In this exclusive interview, Peter van der Vlugt, Managing Director at KUBOTA shares insights into the company’s open innovation strategy and what gets him excited for the future of ag autonomy and robotics.

Peter van der Vlugt

You’re celebrating the 3-year anniversary of the Innovation Center this July, can you tell us more about the centres (and the significance of where they are located)?

The Kubota Innovation Center for Europe (ICE) reached indeed an important milestone this July, celebrating the third year anniversary since the opening in July 2019. In Europe we are conveniently located at our Nieuw-Vennep location in The Netherlands, next to the Kubota Holdings Europe HQ, very near to Amsterdam. This location is also on a short distance to Wageningen University & Research (WUR), where we have a Kubota satellite office on campus. The close collaboration with the WUR ecosystem is extremely important in our open innovation strategy.

Kubota Corporation established the Innovation Center concept, first in Japan and Europe and later followed by North America to complete the main global regions approach, for the creation of new business ventures, products, and services in Kubota’s fields of business. Solving globally expanding issues in agtech will require creation of new values unlike any time before, and with faster speed than ever. To make this possible, Kubota is promoting open innovation through the Innovation Centres, which will bolster collaboration with partners outside the company, from start-up firms to universities and research institutions.
There are many partners throughout the world with advanced technologies that will have a tremendous impact on society in the future. We will combine our expertise and technology with their leading technologies to pioneer the development of solutions and businesses that can solve global issues in AgTech and even beyond.

How do you work with start-ups in the robotics and autonomous space? What crops are you focusing on and where do you see the biggest breakthroughs?

We don’t have a more specific way of working with start-ups in the robotics and autonomy space compared to other start-ups. Our process in general may differ per use case, for example we can set up partnership agreements with start-ups to run pilot projects together in the field with Kubota growers involved to assess the technology and market readiness of the technology, product or service.

In other cases, we may go for an investment in a start-up, a good example is the investment we have with Tevel Aerobotics Technologies, which focuses on autonomous fruit picking technologies through Flying Autonomous Robots. Clearly this collaboration is aimed to solve the ever-increasing labour shortage and quality of fruit picking. The fruit harvest has a tight time window, the manual labour availability is more and more a problem, and labour is becoming very costly for growers. Kubota’s aim is to solve the increasing pain points of growers by working towards practical and easy to use autonomous solutions.

How is the agtech and robotics space in Europe evolving compared to the US? Do you see rising stars in Europe coming through?

It is difficult to compare for me as our ICE main focus for investments and collaboration is in Europe & Israel. I have the impression that the AgTech space in the US is attracting much more capital in a faster way, but is also more risky as to the high expectations created within the community while in the end growers may not be waiting for a certain solution or not willing to invest in due to a weak ROI or business case.

It is extremely important to understand the grower’s pain points and to offer products and services that are easy to use and really bring a value proposition. In Europe most of the start-ups we are in contact with have a down-to-earth approach and background, often coming from a farm, having an engineering or an agronomic degree, really understanding where the problem is for farmers and willing to bring a best fit value proposition. If you would combine or compare the differences between the US and Europe, perhaps the Israeli AgTech ecosystem can be seen as the best combination of both regions.

As far as rising stars, of course there are some good success stories in Europe, just to mention for example in the robotics space players like Naïo or AgroIntelli.

What is getting you excited about the autonomy space and where is it heading? How is AI unlocking new approaches in the robotics space?

Autonomy and robotics is definitely the future and the way to go to help address future labour shortages and to further improve and automate the on farm cultural practices! What gets me really excited is when we envision a system that combines full autonomy with AI capabilities and with further automated concepts that involves other operations in the field.

A great example is the DLG Agrifuture Concept Winner 2022 award for our automated fruit picking system, jointly developed with Tevel Aerobotics. Kubota and Tevel combined their expertise to address the major challenge of labour shortages in fruit harvesting by developing an automated fruit picking system, offering a solution for any farm size through its unique and modular approach.

The modular concept of wired fruit-picking drones that utilize AI to pick the right fruits, and the flexible logistics solutions involving also Kubota’s autonomous tractor concept, allows various configurations for individual farm requirements and still enables full compatibility with established harvesting methods.

Who are you looking forward to meeting at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in London?

Looking forward to meeting everyone!

 

Want to continue the conversation? Come meet Peter in London this September. He will be joined by agtech leaders at Blue White Robotics, Tortuga and Ecorobotix during the panel ‘Ag Robotics: Increasing Farmer Profitability Through Autonomy’ at 11.15am (GMT) on September 21. See the full program of live sessions here.