June 27, 2023

AgTech Startups – Be More Specific About What Type of Field Trial You Want

Field trials were a big topic at the 2023 Salinas Biological Summit. I recognize the importance of field trials for all segments, but biological solutions may be the most important. Think about automation. You capture the baseline data by analyzing how you’re doing the activity now (i.e. frequently labor cost for common tasks like weeding, thinning, harvesting, and spraying), then execute the test and determine ROI based on cost savings that are tied to the labor reduction created by the automation.

Biological solutions are different. You have to measure the baseline in terms of whether you’re testing a bio-control or a bio-stimulant (are you trying to control pests, increase yield or something else) and then you have to do the field trial and measure the results relative. You also need to prove that the results are not just correlated but that the biological caused any improvement, and you need to confirm that there are no unintended consequences created by the test (the beneficial did no harm). Because of all these variables, biological veterans recommend a lot more field trials for biological products than for automation. We need to be more precise about the type of field trial. It looks like there are at least three phases of field trials (each of which is likely to include several individual field trials):

Phase 1 – The “Does it Work” Trial. This is the earliest trial, and it is meant to establish two things: the product does what it is supposed to do and it does not cause any unintended harm. For this test, you can work on non-commercial scale operations acreage and you can work with researchers at University locations or from co-op extension. You do not need commercial grade operations and you do not need grower engagement.

Phase 2 – The “Does It Work at Scale” Trial. This is meant to test the ability to work over thousands of acres consistently to establish that the Phase 1 results were not a fluke and are repeatable. As with phase 1, you do not need commercial grade operations or grower engagement.

Phase 3 – The “Does It Work at Grower Economics” Trial. This is the phase where you need commercial grade operations and grower engagement. You want to measure the baseline very precisely, isolate as many peripheral events as you can, and then run the test, measure the results and work with the grower to determine the ROI period (how much usage is needed to break even on the product or service purchase).

The Mixing Bowl team has identified 1,200 biological startups (400 of which made the initial Ag Biologicals Landscape), and they will each need 100+ trials. That’s 120,000 field trials if they all get to all three phases.

Breaking field trials down into three phases allows the ag and AgTech industry to work together to use the most appropriate resources for each phase of trials. For Phase 1 and Phase 2 trials, we can leverage University/Research Facility acreage and University/co-op subject matter experts to help support the trials. This will give student teams a chance to get involved with trials during their college career, which given the number of trials needed for all three phases, is a big advantage for them before they graduate.

This also means that we only need commercial grade operations and grower operations teams after Phase 1 and Phase 2 have been successfully completed. The process successful completion needs to be defined, but at a minimum, this phased approach reduces the investment in time and resources for growers by up to 2/3 since the first two phases do not require them.

Now how we scale out both the Phase 1 and Phase 2 field trials, and the Phase 3 field trials is yet to be determined.