EnterpriseWorks startup EarthSense won the 2020 Innovation Award from the Association of University Research Parks. Each year, the Innovation Award is awarded to a business located in a research park, science park or innovation district. The award recognizes a company which has developed a product or service through a substantial technology breakthrough or has potential for a significant positive impact on the economic, health or welfare status of a broad spectrum of humanity.
2020 has been a busy year for EarthSense, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign spinout that integrates autonomous robotics, machine-learning, and management. Its first product, the TerraSentia robot, uses a number of sensors to collect data on crop health, as well as machine learning-based analytics to convert this data into actionable insights for farmers.
In January, John Deere invited EarthSense to be a Startup Collaborator for 2020. The Startup Collaborator Program “enhances and deepens collaborative relationships with startup companies” whose technology could add value for John Deere customers. In May, EarthSense was selected to be part of the cohort for the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2); selected companies share a focus on developing technologies that support the agricultural sector while reducing environmental impact.
While its focus remains agtech, EarthSense has long recognized that its technologies could have wide-ranging impact and applications. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, EarthSense is working to adapt its autonomous robots for cleaning in hospitals and public spaces. By reducing the need for sanitary workers, EarthSense’s robotic cleaning units can help lower the community transmission rates of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
In June, this effort received “RAPID” funding from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program to accelerate technology development in hopes of deploying these sanitization robots as soon as possible.
“We felt driven to respond to this staggering crisis by accelerating our plan to create products beyond agriculture,” said Girish Chowdhary, co-founder and CTO of EarthSense, Director of the Distributed Autonomous Systems Laboratory, and Donald Biggar Willet Faculty Fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“The world needs to mobilize all possible resources to help healthcare professionals treat the unprecedented spike in people needing critical medical care. Autonomously sanitizing high-touch surfaces without “baking the whole room” will significantly improve our ability to help control COVID-19,” said EarthSense co-founder and CEO Chinmay Soman.
EarthSense was founded when University of Illinois engineering professor Girish Chowdhary and then postdoc Chinmay Soman partnered to apply their autonomous robotics research to agriculture. The company received a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) award to develop its first robot in 2018 and moved into the EnterpriseWorks incubator at the University of Illinois Research Park to further advance its technology, where it remains today. EarthSense received seed venture capital funding from Illinois Ventures, an early-stage technology investment firm focused on research-derived companies from the University of Illinois, which is co-located at EnterpriseWorks at the University of Illinois Research Park. The company leverages 3D printing and local manufacturing in Central IL to produce their robots and deploy the to large corporate agriculture customers around the world.