There are no sure bets in this -- or any -- business. Automation, agriculture and a climate-bent are green flags, but no category is immune from mounting economic headwinds on top of the already difficult task of launching a successful startup. While robotics has thus far seen a limited slowdown in investing relative to many other sectors, there’s no such thing as a recession-proof business in startup land.
Bay Area-based Iron Ox has certainly had no shortage of supporters. The agtech firm has raised north of $100 million, culminating with a $53 million Series C announced in September of last year. But earlier this week, the robotic agtech startup instituted widespread layoffs. All told, 50 jobs were cut this week, a figure that amounts to nearly half of the company's staff of "just over 100 people."
Chief Legal Officer Myra Pasek tells TechCrunch that the decision was made in order to "extend [its] cash runway." Pasek adds:
We've decided to hyperfocus on our core competence of engineering and technology; as a result, we eliminated many roles that are not core to our renewed focus. However, the layoff was comprehensive and included positions throughout the organization -- i.e., not limited to only certain departments.
Reducing the Iron Ox team was a painful decision -- one we did not take lightly. We are working with our board members and leaning into our extensive ecosystem throughout Silicon Valley to help employees find meaningful new work at mission-aligned companies. Iron Ox has always hired world-class talent, and I'm confident that the individuals we unfortunately had to cut this week will have many options open to them. As a matter of policy, we are not going to provide additional details or comment on specific personnel, and we ask that you respect their privacy at this sensitive time.
It's a massive blow for a well-funded firm at the cross section of several growth areas. Iron Ox’s play has focused on fully automated greenhouses, courtesy of robotic arms, Kiva-like plant moving carts and other technologies. Utilizing indoor growing techniques and a trove of data, the pitch promised broader growing seasons in more diverse climates and the utilization of less resources than standard farming, all while still harnessing the sun in a way that is often altogether removed from vertical farming.
Precisely what shape the new focus will take remains to be seen, though the company's site reflects a broad range of different satellite categories, including plant and data science and robotics. Speaking with TechCrunch, Iron Ox explained that it had no intention of winding down operations, though the firm is seemingly open to both seeking additional funding and, perhaps, even a sale.
"[A]t Iron Ox, our attitude is that we are always willing and eager to meet with mission-aligned investors who want to decarbonize the agriculture sector," Pasek says. "Like other competitive startups, we never stop fundraising. We are not talking about winding down operations -- we are more focused than ever on our core competencies in engineering and technology."