Adam Stager is the founder of TRIC Robotics, a startup company focused on offering strawberry farmers a viable alternative to pesticides.
The TRIC Robotics team, which includes several UD undergraduate students, has developed an autonomous field robot with the ability to travel up and down the rows in a strawberry field, delivering nonchemical pest protection right to the strawberries themselves. The field robot leverages UVC light technology, developed by USDA scientists.
Stager earned his doctoral degree at the University of Delaware in mechanical engineering in early 2020, under the advisement of Professor Herbert Tanner. In addition to running his startup, Stager is now a postdoctoral researcher with UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. He earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UD in 2011.
Like many startups with humble beginnings, the TRIC Robotics team operates out of Stager’s home in Newark, Delaware. He describes the workspace as very “out-of-the-garage startup” with students sprawled at computers in the basement or working side-by-side on the robot in the adjacent garage.
Adam came to the Delaware SBDC in his early stages of development back in 2017 to discuss possible grant opportunities. His SBDC advisor, Louis Dinetta, worked closely with Adam in assisting him by reviewing various proposals.
While Stager is the big thinker behind the idea, he said that teamwork has been critical to the startup’s success.
“With robotics you need lots of different brains to make things work,” said Stager. “I can offer guidance, but it is the skills of every individual that make it possible. I need Ansel, an undergrad from Bard College, who is much better at programming than me, and Jake who is better at design, and so on.”
Early products by TRIC Robotics included smaller robots for disaster management and environmental data collection, but Stager quickly realized the margin for repeat business was small. UD support, training in entrepreneurship, and conversations with experts facilitated by UD’s Horn Entrepreneurship helped Stager shift the company’s focus toward agriculture. Collaborations with CANR faculty allowed him to test the robots in cornfields before switching to strawberries.
Earlier this spring and summer, the team tested the treatment’s effectiveness in strawberry fields at Fifer Orchards, Delaware’s largest commercial strawberry grower, in Camden-Wyoming, and at UD’s campus in Georgetown, Delaware. Pilot testing at Fifer showed positive results with similar yields between chemical and UV-C treatment. In Georgetown, the team ended up trimming back many of the plants to make the field manageable with fewer people due to the coronavirus pandemic. A third East Coast pilot project at the USDA site in Kearneysville, West Virginia, is still up and running, and planning is currently underway for five additional pilot projects in 2021 — two of them located on organic farms in California.