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Brent Frei’s 80-year-old father, Ron Frei, picks rocks on his farm in Grangeville, Idaho. The process, done in large part by hand, is a necessary part of farming. (Photo courtesy of Brent Frei)

Smartsheet founder Brent Frei is looking to seed and nurture another tech company, with the hope of someday seeing it grow into another big success. But first, as they say on the farm, he’s got to pick some rocks.

Frei, the former CEO of Onyx Software, co-founded Smartsheet in 2005 to help customers manage and automate key work processes. The Bellevue, Wash.-based company has filed to raise as much as $100 million through an initial public offering.

Now Frei is looking to the Idaho farmland where he grew up for the inspiration behind his latest idea. That idea is TerraClear, a machine that Frei said could become the “Roomba for rock picking” in referencing the famed robotic vacuum cleaner and the menial task of removing rocks from land used for growing crops.

“Last summer I was farming full time and the kids were helping me out. It was super fun,” Frei said of his return with his children to the farm his family still runs back in Grangeville, Idaho. “As often happens with me, I watched and observed what we’re doing and thought, ‘Gosh, there’s gotta be a better way. Why has industry not solved this problem that’s been a challenge for an incredibly long time?'”

After all, that was the case with Smartsheet. Spreadsheets seemed to be the dominant industry tool for managing work processes, but they didn’t quite work right, so Frei figured he’d find a better way. Now, that better way has put Smartsheet on the verge of becoming a public company.

Brent Frei grew up working on the family farm in Idaho. Now he’s returned to solve an old problem with new technology. (Photo courtesy of Brent Frei)

On the farm he had the exact same feeling while picking rocks — a process done in large part by hand that allows crops room to grow in the soil and prevents damage to expensive machinery.

“Even though there are a lot of machines that have been developed over the years that do it mechanically, they all largely only operate in optimal conditions,” Frei said. “And so farmers still do it by hand. And farmers are an aging population and the farms have gotten bigger. I’m sitting there watching my dad — he’s 80, and he’s still just killing it on the farm — he’s walking out in front of some teenager driving the tractor and he’s throwing rocks in the bucket.”

According to Frei, no one has applied modern technology to the problem. No computer vision, no neural networks, robotics or GPS.

He would go home at night after working on the farm and do Google searches to see who was working on what. But it became clear that the giant, old market was ripe for seismic change.

“You can simply build a mousetrap that’s never been built because technology didn’t exist that can solve a really pressing and huge problem — and you could make a lot of money if you do it well,” Frei said. “I actually think it’s my next big thing. … It’s way easier to describe than my last company.”

Clearing rocks from farmland is a necessary process to prevent damage to expensive machinery. (Photo courtesy of Brent Frei)

TerraClear got off the ground in October, with initial funding from Frei. The company is working out of a Bellevue office, and using the family farm in Idaho as a test facility. Part of the team of six just spent several days there, living in a horse barn and doing testing in the fields.

“I got a chance to bring together some of the old guard that I’ve worked with over the years that are really good,” Frei said. “And they’re so fun to work with and they’re just as competitive and smart as they’ve ever been.”

The team includes Mike Racine, who worked with Frei at Microsoft and built the services organization for Onyx; Dwight McMaster, who also worked with Frei at Microsoft; Vivek Nayak, a veteran of companies including Intellectual Ventures and TUUSSO Energy; Koos Du Preez, the former CTO of the K2 software company, and Santa Clara University student Thayne Kollmorgen.

(This Microsoft Alumni Network story has more details on the connection among Frei, McMaster and Racine.)

Frei is also enjoying the experience of being around his family in Idaho and involving his five young kids, who have been able to understand and participate in the process of creating something, and even show up at the shop and tinker with prototypes.

Frei said his 7-year-old son even came up with a logo for TerraClear one day while he was doing his math homework. Frei wasn’t even looking for a logo, but he ran it by his team, they liked it and ended up putting it on T-shirts. Frei’s son asked if he could wear one to school and talk about the project, and Frei told him, “You bet you can, buddy.”

His 10-year-old daughter pushed back on Frei’s hardware design idea and suggested something else, and he thought, “You know, that actually kind of works. … She doesn’t have the bias of old-people thinking, so her design ideas are now in it.”

Life on the farm: Brent Frei and his team are based in Bellevue, Wash., but they’re using his Idaho family farm as a testbed for TerraClear. (Photo courtesy of Brent Frei)

Frei has long held a passion for farming and agriculture. Growing up and working with his dad during his formative years provided what he called an incredible opportunity to feel good about meaningful, “real work.”

And picking rocks is real — and important work. Large rocks the size of basketballs have to be moved out because they can cause tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage to a half-a-million-dollar combine machine. Smaller rocks, picked up in the machine’s header when harvesting closer to the ground for lentils or peas or garbanzo beans, can also cause damage and put a farmer out of commission in the heat of the harvest season.

And it never stops, thanks to tillage, erosion and frost heaving that perpetually cause rocks to come up to the surface.

TerraClear’s answer will be a machine — Frei isn’t saying how big — that would come in both autonomous and non-autonomous versions, aimed at both farmers and service providers as customers. It would be built in such a way that its footprint would be light enough so that it could pick rocks after seeding. In the farming industry, Frei said this would be “the holy grail.”

The small company — aiming to solve a hard problem in a huge market — is planning to have a working prototype by the beginning of summer.

“We’ve got what we feel is a pretty darn good design,” Frei said, “and now it’s a matter of hacking it out.”

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