Paltech have received a Star Alumni award for the amount of positive progress they made during the course of the Seedbed Incubator programme.
Paltech is a recently established AgTech startup based in Freising, Germany. They are 2021 Seedbed hub alumni and won the award for best pitch. The company was founded by the two brothers Felix and Florian Schiegg and their stepfather Jorge Decombe. Florian studied physics and electronics and Felix studied robotics. Based on their own experiences at their family farm in southern Germany, they felt the strong need to support the automatisation of weed control in grassland. They decided to find a solution to the labour intensive process of fighting taproot weeds for organic farmers.
In their interview with our colleague Magdalena Eisenmann, co-founder Felix Schiegg told us more about their personal entrepreneurial journey and why they developed a mechanical weeding robot that has the potential to drastically reduce the need for manual work on organic grassland farms.
Tell us about your company
Paltech is a field robotics start-up. We solve one of organic dairy farmers biggest problems - weed control in grassland - by automating it.
Name five words that best describe Paltech?
AgTech, sorrel (one of the main weeds we fight), automation, innovation, team spirit.
What is your innovation?
We found a method to fight taproot weeds. Those are weeds that have quite large roots and occur mainly in grassland, e.g. sorrel. The roots of these weeds can grow to a length of up to 1.5 m into the soil. With our method there is a real alternative to herbicides. Until now the only solution farmers have is to mechanically control them by manual work. Our method alleviates this pain.
How does it contribute to making our food system more sustainable?
As a society we have high goals, e.g. in Bavaria we have BioRegio 2030 or on the EU level the Farm to Fork Strategy. The goal is to increase organic area in the EU from 7.5 % in 2018 to 25 % by 2030. The only way to make this possible is by automating work. We can’t solve this problem alone but we make our small contribution to moving in the right direction.
How did you come up with the idea behind your startup?
It is based on the fact that our family owns a farm in Allgäu (a region in Southern Bavaria) close to the famous castles Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau and the lake Illasbergsee. It converted to organic management in 2016. Since then my brother and I had to help with the manual work every time we were visiting our grandparents. We thought back to times when we got coffee and cake when visiting them while now we got tools and had to go to the field for manual work.
My brother Florian studied physics and electronics and I studied robotics, so both of us had technical backgrounds. We brainstormed a bit and thought that there had to be a solution for this problem that does not imply much manual work. And we started.
How did you get involved with the EIT Food Seedbed Incubator?
The first contact was over Carmen Bauer who then was a start-up consultant with TU Munich. She was one of the organisers of the EIT Food regulars’ table (a regular virtual meet-up for founders, organized by EIT Food Central Business Creation) Through that we became connected to EIT Food.
Was there a shift during your time in the Seedbed Incubator programme?
We were able to understand our customers better and therefore also make some adjustments in the product roadmap and the value proposition.
Instead of aiming for a fully automated version right from the start we made a partially automated version to enter the market more quickly. At the moment, a full automation is not even allowed so it did not make sense, also our customer feedback told us that a partial automation is perfectly fine. Of course, there is a time saving potential but the key point for them is related to the extra work that is almost painful. They don’t mind standing next to the robot to watch over it, so it doesn’t have to be fully automated. The problem is more related to the back pain, especially in older people. They even have the time to do the work, but not the strength and the back of a 40-year-old.
From your point of view, what is the most difficult thing when turning an idea into a product in the actual market?
I’d say balancing everything. It is way more than you expect, especially if it is hardware. There are always problems here and there, regulations that you have to attend to and so on. At the same time you are trying to develop your product and keep everyone happy - potential investors, clients, cooperation partners.
Trying to balance everything and making it fit into your schedule is a tough thing to do. Not everything you do is as product related as you might think. It would be easy if you just had two years to develop a technology and you work on that 24/7, but there is a lot more on your plate than that. It is the most underestimated thing in the whole process.
Everyone has that romantic vision that you are just going to be in your lab developing your product, but it is not that way. Over the last year I was able to really develop and focus on development 100% for maybe one or two months in total and the rest was coordination work.
How did the DIL Seedbed Hub support you in developing your value proposition and validating your market potential?
Even though DIL is more on the food side, Alexander was always open to making contacts here and there and had good advice on how to handle issues. He always had an open ear if we needed help. For example, with our pitch deck his sharp way to look at things really helped us.
Who would you recommend joining a programme like that?
We didn’t get into the programme the first time we applied. Therefore, we already made our main customer discovery journey before the Seedbed Incubator. We then got accepted and got a second validation of the customer journey. My recommendation is: apply as early as possible. The customer journey should be the beginning of your startup journey. If it does not work, try next year.
What were your most valuable learnings during the Seedbed Incubator?
During the Seedbed Incubator we had the opportunity to meet 100+ potential customers and many of our stakeholders. It is always recommended to keep close contact with them so the results of those were quite valuable. The programme itself is constructed in such a way that you can pick what helps you most.I really liked the talks about European level funding. Another talk we got was from Prateek from the company Bioweg - I enjoyed his perspective. In the Seedbed Incubator we got several different inputs that really helped us.
You are located near Munich, are you involved in a local Food&AgTech Startup support system?
We are part of the TUM Venture Lab. They have 14 different hubs called venture labs which are incubators/accelerators of highly specialised areas – from robotics and AI to Food/AgTech/Biotech to quantum physics. They support you as a start-up company from the ideation phase to prototype building and offer office space as well as workspace. The robotics venture lab is located in the Munich Coworking Space for example. It is a great help for start-up companies like ours.
What advice would you give to a scientific team that would like to start their own business?
If it is merely scientific, I think it is always good to get the other side who is not directly related to the scientific part on the boat. That is what we were missing a bit. There are many good programmes out there so I recommend testing one of those. The TUM with UnternehmerTUM has one of the best programmes that I know. Applying to the EXIST grant for new entrepreneurs is one of the best ways to completely focus on your idea and get from an idea to a prototype. From there on you can secure funding etc.