the artificial intelligence hub designed to co-ordinate operations. A real feather in Tom’s cap was its unique ability to recognise grass weeds – a capacity which offered huge benefits south of the Border where blackgrass is a major issue.

Host of awards

Although the Small Robot Company (SRC) had raised more than £11 million in funding over its six-and-a-half years in operation – including considerable investment and support from members of the farming industry itself as well as grant funding from Innovate UK – the widespread media coverage and a host of awards which it attracted failed to garner enough support from the commercial sector to secure its future.

And while a major player was set to provide long-term backing and considerable funding last year, it’s believed that the deal fell through not due to any shortfall with the robots or the scheme itself but foundered on the fact that investment in agri-tech was just too big an unknown for the corporation involved to take the risk.

Valley of death

A successful crowdfunding exercise plugged the gap, but claiming it was a victim of the ‘valley of death’, the SRC pointed to the lack of a funding mechanism available within the UK in order to take new innovations and inventions much beyond the prototype development stage and fully scale up onto the commercial market.

Speaking to a clearly gutted Ben Scott-Robinson, the co-founder and CEO of the Small Robot Company earlier in the week, he said it was with great sadness that the decision had been taken to put the operation into liquidation.

He said that the technology, which was up and running, with units already out on a rental basis and working on farms – as well as some being sold, including one to the James Hutton Institute – had been proven to deliver economic gains and improve sustainability for the early adopters.

And although there was the promise of more funding on the horizon, it couldn’t be accessed in time to stave off the liquidation.

‘I’ll be back’

However, despite the blow, Ben was not totally despondent and hoped that the liquidator would be able to ensure the gains already achieved could be secured. While he didn’t actually use the Terminator catchphrase of ‘I’ll be back’ which I proffered to him, he was relatively optimistic that the work of the company as a whole would not be wasted.

He said: “We believe we developed something that will be a cornerstone of how farms are run in the future, but unfortunately with this attempt we were too early for the market.

“Our chapter in the fourth agricultural revolution is over. We hope we have inspired others to continue the mission.”

Ben said that while there’s plenty of support for the early proof-of-concept stages in the UK, there isn’t much beyond that from either government funds or venture capitalists to help make the all-important leap to scaling up production.

And, sadly, this means that the lead which is being stolen on the UK farming industry by other nations in the race to commercially exploit all the tools available to move closer to precision farming is beginning to show.

Worryingly, this means that if we’re to take advantage of developing technologies like this, then we’ll have to accept stuff which has been developed not for use in the UK, but for the conditions and infrastructure which exist in other countries – and with much of that coming from the US, it’s likely to be aimed at those with tens of thousands of hectares.

Family farms

In fact, it has even been suggested that there’s a bias against developing stuff for family farms and smaller units in America – as it is more simple to let the small guys go bust and then sell the technology to the corporations which subsequently snap the land up.

So, is there any hope that the ‘valley of death’ can be avoided by better structuring of the support for specialist agri-tech start-ups in the UK?

It may be nothing more than a coincidence, but it looks like the agri-tech centres which were launched back in 2016 to encourage exactly the sort of development which will be needed to keep the UK even closer to the forefront of technological innovation have recently confirmed that three of the organisations are to merge into one.

The gap between research and widescale uptake by the farming community evident in the UK has probably arisen for a number of reasons – not least the fact that such new technologies are expensive and generally unproven and hence risky – for those wanting to take them up.

For a long time, the all-important area of near-market development of new products and techniques was not supported by government bodies – but this growing chasm was recognised back in 2013 – and as a result, the agri-tech centres were set up in 2016.

Under the radar

But while they might have provided considerable support in the early stages of the process to those seeking to develop their ideas, the centres somehow seemed to operate under the radar of the farming community itself.

Who among us would be able to name the four groups set up? I’d have to admit that despite giving them a deal of publicity as they were being set up, I had to do a fair bit of searching on the internet to remind myself what they were. And while it looks like the data-driven Agrimetrics will continue to go its own way, from April this year the other three organisations – CIEL (Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock); CHAP (Crop Health and Protection); and Agri-EPI: Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre – will merge and operate under one banner, working as an Innovate UK ‘Catapult’.

Bash Street Kids

While the term ‘catapult’ did nothing other than conjure up the sort of weapon wielded by one of the Bash Street Kids, apparently, through a combination of government and commercial funding, this might actually help address the chasm through which so many of the country’s good ideas often fall by bridging the gap between research and industry.

Oh – and the bottle of Small Robot Whisky? That came about back in 2018 after I informed its chief marketing officer that its Burns Night PR campaign which suggested we’d soon be celebrating the bard with whisky made from barley grown by robots – in Staffordshire – might lose them a deal of support on this side of the Border.