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8 Water Technology Startups Helping Agriculture Grow Up

Some days it seems like the world is going to end in a sudden fireball. Other times we predict a slow, painful death. It’s little wonder we writers drink so heavily writing about all of this turmoil day after day. That’s why we like our jobs here at Nanalyze. It’s not that we think technology is going to save the world—and there are all sorts of risks and scams associated with emerging tech—but there are a lot of smart people coming up with very smart ways to solve problems and make a little (or a lot of) scratch for themselves and their investors. Water technology startups certainly fall into that category.

We recently wrote about seven water technology startups that are inventing all sorts of ways to save on precious H20, from re-imagining desalination technology to using satellites for detecting underground leaks. Now we want to talk about water technology startups tackling the biggest water consumer of all—agriculture. Roughly 70 percent of the world’s freshwater supply goes toward irrigating crops. In the United States, agriculture slurps up as much as 80 percent of surface and groundwater, while some western states use as much as 90 percent (we’re looking at you, California). In addition, by some estimates, only half of the water used in agriculture returns to the environment in some form or fashion, compared to up to 90 percent for residential and commercial users.

Here are eight water technology startups helping siphon less water to the farm while keeping yields at their maximum.

Planting Sensors

Arable out of Princeton, New Jersey, has developed more than just a fancy water gauge. It has taken in $9.75 million in equity funding and government grants, including $4 million from the National Science Foundation. Just last March, Arable grabbed another $4.25 million in a Series A round co-led by Middleland Capital and S2G Ventures. Most of what we know about agriculture we learned from watching Green Acres, but it certainly makes sense to automate as much of crop monitoring as possible.

Arable’s solar-powered sensors (below) use about 40 data streams to help farmers make decisions about irrigation and other processes.

Input includes information about air pressure, humidity and even canopy biomass (how much green is out there). It’s reportedly so easy to use and install that even city folk like us could (probably) make this water technology work.

Based in Adelaide, South Australia, AquaSpy builds sensors that get to the root of irrigation problems. The water technology startup has raised nearly $11 million, split between equity funding and debt financing in recent years. AquaSpy offers a fully automated soil-monitoring system that measures not only moisture but temperature and electrical conductivity. The last measurement provides information about the salinity—how salty—the soil is up to four feet in depth. By monitoring changes in electrical conductivity through depth, Farmer John gets better clues as to where to apply fertilizer and other chemicals. The company claims its data help improve yields by 10 to 40 percent.

Fifteen-year-old Hortau may carry a bit more farm cred, being headquartered in one of California’s ag capitals, San Luis Obispo. The company has raked in $21.5 million during that time, most recently raising $10 million in a Series C last year. Its smart sensor system analyzes what it calls soil tension, and helps farmers find the sweet point for proper irrigation between not enough water or fertilizer and too much. We could tell you more or let Hortau fill in the picture with pictures:

The water technology startup recently opened up a new HQ in SLO, and the local paper reported that Hortau has also more than doubled its staff in the last year while growing both revenues and profits at a rate of 50 percent a year. Data collected by Hortau’s field-monitoring stations can be accessed on any connected device. Users can also set up phone or email alerts for things like an impending frost or carpetbaggers chasing the farmer’s daughter.

No relation to RacerX, CropX comes from a place familiar with scarce water resources—Tel Aviv, Israel. A $10 million Series A included backers like electronics manufacturers Robert Bosch and Flex (NASDAQ:FLEX), according to TechCrunch. This video gives a good overview of the system, but we’re a little suspicious about the giant crop circle on this guy’s farm. Is CropX alien technology? You decide:

Price for each sensor is $600, with packages for the cloud-enabled system starting at $275 per year. The water technology startup says its sensors can increase crop yields while simultaneously cutting water usage by one third.

The WAN Farm

The name and location pretty much say it all: Smart Farm Systems out of Nicholasville, Kentucky. The company has reportedly raised about $2.5 million, according to an article in Delta Farm Press. This water technology startup is going beyond just sensors, as co-founder Brandon Finch told Delta Farm Press: “We are basically turning farms into proprietary, wide area networks, with an intuitive, easy to use interface. Within that system you can manage pumps, moisture zones, weather stations, water levels, and maintenance schedules”. The system comes with its own RF technology, so no cell tower required.

Credit: Smart Farm Systems

Judging by the illustration above, we’d say the platform would also be attractive to remote industries such as mining or survivalist camps in Montana.

Flying High

Based out of that urban farmland known as Oakland, Ceres Imaging uses aerial imagery and fancy software to identify crop stress and other characteristics to help farmers improve yields. It has reaped $8 million, including a $5 million Series A led by Romulus Capital in May. Small planes carrying special cameras fly low over farmland, snapping high-resolution pictures of the agricultural landscape at different wavelengths. Different images can tell different stories about a particular field. The one below shows where crops are the most water stressed, helping Farmer John improve his irrigation practices.

Credit: Ceres Imaging

In one business case, Ceres Imaging says a grower spent $3,200 on 160 acres of water stress imagery. Changes in irrigation based on the imagery improved the yield on 40 acres by 25 percent—worth $120,000 net of capital expenses. In addition to water monitoring, the startup can also use the imagery to estimate chlorophyll and nitrogen levels, which can help ensure plants are getting all of their needed vitamins and minerals.

Headquartered just down the road from Ceres Imaging, TerrAvion in San Leandro is another water technology-related startup that takes to the air to deliver insight into the productivity and problems of farm fields. A $10 million Series A in February is the only disclosed funding after four rounds. Like Ceres Imaging, TerrAvion contracts with pilots to fly over thousands of acres. The planes carry TerrAvion’s special cameras that take pictures in different wavelengths. It delivers imagery for as little as $4 per acre through its OverView platform, according to AgFunderNews.

In particular, the thermal map can identify areas where water levels may be too high or too low, giving Farmer John the intelligence he needs to change his irrigation practices. TerrAvion can also provide intel on things like overall plant health by detecting chlorophyll levels. All of that information can be accessed by computer or even a mobile app through a smartphone.

Pump Power

Another California startup, PowWow Energy is a water technology startup that offers software as a service (SaaS) to help conserve H20 on the farm. Its Pump Monitor software turns existing smart energy meters into smart water meters. The company says it is able to monitor water pumps to detect anomalies in the pump system. For example, it says it can identify a falling water table before it affects yield and irrigation efficiency.

Credit: PowWow Energy

All of that happens behind the scenes. Farmer John gets text messages like the ones above alerting him to any problems in the system. No hardware required. The platform also pulls in data from existing sensors such as those for soil moisture as well as weather stations for its analytics.

Conclusion

In our previous story on water technology startups, we noted how little funding seemed available. While none of the companies here can match VC dollars for something as important as bike sharing, there seems to be an uptick in interest in water technology when you throw agriculture into the mix. If and when the isht hits the fan, water may one day prove to be more valuable than gold or oil—and these water technology companies may reap the benefits.

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