12 Smart Farming Companies Making Farmers Smarter
Smart technology dominates our daily lives. We’re building smart cities and living in smart homes equipped with smart locks. Even our exercise routines are getting smarter with smart clothes. Driving has never been easier and safer with smart cars and smart parking, not to mention the arrival of AI self-driving cars. Travel has become less stressful with smart luggage and smart carry-ons. Even our phones have become smarter than us, and the only thing that’s not gotten any smarter is what’s on the telly.
While the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to transform practically every aspect of our existence, the agriculture sector is only now starting to really benefit from technologies like sensors. Farmers are typically old-school and like clinging to age-old practices and rudimentary machinery, resulting in anxious guesstimates of crop yields each season as opposed to corporate farming operations that use precision agriculture to predict yields with a high degree of accuracy. To be a competitive farmer today, you need to know about the latest and greatest in smart farming technologies. To help us all out, the folks over at Finistere Ventures put together an awesome market map which listed out 12 startups working on sensors and smart farming equipment. Here’s a closer look at each one.
Fruit Picking Robots
Home of the robot butcher, New Zealand plays host to many interesting tech companies that fly under the radar. One such company is Robotics Plus, a startup that’s taken in $10 million in funding so far to push its Aporo bruise-free robotic packers into commercial production. The apple packer can identify and position apples in display trays and can carefully handle up to 120 pieces of fruit every minute, a function that takes the place of 2 to 3 migrant workers.
In November of last year, Yamaha Motor Company (7272:JP) added another $8 million on top of the $2 million it already invested in Robotics Plus just months prior in March. Apart from their apple-picking technology, Robotics Plus is also working on other autonomous agtech vehicles, like their robotic pollinator, a robotic crop-size estimator, and a robotic kiwifruit harvester. However, they’re not the only startup that wants to use robots to handle fruit.
We first came across this next company in our article on 6 Agriculture Robot Startups for Farming. Founded in 2016, Hayward, California startup Abundant Robotics has taken in $12 million in funding so far to design and build apple-picking robots which will eventually be able to harvest other types of fruits. Their robots are capable of identifying and picking apples within a canopy without turning the fruit into applesauce since these machines use a vacuum instead of a hand-like grasper or claw to pull the apples from their branches. The machines can even navigate the fields at night.
Unfortunately, their website is still as useless as it was back in May 2017 when we first wrote about them, so let’s move on.
Founded in 2013, New England startup Soft Robotics has taken in $25 million in funding so far to design and build robots with gripping systems that can match the dexterity of an actual human hand. Soft Robotics takes advantage of AI algorithms to come up with automation solutions that can solve the labor shortage in industries like food and beverage, retail, and manufacturing. They must be making good progress, because since we last covered Soft Robotics, they’ve managed to raise a $20 million Series A which closed in May of last year.
Weed Zapping Robots
Founded in 2011, Swiss startup ecoRobotix has taken in $13.6 million in funding so far over two rounds. Their most recent funding, a $7.6 million Series B round which closed in May of 2018, attracted European agrifood tech investor Cap Agro and the largest chemical producer in the world, Germany’s BASF (BAS:GR). ecoRobotix’s first product is an autonomous robot weeder, powered by solar, that can accurately detect weeds in between rows of crops using its own camera and sensors. Robotic arms are then used to apply a microdose of herbicide to the weeds it detects. Clearly, this reduces the amount of chemicals needed, and clearly, that’s why zee Germans have come sniffing around.
Smart Farming Irrigation Systems
Founded in 1998, Israeli startup Phytech reinvented themselves in 2011 when they rebranded as an agtech IoT company and launched a plant sensor system. To date, the startup has taken in $14 million in funding and attracted investors like Syngenta Ventures and Tencent (700:HK). That money is being used to develop applications like PlantBeat, an app that can monitor and provide relevant data on crop growth such as the amount of water the crops get, the moisture level of the soil, and the soil temperature. All of this information can then be aggregated to help determine your overall water needs.
Once the sensors gather the information, they upload the data to a cloud server, where Phytech users can easily download and analyze the data via a mobile app. The app can also help its users understand the health status of the crops and provide assistance on how to improve the harvest. AgFunder calls it the “FitBit for irrigated crops.”
Founded in 2015, Milpitas, California startup WaterBit has taken in $11.4 million in funding so far to build an Autonomous Irrigation Solution (AIS) to assist produce and nut farmers. The company’s product suite is composed of three parts. The first, WaterBit Carbon, is a tiny solar-powered tool that connects the sensors and probes in your field to address water delivery at the micro-level instead of a spray-and-pray approach. The second device is the WaterBit Block Value Controller which turns the irrigation system on and off based on input from the WaterBit Carbon device.
Lastly, the WaterBit Dashboard is a cloud-based software program that spews out data for your irrigation planning needs.
Founded in 2013, Princeton, New Jersey startup Arable has taken in $9.8 million in funding over three rounds so far to develop a sensor which is installed on top of a crop’s leaf canopy. This sensor can capture 40 distinct data streams such as crop water demand, microclimate, and even the level of air pollution in the area. The data is then streamed to Arable’s software platform which produces useful insights such as yield forecasts. According to the company, their sensor is the only one available in the market today that can combine weather and plant measurements. As for the effectiveness of their product, berry producer Driscoll disclosed to AgFunder News that Arable’s software and sensors helped them reduce uncertainty in yield forecast from 20% down to 5% and that the company saves roughly $18,000 per week for every field it’s used in. We first highlighted this startup in our article on 8 Water Technology Startups Helping Agriculture Grow Up, along with these next four water tech startups.
Founded in 2013, Israeli startup CropX has taken in $10.9 million in funding so far to develop soil sensors and an intelligence platform that can be integrated with existing farming irrigation systems. Using the data it gathers from the field, the system generates irrigation maps and uses these to determine which part of the field needs water and how much should be supplied. Same same, but different.
CropX allows farmers to track and control the system via smartphones, laptops, or tablets.
Update 08/21/19: CropX has raised $10 million in funding to boost its research and development efforts. This brings the company’s total funding to $22.9 million to date.
Founded in 2002, San Francisco Bay Area startup ETwater took in $3 million in funding to develop a cloud-based system that can automatically control watering schedules according to plant types, microclimate, weather forecasts, and other data inputs. Its latest product, the ETwater Smartest Sprinkler Service, comes with a smart water controller gadget, wireless network connectivity, and flow controls. All data from the system can be easily accessed via smartphones or any smart gadget.
A privately held billion-dollar Indian agriculture firm called Jain Irrigation purchased ETwater in September of last year, showing that there are exits happening in this space. While some venture capital firms like to tout how many investments they make, that metric means very little. We care about how many liquidity events you’ve had that generated positive returns for your investors. Hopefully, this was one of them.
Founded in 1998, Adelaide, South Australia company AquaSpy underwent a change in management and company mission in 2009. So far, the company has taken in $10.8 million in funding to develop underground soil moisture sensors and web-based software to complement the system that focuses on center-pivot irrigation systems like the ones you can see in this amazing aerial photo of Kansas farmlands (all the circles and semicircles are fields that use center-pivot irrigation systems:)
Although the company has attracted clients in Australia, South America, and the United States, AquaSpy struggled at first to convince farmers to use their technology. The early resistance to the AquaSpy system came from experienced farmers with years of irrigation management who were not sold on the idea of putting high-tech probes in their fields. Apart from that, the company’s technology is not ideal for all types of growers as it works best on big, flat fields which explains why the majority of its clients in the U.S. are in Texas, the Great Plains, and Colorado.
Founded in 2002, San Luis Obispo, California startup Hortau has taken in $34.4 million in total funding so far to develop a wireless and web-based irrigation management system. Since the last time we looked at the company, they’ve taken in an additional $12.9 million in funding from a list of investors that included a fair number of Canadian names showing their international expansion plans. Reports from their system reveal real-time data on the status of the crops and provide insights into any stress factors like droughts or flooding using data like soil tension and moisture to measure the optimal crop growth and provide insights to growers. Research has shown Hortau’s system cuts water costs by as much as 25-30%, while improving yields in everything from almonds to zucchini.
Smart Farming in Orchards
Founded in 2010, Vancouver startup Semios has taken in $17.9 million in funding so far to develop an IoT solution for precision crop management and is developing machine learning models to predict how environmental factors and agronomic decisions impact plant stress in tree fruit and tree nut crops. Their SaaS platform can provide real-time insights on factors like the weather, irrigation, pests, and frost to its users. Another impressive thing their sensors can do is dispense pheromones which can quickly stop the mating seasons of pests and subsequently get rid of them. This insecticide alternative is actually a good non-toxic and specie-specific system of handling pests considering the alarming decline in the number of bees and other useful insects.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global food production needs to increase by 70% for us to be able to feed the 2.3 billion people added to our population by 2050. Since we have limited resources for agricultural operations as the majority of the parcels of land suitable for farming are already utilized, the only solution to this crisis is to boost production efficiency. Smart farming startups like the ones we’ve talked about in this article are clearly the way forward.
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