Building the Future of Farming
We are excited to spotlight our portfolio company InnerPlant, which launched the world’s first biosensor platform enabling crops to “talk” to their growers and signal stresses at the cellular level. Founded in 2018, InnerPlant is a US-based company with a team of 28 people, 70% of them being scientists. The company has raised a total of $24 million with UpWest being part of their first check at the Seed round. We sat down for a chat with Shely Aronov, InnerPlant’s Founder & CEO, to discuss her experience building a customer-driven company and how InnerPlant unlocks the future of AI and autonomy in agriculture.
Tell us about your background; why was your mind set on AgTech, and how did you decide to work on InnerPlant?
Prior to founding InnerPlant, I started two other companies. The first was a marine construction subsidiary that was part of a large-scale project funded by the World Bank, and the second was a food company that retailed at Whole Foods Market and other premium distributors on the West Coast. In between, I pursued my MBA at Stanford.
I wanted to create something impactful that could address a critical problem in a large space. If it had not been agriculture, I would have pursued another ESG company that was mission-driven. In the summer of 2017, my father-in-law, who is a university professor, shared with me that he had discovered a way to communicate with plants. I spent the following summer in the labs with him and another molecular biologist to learn more about the concept. While I wasn’t sure if this was commercially viable yet, my very first instinct was to speak with farmers to get their feedback on the idea. Those conversations led us to build InnerPlant, based on optical-based technology.
What is the main value proposition of InnerPlant’s technology for farmers? How does it reflect your vision and the impact on farming and global food chain supply?
Our mission at InnerPlant is to revolutionize agriculture and move away from the large-scale, one-size-fits-all farming that is eroding the soil and damaging the planet. Stepping back, the Green Revolution of the previous mid-century brought about synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that increased yields and reduced costs, but at a high cost to the environment. We now know that we need to find a better way to farm that protects the planet while ensuring food security. Fortunately, technology is converging to enable us to move towards individual plant care, and that’s where InnerPlant comes in: our technology is embedded in the seeds. Our system harvests data from the signal that plants emit. We utilize satellite imagery to detect infestations and pinpoint the location within an acre, within just two days of the initial infestation. This information is then integrated into our system, which recommends the right products and services for farmers to use. Essentially, we provide farmers with an easy and incredibly effective way to manage pest control and nutrition on a large scale, while eliminating the need for labor-intensive manual data collection in harsh field environments.
Take us through the process of your product validation and how it helped you reach your product-market fit; how did that come into play when building your GTM strategy?
The idea of helping plants communicate with farmers was our drive from the get-go, even before knowing how to talk about it. We initiated conversations with farmers to understand their concerns and what they care about. In the beginning, we did not dive deep into agronomy, but rather tried to understand the farmers’ problems and needs in a simple way.
In order to validate product-market fit, it was important for us to ensure that what our customers want is also wanted by the industry as a whole, not just a niche group. In addition, a big part of the product-market fit is about working with industry players and channel partners in building strong, meaningful partnerships since, ultimately, they are our actual sales channels.
What are the challenges/barriers you are facing by targeting a more traditional market such as AgTech?
In my opinion, AgTech is an incredibly challenging industry for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, it is a highly consolidated ecosystem where everything from the chemistry to the equipment and the crops in the field must work together in harmony. In practice, this means AgTech startups must be supported by one of the “big players” in the industry to succeed. In our case, that player is John Deere, whose collaboration has been a game changer for us and essentially validated our existence.
Secondly, in AgTech, most companies get acquired rather than go public. For startups that want to go all the way, they have to find a company that could collaborate with them where there’s not as much of that acquisition pressure. In addition, unlike in tech industries, in AgTech, expecting to create another trillion dollars worth of value is not realistic. Our goal is not to “expand the pie” by a trillion dollars, as that would require consumers to pay significantly more for food. Rather, our focus is on disruption and creating scalable, affordable technology that can replace P&L costs in agriculture.
That being said, we believe that we have what it takes to succeed in this tough industry. Our technology has very high gross margins, is highly scalable, and has been historically widely adopted. We understand that many AgTech companies operate on the fringe, but we are confident that with our strong value proposition, we can make a significant impact on the industry.
How does the recent ESG trend/focus/awareness impact your conversation with stakeholders?
First of all, I’m happy that the world is now waking up to address ESG. In my perspective, while these trends are extremely important to consider, it’s also crucial to be pragmatic about the solutions being brought to market and to be realistic about what can be achieved in the short term. The conversations with our own stakeholders including team members, investors, and partners, are driven by the mission of making farming systems better, preserving soils, and feeding the world for the next generation. For us, this shared purpose creates a powerful force that is focused on the mission rather than just the money, and ultimately helps cultivate their passion and commitment to what we are building.
Tell us about the upcoming launch of InnerSoy, and what does this milestone mark for the company?
InnerSoy is the world’s first living sensor soybean. While the commercial launch is planned for 2025, we will have our Soybean sensors in the field with farmers in the Midwest next year. We believe that InnerSoy will be on 95% of all soybean acres if it works as expected. This is a crucial step for us, as it will essentially validate our product with customers and show that the technology works as promised. Our north star has always been farmers and the genetic engineering technology adoption curve, and once we are able to successfully launch InnerSoy, we can focus on scaling and expanding our product portfolio.