Pieter Fossel Of Hydrosat: How We Are Helping To Create A Resilient Food Supply Chain

An Interview With Martita Mestey

Martita Mestey
Authority Magazine


Crop Mapping provides specific, granular data detailing what crops are planted and where, to anticipate crop production. This enables growers, agribusiness, and traders across the globe to proactively address shortages, set pricing and ensure a resilient food supply chain.

The cascading logistical problems caused by the pandemic and the war in Eastern Europe have made securing a reliable supply chain a national imperative. What must agriculture companies and policymakers do to ensure secure and resilient food supply chains? In this interview series, we are talking to business leaders who can share insights from their experiences about how we can address these challenges. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Pieter Fossel.

Pieter Fossel is the CEO and Co-Founder of Hydrosat, a geospatial data analytics company that uses thermal infrared imagery to provide a unique perspective on our planet. Hydrosat’s advanced analytics convey precise crop yield forecasts and improved irrigation tools to financial and agribusiness customers around the globe. Pieter graduated from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and earned a degree in Science, Technology, & International Affairs.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I have always been interested in the environment and climate change. When I was a kid, my family moved to Wyoming. Summer is the wildfire season out West, and from August to September the air fills with smoke that gets blown from California and Oregon. So, these issues around water, stress, and climate change are very real to me because in many ways I grew up with them.

When I was in high school, there was a famous environmental writer named Bill McKibben who came and visited our school. He spoke about how our planet was crossing a critical threshold of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and how that’s a tipping point that would fundamentally change our planet and our ecosystem. Bill McKibben’s visit had a huge influence on me, and got me interested in doing something about climate change.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

When we were starting Hydrosat, my co-founder Royce Dalby and I were doing some work for NASA at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. While there, we met the engineer that designed the thermal camera on NASA’s Landsat satellite. He gave us a demonstration where he pointed a thermal camera at two plants that were equal in height and size. Standing side by side, the plants looked indistinguishable from each other. They just looked like two, identical houseplants. But once he pointed the thermal camera at them, we could see on the monitor that they were completely different. One of the plants in the thermal image was completely red. It was a lot hotter in temperature than the other one, which was completely green in the thermal image. That was an amazing moment for us. We could see that with the application of the right technology, you can tell a lot about the earth and the things growing on earth.

We were blown away by the fact that we could see the difference in temperature between the well watered plants and the poorly watered plants. And we thought, “what if we could blanket the earth with a constellation of sensors like this one to measure water stress, all over the world, in near real time, and what could we do with that information? What could other people do with that information?” We immediately thought about irrigation management and how farmers could benefit. We could use this technology to show them their fields in a different way — to show moisture levels in real time. We got really excited about looking at the earth at a deeper level using technology. That visit to NASA helped shape the vision of Hydrosat.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

The most important character trait for any leader is humility. Hire people that are smarter than you in their field of expertise and more accomplished in their subject area. Successful leaders listen to people who have more experience than them. For example, I’m not an engineer. I I knew right away that I’m not going to be the one who’s leading the very complicated and detailed engineering work. So we set out to hire the best possible engineering team that we could. We are tremendously fortunate to work with Scott Soenen, our CTO, who has built commercial, remote sensing satellites for three different companies that were all very successful. We also hired Dr. Joshua Fisher, our science lead, directly from the Jet Propulsion Lab, where he led the ecostress mission for NASA’s ECOSTRESS Thermal Infrared Satellite mission, which focused on these same water stress issues. So whether it’s sales or analytics, product design or engineering, a good leader seeks to find the best possible people and really listen to them.

The second trait would be open-mindedness. Being open-minded to new opportunities has led us to some amazing places. Whether it’s finding potential customers or connecting with an investor, being open-minded has been instrumental to our success. When you are creating something new and building a company, you can’t be so set in your ways because things are going to change rapidly. That flexibility and willingness to change enables your company to evolve. We have always been consistent in our vision and mission, and the way we’ve been able to grow has been largely based on keeping an open mind, challenging our own assumptions, and thinking about things differently.

Finally, you have to be determined. Grit and stubbornness are critical traits for any successful leader, particularly in the early years. There are so many things that are going to set you back, and so many unexpected barriers that you’re going to find in your way. I think the reason that most early stage startups don’t achieve what they want is because the founders get disheartened when they face adversity and they give up too early. As a team, we have faced an incredible amount of adversity. About eighteen months after we started Hydrosat, one of our co-founders died unexpectedly from a heart attack. That was a tremendous personal loss and a major step back for the company at the time. A lot of the people that we had been talking to about funding weren’t sure if we were going to be able to stay together as a team. Friends of ours in the industry offered us jobs because they assumed that was going to be the end of the line for our company. While that loss was incredibly difficult and put us in a much harder position than we ever imagined, we were determined to move forward. In the wake of that loss we brought new people onto the team who transformed the engineering side of our business and also brought on advisors who became valuable mentors for our company. Seven months after losing our co-founder we emerged as a stronger company and ended up raising our first round of venture capital. I think that’s a testament to that fact that you have to be willing to keep moving the company forward, regardless of what comes at you.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One of the exciting projects that we’re currently working on is a crop yield forecasting product. At Hydrosat’s core, we collect, process and analyze infrared, satellite data — particularly thermal data — which gives us a leading indicator for water stress. One of the new products that we’re very excited about is our crop forecast, which is built on top of satellite data. We have had extraordinary results with our pilot launch of our crop yield forecast. Our in-season forecasts were within 1% percent year-end error for corn yields across the US compared with the final numbers that the USDA publishes. For a satellite-based tool, that’s an extraordinarily accurate result and one that we were able to predict significantly earlier in the season than the reports and statistics that are published by the government.

In the United States, our agricultural resources support food production, along with a wide range of industrial applications in the US and around the world. We have a global food supply chain that’s truly interwoven. So, supply shortages in one area can affect availability and the pricing of food everywhere. And that’s something that we have certainly seen this past year, with the Ukraine conflict, which has limited the access of Ukrainian wheat to global markets. That, in turn, has had ripple effects on food availability and pricing everywhere. So these are very global and interconnected issues.

And so, the ability to use satellite data to give decision makers an earlier view of food production, at a very localized level, all over the world can be a great tool to help us as a society and as a world better manage our food security.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. To ensure that we are all on the same page let’s begin with some simple definitions. What does the term “supply chain” encompass?

When we refer to the supply chain, we’re talking about the growth and supply of agriculture and goods such as corn, soy, wheat, cotton and other crops, and how they’re used to produce packaged foods or as bulk inputs for livestock feed or fuel, like ethanol. It encompasses anything that’s originally grown in a field and winds up on a consumer’s shelf around the world. And so we focus on where food is being grown and how much of it is being grown and how that crop is progressing throughout the season in the face of environmental risk factors such as drought, storms, and other severe weather. We also look at how farm management practices like irrigation and how the timing of planting crops will ultimately impact supply at harvest time and the availability of raw ingredients, food and food-related goods that we rely on as consumers.

Can you help articulate the weaknesses in our current food supply chain systems?

First, most food is grown outdoors from the ground up. That sounds obvious. But if you think about it, that means that our food supply is exposed to environmental factors that are outside of our control. For example, how much rain is going to fall? Too much rain might cause flooding at the time of planting, which is going to impact a farmer’s ability to put seed in the ground. A lack of rain throughout the season could lead to drought conditions and the loss of a crop. If the temperature is too hot that can put stress on a stalk of corn at a critical phase in its development, and limit the bushel per acre yields at harvest time. Extreme weather events, like a massive hail or thunderstorm, can kill otherwise healthy crops across a huge swath of area. And so, when we think about it, the fact that we rely on food that’s grown in the elements and exposed to natural forces which are outside of our control, and the severity of which is increasing due to climate change, makes our entire food supply system extremely vulnerable.

Second, we live in a global economy and the availability and price of food in a place like sub-Saharan Africa is impacted by the availability of wheat from places like Ukraine to reach global markets. Most of the food that we produce as a civilization comes from industrialized, high intensity agriculture. That means that there are a limited number of places that are producing an outsized amount of food that is being exported all over the world. So stress in one area, whether it’s due to environmental risk factors, such as a major drought, or a political risk factor, such as a conflict, can affect the availability and pricing of food in places on the other side of the planet. There can be a contagion effect of food insecurity because one part of the world has an outsized impact on many other parts of the world, particularly the least developed places that rely on imports.

Can you help define what a nationally secure and resilient food supply chain would look like?

A nationally secure and resilient food supply chain would focus on environmental risk factors like drought and severe weather as they’re occurring so that there’s time to take corrective action.Those in the position to set policy can’t make the best informed decisions if they don’t have access to timely, accurate data. Hydrosat is providing that critical insight and geospatial intelligence so that decision makers can support a more efficient supply chain in the United States and safeguard the food system across our global community.

Can you share with our readers a few of the things that your organization is doing to help create a more secure food supply chain?

Hydrosat is delivering revolutionary data to create a more secure food chain. Our thermal data for land service temperature allows our users to identify drought and crop stress as it’s forming and at a very high level of granularity, and at a very high accuracy. There’s a tremendous amount of data available from satellites, weather models, and other sensors.

What are a few threats over the horizon that might disrupt our food supply chain that we should take action now to correct? Can you please explain?

The problems that we’re facing in our food supply chain are directly related to the impacts of climate change, particularly extreme weather events such as drought. These issues aren’t going away; in fact, they’re continuing to get worse. We must take action now to mitigate the environmental threats caused by the accelerating pace of climate change. To safeguard our food supply chain, we must focus on solutions that enable us to use our dwindling resources more efficiently. Technology that can help us to identify moisture levels so we’re conserving water whenever possible, looking at ground temperatures to identify potential hotspots for fires so we can address those risks, are specific ways we can take action to minimize disruptions to our food supply. We have to take action from the context of resource scarcity and find solutions to increase supply chain efficiency.

Ok, thank you. Here is the main question of our interview. What are the “5 Things We Must Do To Create Nationally Secure And Resilient Food Supply Chains” and why?

1 . The first thing we must do is create a drought and famine early warning system. As I mentioned earlier, our global food supply chain is interconnected and there is a contagion effect when our food supply chain anywhere in the world is threatened. A drought and famine early warning system would enable food producers, governments and world leaders to secure resources for the most vulnerable communities.

2 . Crop Mapping provides specific, granular data detailing what crops are planted and where, to anticipate crop production. This enables growers, agribusiness, and traders across the globe to proactively address shortages, set pricing and ensure a resilient food supply chain.

3 . Early access to data and shared communications is critical to securing our national food production. There’s a tremendous amount of data available from satellites, weather modules, and other sensors. To improve our efficiency, we must establish a way to rapidly collect, analyze and disseminate agricultural data.

4 . Accurate crop yield forecasting will be a game-changer for securing a more resilient food supply chain. Accessing real-time, thermal data will provide an earlier indicator of plant stress and development, and support food supply chain efficiency.

5 . Finally, more data on rivers, reservoirs, and aquifers that serve as sources of water for global food production are vital. We need better data on water availability, and better data on the health and condition of those freshwater resources that are relied on for much of our agriculture production. We can look at examples such as the ongoing debate over who controls water from the Colorado River, and the pressure that Southwestern United States and parts of Mexico are under during a drought period when it comes to water rights and irrigation for crops.

Are there other ideas or considerations that should encourage us to reimagine our food supply chain?

Throughout history we’ve increased our food production by expanding our land and water use. Because of climate change, our ability to expand across land and access water is going to hit a critical ceiling. We need to reimagine our food supply chain not in the context of abundance but in the context of scarcity. We must focus on using our limited resources more efficiently. We need to find ways to do more with less.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I’ll take a broad view and encourage others to look at the application of high-tech to agriculture. Technology, in particular information technology, data science, analytics and machine learning have all had a huge impact on our economy and our growth potential as a species. However, that impact has been limited to a small number of sectors — like tech, finance and industry. But there are critically important and fundamental sectors that haven’t adopted tech as quickly and haven’t adopted data science, AI and machine learning. One of those sectors is agriculture. Despite growth in AgTech, and despite the work of innovative companies developing everything from geospatial analytics to autonomous tractors to biotech creating new, disease-resistant seeds, agriculture is a sector that’s been largely untouched and therefore has not benefited from the great improvements and efficiencies that tech can bring.

And so if I could inspire a movement that would have the greatest impact on the most number of people, it would be revolutionizing the global agricultural sector with technology that would allow us to grow more food, more efficiently, with fewer finite resources, such as land and water.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can learn more about Hydrosat by visiting our website and follow our latest news by following us on LinkedIn.

This was very inspiring and informative. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this interview!