Q&A: Transforming the AgTech Landscape with Industrial IoT Startup Filament
By Ed Ruth
Ed Ruth: Can you set the stage? How did you first connect with Verizon Ventures and what is it like working with a CVC?
Eric Jennings: I first connected with Verizon Ventures during our Series A round of funding. Through a series of meetings and getting to know how the team worked, I gained a clear insight into how strategic investment firms operate. CVCs are often misperceived as slow and very exclusive — but that is not at all the case anymore — which is super important for today’s startups to understand.
ER: Filament’s devices and GPS receivers can keep tabs on the location of mobile equipment and the functioning of fixed machinery (especially in remote areas). When it comes to a use case like monitoring soil conditions, how can Filament advance the agriculture industry by giving farmers granular data on their fields?
EJ: We are firm believers in the idea that for the industrial Internet of Things to grow and at the scale that’s expected — tens of billions of devices by 2020 — a fundamentally new way of platform development is necessary (Click to Tweet).
A means through which devices, as well as the machines and infrastructure they’re connected to, can be autonomous in nature. What we mean by that is any system of sufficient complexity requires a balance of centralized and decentralized actors. This is true for the Internet, which is also similar to natural systems such as ant colonies and even our current understanding on how the human brain and nervous system works. For agriculture to move squarely into the next phase, it will require smart devices that can assist farmers to manage and cooperate along every aspect of seeding, growth, and harvest.
ER: From boosting yields to optimizing growing conditions, the agriculture industry is on the path towards becoming an IoT business with the help of solutions like Filament. While embracing technology might be a challenge for some farmers due to their risk-adverse nature, what are some other hurdles the industry will have to overcome?
EJ: Agriculture is one of the oldest professions in the world, and so a huge amount of wisdom and expertise has been gathered over the centuries. Gregor Mendel’s work with plant hybridization in the 1800s helped to drive our understanding of plant genetics today. Hurdles that the agricultural industry will continue to be challenged with will likely be the acceptance that a cooperation between machines, artificial intelligence, and human guidance will offer as significant gains in production, yield and waste reduction (as Mendel accomplished almost 200 years ago) (Click to Tweet).
ER: In your experience, what’s the best way to work with an investor like Verizon Ventures?
EJ: This goes for any investor, but communication is key. Startups have a thousand different risks and challenges they face and nothing worth doing will be easy. In some situations you’ll be inventing entirely new technology that has never existed, therefore communicating not only the challenges in bringing that tech to market, but educating your investors on why this is important, and how it can fundamentally change the trajectory of major industries is crucial. Investors who have backed you as a company are often your biggest advocates, so it’s important to help them advocate on your behalf by staying in regular contact with them — with both the good and the challenging news!
ER: What’s next for Filament in 2017?
EJ: We are transitioning from the phase of “invent a new thing and prove that it works” to the “deploy new thing into the market and scale,” and this is always a challenging transition for any company. It often requires different skill sets, different mindsets and a hunger for not taking no as an answer. Persistence in the seed and series rounds is important, but it becomes even more critical in the later rounds where it’s time to show the world, in our case, how the Internet of Things should operate — in a decentralized fashion.
What do you see as the next innovation in the industrial IoT?