It’s 3 p.m. and Jeffrey Orrey, CEO of GeoVisual Analytics, is pulling up a computer screen full of red, yellow and blue pictures to analyze the imagery collected from the fields earlier that morning. “We routinely monitor the fields using airplanes, drones and mobile phones to help farmers reduce production uncertainties and increase profits,” said Orrey as he clicks from field to field on the screen.
“How it works is that we apply AI [artificial intelligence] algorithms we developed for NASA to analyze crop maturity, health and predicted yields. Now we are partnering with Aeroptic to apply our analytics to their imagery,” he said.
GeoVisual Analytics and Aeroptic LLC are two startups housed in the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology (WGCIT) who are taking advantage of the collaboration opportunities offered by the Center. GeoVisual’s focus is imagery analytics and Aeroptic collects high-quality aerial imagery, so their complementary offerings naturally led to a partnership.
“Aeroptic believes collaboration with other industry companies is crucial to deliver value to the grower community,” said Nate Taylor, business development manager at Aeroptic. “The WG Innovation Center has created the perfect atmosphere to make such partnerships successful. Our imagery, coupled with GeoVisual Analytics’ framework, is a perfect match.”
The two startups will tag team on demonstrating their new solution in late July during WGCIT’s monthly Tech Talk.
“Collaboration is truly the force that drives the center,” said Hank Giclas, Western Growers’ senior vice president, strategic planning, science & technology. “The Center creates an environment where smart people gather around the table to talk through the nuances of a problem and discuss ways to solve it. There’s a constant back and forth between the folks working in the incubator and more joint ventures among the startups are on the horizon.”
HeavyConnect, one of the inaugural six companies in the Center, has formed strong relationships with fellow startups in the WGCIT, with plans of one day turning those friendships into partnerships. The company, which offers a suite of tools to streamline operations by removing paperwork in the field, has dabbled with the idea of combining innovations that will simplify a farmer’s workday. HeavyConnect CEO Patrick Zelaya seeks to bring growers into the conversation so technologies that are developed meet their specific needs.
“Start-up companies, especially ones who are at our young stage, need collaborative experiences,” said Zelaya. “Our involvement with Western Growers has provided us invaluable exposure to the industry—not just with the growers, but the entire industry. We’ve been able to work cooperatively with growers to go beyond that traditional vendor-client purchase.”
In fact, Western Growers is working with HeavyConnect to showcase these collaborations through social media. The two organizations plan to launch “The Agtech Field Trials,” a video series that follows an eight-week field trial program between a WGCIT company and small-scale and large-scale growers. Check Western Growers’ Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for updates on the series.
HarvestPort is looking to connect the startups in a different way. Western Growers and HarvestPort are teaming up to possibly create a platform where the public can access and purchase the latest technologies coming out of the Center, said Giclas. This “one-stop-shop” would function similarly to the shared economy platform for farm assets HarvestPort has developed, but would be modified based on input from each of the WGCIT startups.
Though the WGCIT has only been open for a little over a year, talks of alliances are already underway. Combining technologies to create a more robust product can be applied to any of the issue areas the WGCIT residents are working on such as soil science, pest control, water management, food safety and big data. With nearly 40 startups currently housed in the Center, the potential for more agtech mashups are endless. Here are some possibilities.
A NEW CLASS OF FERTILIZERS
A number of startups are focusing on creating products that give soil the boost it needs to dramatically improve plant health and increase crop yields. One such startup, Plant Nutrition Technologies (PNT), recently revived a James J. Stevinson Corporation almond orchard with its bio-mineral fertilizers made from mine waste. Instead of replanting one of its oldest orchards, the company decided to use PNT’s fertilizer across a seven-acre plot of almonds. The result? The almond trees, which typically drop a large percentage of their almonds during the season for various reasons, received a high degree of nutrients in the soil from the fertilizer and not one tree dropped its almonds. Not one.
Grower’s Secret is continually improving its environmentally-friendly organic fertilizers while California Safe Soil just opened a new facility in the Sacramento area that will turn unsold food from grocery stores into a nutrient-rich liquid fertilizer in just three hours—producing up to 32,000 tons of fertilizer per year!
Fifty miles above the earth’s surface, BAM Agricultural Solutions successfully delivered its iconic mineral product to space in February. Their solution—which increases crop yield, quality and nutrition—was originally developed as a way to promote growth of strong plants for astronauts on long-duration space missions, but has shown dramatic results when applied to the agricultural industry here on Earth.
BOLSTERING PEST AND DISEASE CONTROL
As environmental regulations have increased, the number of available crop protections tools has decreased. Startups within the Center are looking to help growers continue to do more with less.
MagGrow Global has developed a technology that allows growers to reduce the application of crop protection chemicals by imparting an electromagnetic charge into the sprayed liquid so it will be directly attracted to the plant’s natural electromagnetic field.
FieldIn just completed its first deployment with one of the largest almond growers in California. The startup is currently working with Adama, a leading crop protection provider, to provide FieldIn’s pest management software solution to growers globally, for a significantly reduced cost. Similarly, FarmDog is working on rolling out some exciting new features in its pest and disease management platform, which gives growers a systematic way to reduce pesticide use while minimizing crop loss.
TracMap, which offers a complete precision guidance system for ground applications to improve how crops receive pesticides, is currently in talks with Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce about installing systems for their sprayers. With the technology, growers easily select the blocks or rows that need pesticides from a computer, which sends the data to the tractor operator and then tracks if any portion of the blocks or rows were missed during pesticide application.
A LITTLE WATER HELP
Though the drought took a tremendous toll on everyone—especially farmers—it provided an opportunity for start-up companies to bring their irrigation management technologies to the forefront. Among those startups is WaterBit, which provides low-cost moisture sensors that let growers know exactly when crops need water or additional nutrients. Typical sensors range from $5,000 to $8,000; WaterBit sensors will run for a $300 installation fee, with a $300 per year costs that includes everything from radio systems to data transfer to software application.
In a similar fashion, Israel-based RootsTalk has developed an autonomous irrigation controller that can pinpoint exactly how much water a plant needs by calculating available oxygen in the root zone. The company’s non-conventional oxygen availability method enables it to reach unparalleled results for almost any crop, under any growing condition.
There are also irrigation management companies, such as SWIIM, who act as its client’s on-farm water accountant. SWIIM allows agricultural water users to optimize water rights, monitor the crop water budget, conserve water and increase net income for agricultural operations. One of the potential outcomes of using SWIIM is leasing (or otherwise being compensated for) a portion of participating growers’ conserved water, to be used by others without jeopardizing the underlying right or allocation.
In addition to the possibility of the WGCIT’s water management startups working together to provide innovative water resources to farmers, the Center’s sponsors can also be a resource. Observant, which joined the Center as a sponsor in January, offers a farm management platform that allows growers to capture and manage information in one location—with a focus on optimizing water.
GENERATING POWER TO IMPROVE PLANT GROWTH
When you think of farming, large outdoor farm fields typically come to mind. BioLumic and PowerGrow are looking to bring the focus indoors.
BioLumic is using ultraviolet (UV) radiation to increase returns for growers. BioLumic’s UV Treatments—which applies UV light to seeds, seedlings and plants in specific recipes to control their growth patterns—increase yields, improve quality, and improve resistance to disease.
PowerGrow takes “indoor growth” in a different direction by utilizing a greenhouse-as-a-service model. The startup is currently building renewable energy-powered commercial greenhouses in Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Tennessee, New Jersey and the U.S. Virgin Islands. These greenhouses are designed to optimize land use and create more sustainable growing environments, while mitigating grower risks. Its integrated battery energy storage and co-generation system provides 100 percent of the power requirements 24/7 for the growing, processing, packaging, cold storage and shipping facilities.