Reshaping the Wheel

David Mason explains how he is helping two start-ups introduce smarter tech to perpetual devices in healthcare and agriculture

Disruption has become a term synonymous with the world of start-ups. We hear of transportation being turned upside down and payment systems getting replaced with slicker, more modular approaches. But now, imagine when someone seeks to reinvent something that’s existed since well before the creation of the wheel. That’s exactly what David Mason is aiming to find out with his team’s latest developments, which serve as a hardware update for two truly perennial technologies: ice cubes and bushel baskets.

As the former senior director of patent portfolios and competitors at Align Technology, Mason has accumulated twenty-five years of patent law wisdom, which he is currently applying to the development of two compact and elegant solutions that could have a major impact on their respective industries. His personal philosophy is both succinct and benevolent.

“What I’ve learned from practicing patent laws for twenty-five years is that you can never stop learning new ways to be healthier, or to help others become healthier, as well,” Mason says.

David Mason, AgPro Robotics, Thermal Therapies

It’s a concept that led him to Thermal Therapies in July 2017, where he is currently the company’s chief operating officer. The concept behind the start-up founded by Don Giberson, a former Silicon Valley executive, is relatively simple: injured athletes and physical therapists alike have long used the ice-on, ice-off method to treat swelling and aid in recovery. That approach has its complications, however, including inconsistent temperatures, the need to often replace ice, and no means of remaining within the bounds of an optimal temperature range.

A number of devices have been marketed to improve those issues, but Mason believes Thermal Therapies’ device is a leader in terms of compact and elegant design. Mason says the technology is similar to a refrigerator and is roughly the same size as a small Igloo container, and adjustments can be made to the temperature whenever the user needs it and in whatever environmental condition they may be in.

“When we approached doctors who do orthopedic surgery on athletes and other patients, the problems of icing—which is too cold to use at first, then melts quickly—are commonly expressed,” Mason says. “Also, the modern systems that are out there typically do not work well in high-temperature environments. So, if it’s a system used in an area that gets above eighty degrees, it’s hard to cool down the water.”

And that’s where Thermal Therapies is looking to make its greatest impact—knowing that a highly portable device may have applications beyond the conventional hospital, branching out as well into home, school, work, and potential military applications.

As of now, Mason is leveraging his background in patents to help position the team and prepare them for initial sales and contracts. At press time, the team has a letter of intent for one thousand units per year, over two years, from one of the major pad manufactures, with other, more comprehensive rollouts forecasted for the near future.

“Thermal Therapies is growing, building, and modifying the solution to make the system quieter, programable, battery powered, and more lightweight,” Mason says. “What began as a science experiment on the kitchen table in Silicon Valley has become a refined design with encasing and structure.” And while Mason has made great strides in his work with Thermal Therapies, he’s also busy working with another innovative company.

The Science of Farming

Similar to Thermal Therapies, the start-up company AgPro Robotics reimagines another time-honored technology—the bushel basket—by making it smarter and more dynamic in terms of mobility and portability, which improves the health and safety of farmers, as well as their efficiency.

Over the last century, bushel baskets went from handheld to horse-pulled to machine-powered. In more recent years, the bushel basket has evolved into large, roving devices that move in tandem in front of the pickers. Although these larger machines may service eight or ten workers, the large and cumbersome machine must be driven to keep pace with the slowest worker and maneuver through the farm.

Bushel baskets are large machines that help berry farmers harvest their crops more efficiently.

“Working with berries is a historically manually intensive labor because of the small size, and sometimes delicate nature of the product,” says Mason, who also serves as chief operating officer of AgPro Robotics. “With AgPro, we’ve introduced a small, electric harvesting aide that can increase the productivity of up to four workers harvesting strawberries by about 30 percent while also reducing their physical labor that typically causes injuries.”

In addition to being more dynamic, AgPro’s devices are also smarter than other devices on the market. In most farms where berries are harvested, harvesters walk down rows of plants, pick off the fruit, and place it in a tray or bucket. Then, they run to the end of the row, the fruit gets weighed, harvesters get credited, and then they run back and pick some more. During the day, the average harvester will shuffle more than four miles up and down a row of crops for a half mile of plants.

The device from AgPro founded by Erik Jertberg, a third-generation berry farmer, is a semi-autonomous transport aid that follows harvesters as they pick produce, and when they fill up a tray, the harvesters merely turn around and place the tray on the device before grabbing the next tray to fill. In future releases, the device will also weigh the produce picked, keep track of who picked it, transport the picked produce when a constraint is reached so the worker can continue to pick, keep the picked produce level on uneven terrain, take images of the crops, and share all this data with the farmer to understand worker productivity and crop health. Since July 2017, the start-up has been making waves. AgPro Robotics has already engaged Creative Manufacturing Solution to build the field-tested product as captured by its pending patent and product materials and videos, spearheaded by Mason. Earlier this year, the company presented at the invite-only CA Strawberry Automation Conference and occupied a forty-by-forty foot booth at the World Ag Expo in California. The company is also aligned with one of the largest berry shippers, Driscoll’s, which has featured AgPro in numerous marketing materials.

With both Thermal Therapies and AgPro Robotics, Mason is confident in terms of market demand and measurable technological improvements. AgPro in particular has a promising and wide-reaching market demand, especially given that a majority of berry farms exist in a focused region of California, a berry’s throw away from where the tech is being developed.

AgPro has already attracted the support of a leading fruit producer. And once IP is solidified, Mason and his team will be well-positioned to help farmers more readily enjoy the fruits of their labors.

“The goal is to get a product to market this year for strawberry growers and to develop the concept for aiding other crop harvests in the coming years, so that the valuation improves to the point of being desired by larger entities in the next five years,” Mason says.