Our lives literally depend on efficient, effective agriculture to feed our expanding world population. And the more we learn about the microbiome, soil ecology, and the causes of climate change, the more clear it becomes that we must develop improved farming practices for our way of life to continue. One of the key tools we have in that pursuit is precision agriculture. In its simplest terms Precision-Ag can be thought of as using sensors and data to digitize the acreage of the field, and then make precise interventions to correct or improve crop yield. These precise interventions might be the application of pesticide, fungicide, or fertilizer chemicals to localized rows or even single plants, instead of blanketing the entire field to treat only a few diseased sections. Or perhaps it is measuring the ripeness of individual plants, and choosing when to harvest on a plant-by-plant basis to maximize yield and quality of the crop. Of course, a farmer could have human workers out inspecting the field, looking for signs of stress or disease and treating those areas; but that is time consuming work that requires trained personnel, all of which translates to higher costs in an already very low margin business. But imagine if a farmer could gather high quality intel on their field using satellite imagery or inexpensive cameras that constantly fed into an analytics package to pinpoint problem areas (or opportunities) within hours of first appearance. The field of precision ag adopts some of the best emerging techniques from machine vision, big data analytics, machine learning, genetic engineering, and robotics to allow much more cost effective means of detecting and treating disease, harvesting crops, and optimizing resources such as water or chemicals. For this reason, we see precision agriculture as a huge opportunity to invest in something that is good for nature just as it is good for business.
Today we speak with 3 startup founders working on technologies for the smart fields of tomorrow:
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Michael Norcia, CEO and cofounder of Pyka
Pyka is a developer of autonomous planes designed to make agricultural chemical application safe, fast and precise. The company’s aircraft technology use autonomous flight controller and onboard sensors to fly precise paths and land safely, while detecting the right timing and path for spraying on the target areas so that it can compensate with the wind and reduce the drift, enabling cultivators to spray agricultural chemicals and dust crops over hills and challenging terrains, while using less chemical per acre and decreasing accidental exposure. Prime Movers Lab led Pyka’s seed round in 2019.
Shely Aronov, CEO and founder of InnerPlant
Synthesis: Shely Aronov is a third time founder with over 15 years experience working in industry. She is the CEO and co-founder of InnerPlant. InnerPlant is developing a biosensor sentinel plant platform designed to provide farming information and analysis. The company’s platform is solving the costly farming information gap by sensing molecular changes directly from the plant, enabling farmers to use early, specific and actionable data. Shely aspires to create a lasting positive change on the world and empower her daughters to do the same (if they want to).
Kyle Cobb, CFO and cofounder of Advanced.Farm
Advanced.Farm is a a venture-backed startup based in Davis, CA that is focused on robotic crop harvesting. At Advanced.Farm, Kyle is reunited with a Founding team that had prior success in robotics with a company called Greenbotics. Greenbotics pioneered robotic solar panel cleaning for utility-scale solar farms, and was ultimately acquired by SunPower in 2013. He lives in Davis with his wife and two kids.
A Few Key Takeaways
Considerations on the Business Model
- Don’t ask a grower to write a check they aren’t used to writing. If you want to sell them something, make sure there is a budget already in place for that. Work towards the line items they are used to dealing with in their financial models.
- One thing to be aware of in agricultural sales (especially for new technologies) is that the person writing the check might not be the one that is going to reap the benefits. This can be a problem, for example in the case where a farmer is spending money on equipment CAPEX, when the related consumables and OP-EX profits end up going to a chemical supplier. Better if your business model is aligned so the buyer reaps the benefits directly.
Considerations for founders developing new Ag technologies
- Show (and encourage) a willingness to go out in the field and humbly learn beside your customers and be responsive to their needs. This can really help you identify the real problems. The farmer knows what they are doing. They know what they need. Don’t fall in love with your technology, your inventions might not address the right problems.
- With ag, you want to be very very specific with your first product. Important to have a specific story on how your technology will get used, not a broad platform that the farmer has to figure out what to do with it.
- Look for the invention that has an extremely intuitive value proposition
- If you manage to make a farmer’s life easier, they will tell you so. You won’t have to guess.
- The farming industry is very relationship-based. The farmers really value the technology company that is willing to work with them to understand their problems. Its really important to find the right grower partner that will help you refine your invention and make sure you are building the right product.
Considerations for investors
- Be prepared to be patient. Agriculture is a relatively slow moving market, but the returns can be enormous
- The incumbent agro-chemical companies want to sell more chemicals. So the technologies they buy and invest in will be those that help them sell more chemicals. Partnering with some of these companies could be dangerous to a small company, with the risk that the incumbent is trying to do a catch-and-kill approach to removing competition.
- For startups, be very cautious partnering with a big incumbent too early.
Big opportunities on the horizon
- There is always going to be another disease. And when the only solutions we have is another chemical we are very vulnerable to resistances forming, which often begins to happen within only 4–5 years. We need to leverage other non-chemical technologies to address with these problems, such as robotics, microbiome research, imaging and early detection.
- Like it or not, Nature will evolve faster than we can create a resistant seed or resistant traits. There won’t be another RoundUp-ready type growing system for a long time, because there really aren’t any in the pipeline now.
- Microbial technologies look very promising. But if you compare them to chemical solutions the chemical will appear to be better (in the short term). We need to be willing to look for solutions that might take effect on longer timescales, and be patient with the results.
- Genetic engineering can help us make plants with traits that are naturally pest resistant. Not that kill the pest outright, just make the plant an uncomfortable place for the pest to be. This mode of action doesn’t tend to cause the pest to form resistances as quickly since it is not killing the pests off and forcing natural selection
Prime Movers Lab invests in breakthrough scientific startups founded by Prime Movers, the inventors who transform billions of lives. We invest in seed-stage companies reinventing energy, transportation, infrastructure, manufacturing, human augmentation and agriculture.
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