Over the past year I’ve been following the developments of the growing AgTech sector, so when the chance arose to attend the Forbes AgTech Summit in Salinas, CA I jumped at the opportunity. The two-day conference in the heart of the California agriculture scene was filled with farm tours, technology demos and interesting discussions on the biggest issues facing farmers today.
With California’s ongoing drought, it’s no surprise that water was a major reoccurring theme of the event. Much of the conversation was focused on associated policies and regulations, but one interesting point discussed how the conversation had quickly shifted last year from water shortage to reliability of supply. With the water we do have, can we figure out a way to provide it constantly and consistently? From new irrigation systems to desalination plants – there are lot of hurdles associated with retaining a solid water supply, be it technical, political or geographical. For example, desalination is a great, proven technology which has allowed Israel to quickly become a net exporter of desalinated water. The question remains however, how can we apply this technology and build the infrastructure and policies to support it here in the US?
Tech tackling the Ag challenges of today
I met interesting startups building technologies that are addressing additional issues in agriculture such as labor shortage. Soft Robotics has developed a hand like gripping tool that can grab produce, such as a plum or berries, without squishing them. The robotic hand is currently being used in the sorting process, but it will be interesting to see how technologies such as this make their way out into the fields.
Another issue facing farmers is disease management. It can take 6-8 weeks to get soil tested to uncover what ailments plants are facing – during which farmers could lose their entire crop. Trace Genomics is an interesting plant disease management company aiming to lessen the knowledge gap. Through a combination of machine learning and data science, the company is able to shorten the soil analysis process by a factor of two. Likewise, Prospera is tackling plant disease management through computer vision and deep learning. By placing cameras out in the field, the company can identify produce ripeness and diseases. Along the same lines, Planet is utilizing nanosatellites to take photographs of farmland up in space. Their images are producing tons of data that farmers or traders can leverage to make informed decisions like predicting crop yields or tracking farm operations.
What AgTech startups should keep in mind
Many of the tech solutions out today tend to apply to one type of crop and one geography. While this makes sense from a startup perspective, in order to be focused and prove out product market fit, there is a need to look at a bigger picture in preparation for scaling beyond trials and initial customers. Growing corn in the US isn’t the same as growing corn in Brazil.
Likewise, for startups who are developing solutions for a broad set of crops, they need to take a second look at their pricing models. There is such variability in the yield and price of crops, that it will be a major hurdle to get a farmer who’s getting say, $50 per square acre of crop to adopt your technology vs. a farmer who is getting $500 per square acre. It’s important to keep in mind what type of crop will benefit from your technology.
Lastly, AgTech startups should keep in mind that farmers are some of the most risk averse population in the world given their thin margins. They typically can’t take a risk on a solution that is unproven, especially if it’s going to impact revenue (despite potential gains). So consider what business model will work best for both your company and the end user.
Working to better our food supply issues is important and impactful on the rest of the world. I look forward to seeing ongoing developments in this industry and the accomplishments we can make by optimizing natural resources and bringing innovative solutions to the field, the supply chain and beyond.
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