Salmon Arm designer of robotic mushroom pickers expects to create hundreds of jobs | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Salmon Arm designer of robotic mushroom pickers expects to create hundreds of jobs

This is the robotic mushroom picker created by TechBrew Robotics of Salmon. Arm.
Image Credit: Submitted/TechBrew Robotics
March 24, 2021 - 6:30 AM

At a time when COVID-19 has made the concept of working from home so popular, Mike Boudreau, founder of TechBrew Robotics, would rather bring hundreds of new workers to Salmon Arm to work on his mushroom picking robots.

He now has a workforce of 24.

“We’re ramping up to 30 this year,” Boudreau told iNFOnews.ca. “It really depends on the adoption rate of the market but, I think, within five years we could have maybe 500 people.”

Right now, he’s trying to bring in one worker from Russia and another from Brazil but, because of COVID, the whole immigration process has slowed to a crawl. What used to take six months has now stretched beyond a year and still going.

He doesn’t believe the work-from-home model works, especially for a business like TechBrew.

“It’s as simple as the informal communications around the coffee machine or water cooler or whatever,” Boudreau said. “Those just don’t happen if you’re not bringing people together and they’re so important, especially in project work like we’re doing where there’s lots of moving parts, there’s lots of communication required. That informal communication can’t be undervalued.”

The key to his success is a robot that picks, trims and places mushrooms into packages. Unlike other robots, these can see the mushrooms and adjust to differences in size while it picks and trims.

The company has been working on the innovative robots for the last couple of years in conjunction with Fraser Valley operations.

Boudreau is heading out to the mushroom farm with the third generation of the robot next week and, in about a month, he will take four robots to run pilot projects, probably at two mushroom farms in the Lower Mainland.

While other TechBrew robots are working in various capacities around the world, Boudreau has only one focus now.

“Mushrooms, mushrooms, mushrooms,” he said. “It’s a huge market opportunity and there’s a lot of automation that can be done in it that is untapped, so we’re pretty focussed at this point on mushrooms.”

The Fraser Valley produces 30 per cent of Canada’s mushrooms but 70 per cent of world production is in Asia, so he’s getting calls from potential customers all over the world.

As the business grows, he has no intention of giving up the lifestyle benefits and affordable housing of Salmon Arm.

He knows it’s possible to draw another 500 workers to the city because he helped Neunes Machine become the world's largest manufacturer of sawmill equipment a few years ago by bringing 500 to 600 workers to the area. Most are now gone.

The relative remoteness of Salmon Arm has not stopped Boudreau from tapping world markets but, for his focus on mushrooms, it has helped to be so close to the farms.

For one thing, COVID travel restrictions would have been a real hindrance had he been working with offshore farms. For another thing, it’s just easier to not have to travel so far, he said.

On the down side, there are foreign customers who wanted to visit Salmon Arm to see his product who have not been able to travel so they’ve not been able to commit to his robots.

Boudreau founded the company in 1999. It created a robot that’s responsible for cutting every block of Kraft cheese in Canada; another one that puts pre-made sandwiches into packets in the U.K. and a robot that scores bread sold at Costco and White Spot, among others.

The key is to have a machine with eyes that can see the differences in each loaf of bread, block of cheese or mushroom and adjust to those changes.

READ MORE: Mushroom-picking robot? Salmon Arm firm on the cutting-edge of robotic design

It is costing millions to develop a robot to pick the mushrooms.

In January TechBrew entered the Accelerate Okanagan Angel Summit competition as part of Boudreau’s efforts to raise $500,000. He won that competition and its $145,000 investment last week. With that, he’s raised $1.5 million investment dollars towards his mushroom project since January.


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