Agriculture — the world’s oldest industry — may not sound like the sexiest one to disrupt.
But more startups are looking to serve the industry as it’s battered by huge price spikes for fertiliser and fuel. Agriculture — which accounts for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions — is both a cause and a casualty of global warming, putting further pressure on farmers.
So what startups are helping farms get a handle on runaway costs?
Stopping the fields going to seed
Oskar Marko is cofounder and CEO of Serbia-based Cropt, a three-year-old company that helps seed companies and banks forecast the future performance of crops. He’s developed machine-learning algorithms that attempt to answer questions such as: “Should you plant that seed in that field?” and “Does this plant variety respond better with a certain type of soil?”
With growing seasons becoming more volatile thanks to drought and higher temperatures, he expects tech like his will be in high demand.
Summer droughts forced the earliest harvest ever this year in French wine-growing regions. In the UK, livestock were fed winter stocks of hay because the grass had dried up and there was nothing for them to eat. In Switzerland, military helicopters were dispatched to the mountain pastures, carrying supplies of water in an effort to prevent farm herds from dying of thirst.
“Farmers realise they need to do something new [and] unless they change their methods, they’re going to fail,” says Marko.
His solution: give the farmer the tools to operate like a hedge fund manager. Choosing the right seed variety is “literally like investing in the stock market”, he says. “Once we model growth, we can see what’s going to happen in good and bad years. We can turn the farmer into the Wolf of Wall Street, capable of selecting between low and high-yielding crops.”
Marko says his tech can help raise sowing profits by a quarter.
Farmers are already having to adapt to climate change. Maize is the most profitable crop you can grow in southeast Europe, Marko says, “but lately it’s deemed riskier, so farmers are planting sunflowers more and more, because they’re more resilient to drought”.
Helping you make hay
Helping farmers take some of the unpredictability out of summer has become a key pitch for agritech startups. Another way they’re tempting buyers: help trimming jaw-dropping energy and fertiliser bills.
One such startup is Swiss agritech ecorobotix, which sells a big piece of tech that fits onto the end of a tractor. Inside this boxy machine is software that chooses precise spraying treatments depending on the crop growing in the field. The company says it could save a farmer around 90% on fertiliser, though that comes after the considerable outlay on the ecorobotix tech, with software licensing costs on top.
French agritech Javelot, meanwhile, makes sensor kit that enables farmers to monitor their grain storage silos and tweak the temperature knobs if things are getting too hot in there, thus saving money on pricey ventilation systems. “We help you spend less,” is the company’s straightforward pitch.
Another Swiss company, Vivent, has created a way to detect stress signals in plants before visible symptoms appear. The startup says its tech allows the plant to tell the grower if it’s suffering from a pathogen outbreak, or if it needs more water, or if it could benefit from a certain nutrient.
“Digital penetration in European farms is at 10%. [Microsoft] Excel is still one of our main competitors”
“The plants are sitting there, they have about 35 senses, they can hear and see, they can differentiate many wavelengths. We wanted to tap into that sensory network and use it to drive innovation,” explains the company’s cofounder and CEO, Carrol Plummer.
Once the plant is hooked up to the Vivent tech — which took 10 years to develop — it will send a message alert to a grower should it experience any sign of stress. This knowledge allows for corrective action much sooner, Plummer says.
Vivent mainly targets indoor growers — think greenhouse managers in the Netherlands — and has around 80 clients, which each receive a weekly breakdown of their crops’ key metrics.
One client Plummer cites says the tech has helped increase their growing yield by 4%. The sensors may also be useful for trimming some of the fat off massive power bills, should growers discover that they’re feeding their crops with too much energy.
Barnstorming startups — but who’s buying?
Despite the promise of sensors and data analytics, robotics and drones, disrupting agriculture isn’t easy.
One obvious problem: farming is a high-risk, low-margin business. “Farmers are among the people with the most interest in technology but they’re also a very hard type of person to convince to adopt new things,” says Laetitia de Panafieu, investor at Brussels-headquartered VC firm Astanor Ventures.
The take up of tech has a long way to go on European farms versus the US, says Matteo Vanotti, CEO of Swiss-Italian startup xFarm Technologies. The company, which offers tools such as in-field sensors and software, raised €17m from investors in August.
Speaking at the World Agritech Innovation Summit in London this week, he estimated that “digital penetration in European farms is at 10%. [Microsoft] Excel is still one of our main competitors.”
It’s not exactly technophobia holding agritech back but rather, with so many decisions to make everyday, farmers want things that give them multiple answers. “They don’t like nonsense,” says Eric Adamson, CEO of Tortuga, a US company that has started selling robot fruit pickers to growers in Europe.
For the startup hoping to break into agriculture, finding these answers is usually a long game of trial and error.
Keeping algorithms fed with the best data, for example, is a giant task in the agriworld. “If you’re working in the world of self-driving cars, you can take five cameras, strap them on the front of your car, drive around for an hour and you can collect terabytes. To get a line in a spreadsheet for our fields, you need to monitor crops over a year,” explains Marko of Cropt. “So it’s very hard to get data — it’s also very expensive.”