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AgFunder presents 12 agtech start-ups to watch

Precision agriculture proves to be a fertile breeding ground for start-ups. Here’s a few to watch.

All around the world, entrepreneurs and engineers, young companies and established businesses, are working on transformative precision farming technologies to change the face of future farming.

Augmenta

Describing itself as “an ag IoT and automation start-up” and with offices in Greece and Texas, Augmenta has attracted $ 600,000 (€ 512,500) of seed-funding from a venture capital technology investor to help commercialise a tractor-mounted crop scanner. Capturing 4K video data using hyperspectral computer vision, the company’s Isobus-compliant cab roof-mounted device translates the data through crop-calibrated software to control a fertiliser spreader or sprayer to apply variable rates where and when they are needed.

George Varvarelis, co-founder and CEO, says cereal crop trials at the University of Thessaly in Greece have shown up to 12% increased yield, 15% increase in grain protein levels and a 13% saving in chemicals as a result of employing the technology to fine-tune inputs.

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The Augmenta tractor roof-mounted scanner surveys crops to control variable-rate applications from a fertiliser spreader or sprayer in real time. - Photo: Augmenta
The Augmenta tractor roof-mounted scanner surveys crops to control variable-rate applications from a fertiliser spreader or sprayer in real time. - Photo: Augmenta

EarthSense

Established by 2 University of Illinois professors in the United States, EarthSense has produced a small robot for surveying trial plots to determine the phenotype characteristics of new crop varieties.

Co-founders Girish Chowdhary and Chinmay Soman say the TerraSentia robot, which weighs around 7kg (15lb) and fits between rows of corn and similar crops, is a significant labour-saving device for plant breeding programmes. It can carry sensors to collect data on traits such as plant health, physiology and stress response, and can autonomously measure under-canopy markers including stand-count, stem width, and stem angle using cameras. Early vigour, plant height, corn ear height, leaf area index, biomass and disease detection and identification are also planned.

With early financial support and advice from specialist venture capital funds, EarthSense hopes to sell an initial batch of robots to early adopters for $ 5000 each.

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The TerraSentia robot from EarthSense is designed to survey crops for phenotyping to help gather data for variety breeding programmes. - Photo: EarthSense
The TerraSentia robot from EarthSense is designed to survey crops for phenotyping to help gather data for variety breeding programmes. - Photo: EarthSense

ecoRobotix

Autonomous spot spraying of weeds in high-value salad and vegetable crops is the initial aim of ecoRobotix, a Swiss start-up.

It has attracted significant funding for its project, starting with a loan from a Swiss innovation foundation, then investment by private and institutional funds equivalent to almost $ 14 million (€ 12 million) as the team was bolstered as one of 5 winners of the Swisscom StartUp Challenge 2017.

Also read: ecoRobotix plans spot spraying robot for weed control

The solar-powered robot, which is due for commercial launch towards the end of this year, uses GPS navigation, camera-based weed recognition and 2 agile arms each carrying a single spray nozzle to tackle weeds surviving an initial overall spray treatment.

Up to 20% less herbicide use and up to 30% lower cost are the main attraction for growers, plus the ecological benefits of accurately targeted control.

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Individual weeds are spotted and sprayed by the solar-powered autonomous herbicide applicator from ecoRobotix; it’s due for commercial launch this year. - Photo: ecoRobotix
Individual weeds are spotted and sprayed by the solar-powered autonomous herbicide applicator from ecoRobotix; it’s due for commercial launch this year. - Photo: ecoRobotix

Farmers Business Network (FBN)

This social network founded in 2014 to enable US farmers to pool and analyse crop and other data to help inform on-farm decision-making, is now using its scale to also become an inputs purchasing and crop selling co-operative.

“Any startup that can successfully harness technology to drive network effects is going to be a huge threat to the incumbents,” says Rob Leclerc, CEO of online venture capital investor AgFunder. “Like we’ve seen time and time again in other industries, the incumbents usually don’t get it until it’s too late.”

FBN membership represents around 5000 farms across the US and Canada, accounting for 6.5 million hectares (16 million acres) of farmland, according to co-founder Charles Baron, and this is understood to have attracted investors to the tune of some $ 200 million (€ 171 million). Independent agronomic intelligence remains at its core, with cloud-based FBN Analytics enabling members to organise their farm data, analyse yields against a number of factors, access weather and soil temperature maps, calculate return on investment and benchmark with other members.

The FBN app for mobile devices helps organise and message on-farm teams.

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The ‘Farmers First’ organisation Farmers Business Network started out as a crop data pooling, analytics and benchmarking group. - Photo: Farmers Business Network
The ‘Farmers First’ organisation Farmers Business Network started out as a crop data pooling, analytics and benchmarking group. - Photo: Farmers Business Network

Fendt Xaver

Not a new start-up company, of course, but certainly a start-up project from Agco Corporation. The Fendt Xaver swarm robot project started out with EU research funding in collaboration with the Ulm University of Applied Sciences, and is now a fully-fledge Fendt development programme. Earlier this year, it was awarded second prize for technology transfer in the euRobotics Awards for successful co-operation between research and industry at the annual European Robotic Forum.

Also read: Fendt proposes swarm robots for corn planting

Thiemo Buchner from Fendt’s research and advanced engineering department manages the project to produce a system of small corn-planting robots operating in a swarm from a cloud-based planning, monitoring and documentation platform.

Recording the location of every seed enables precise targeting of fertiliser placement and spraying.

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Project manager Thiemo Buchner with the Fendt Xaver precision seeding robot designed for swarm operation. - Photo: Agco
Project manager Thiemo Buchner with the Fendt Xaver precision seeding robot designed for swarm operation. - Photo: Agco

KisanHub

This cloud-based enterprise platform focuses on crop intelligence, integrating public and private data from satellites and field sensors to manage crops better and connect enterprise staff, agronomists and growers more effectively.

The UK-based operation, which has a tech team in India, received £1.75 million ($ 2.3 million) of venture capital investment earlier this year. Britain’s NIAB crop research and advisory organisation uses the technology for its NIAB Digital farm software platform, giving farmers and agronomists the ability to map, manage, store, share and compare farm, crop and research data. KisanHub is more than two-thirds of the way through rolling out a network of UK farm-based weather stations to capture rainfall, temperature, solar radiation, relative humidity, wind speed, wind direction, pressure, dew point, wind chill and heat index every 15 minutes.

Platform users can access this data for more informed planning of field operations, such as cultivations, sowing, irrigation and harvesting.

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The Cambridge, UK-based KisanHub team behind the cloud-based enterprise management platform, which comes in farm and trials versions. - Photo: KisanHub
The Cambridge, UK-based KisanHub team behind the cloud-based enterprise management platform, which comes in farm and trials versions. - Photo: KisanHub

Naio Technologies

As one of the most advanced field robot technology start-ups, Naio Technologies of France is already supplying its Oz, Bob, Dino and Ted weeding robots to work in vineyards and nurseries and in vegetable and salad crops grown under cover or outdoors.

It claims to have more than 100 robots in the field and sales turnover of more than € 1.2 million in 2017, and has started distribution outside France, setting up an office in California, USA and appointing distributors in Japan and the UK. An additional € 2 million (£1.78 million, $ 2.3 million) of funding from existing and new institutional investors will help finance this initiative and also upgrades to manufacturing processes and capacity.

Also read & watch video: First commercial robot weeds 5ha of crops a day

The robots range in size from the 1m (3ft 3in) long Oz to the large-scale hoeing and cultivating Dino and the vine-straddling Ted, using RTK GPS and cameras for navigation to provide labour-saving autonomous operations.

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The Dino autonomous weeding vehicle from Naio Technologies is one of four commercially-available robots from the French manufacturer. - Photo: Naio Technologies
The Dino autonomous weeding vehicle from Naio Technologies is one of four commercially-available robots from the French manufacturer. - Photo: Naio Technologies

Nileworks

Japanese company Nileworks has raised the equivalent of $ 7.12 million (£5.46 million, € 6.1 million) to expand the capabilities of its automated crop spraying multi-rotor drones.

Public-private partnership Innovation Network Corporation, chemical manufacturers Kumiai and Sumitomo, and Japan’s agricultural co-operatives organisation are among the backers. Nileworks provides agricultural drone and growth diagnostic cloud-based services to rice farmers and claims its control technology provides centimetre precision just 30cm (in) above the crop for minimal drift.

It aims to develop real-time crop diagnosis for automated optimum fertiliser and pesticides application.

“Cracking the application of pesticides from the air will be a game-changing for the industry, not just for the reduction in the use of expensive and environmentally-damaging chemicals, but also for the health of farmers and pesticide applicators who can suffer health problems from too much exposure to these products, particularly in emerging markets,” said Louisa Burwood-Taylor, head of media & research at AgFunder.

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Japan’s Nileworks has received substantial funding for its work developing a high-precision multi-rotor sprayer drone for rice farmers. - Photo: Nileworks
Japan’s Nileworks has received substantial funding for its work developing a high-precision multi-rotor sprayer drone for rice farmers. - Photo: Nileworks

Rantizo

An electrostatic spraying multi-rotor drone is the core product of Rantizo, a US-based start-up, whose founder Michael Ott won a pitch contest at the AgLaunch Startup Station ahead of 14 other innovative agtech enterprises earlier this year.

His spraying system applies undiluted pesticides to optimise the drone’s payload capacity, using the wrap-around characteristics of electrostatically-charged spray droplets to achieve good plant coverage.

Specialist venture capital funds have helped finance research and development of the drone and delivery system.

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Rantizo’s electrostatic spraying system for a multi-rotor drone applies neat chemical to optimise the payload and greater productivity. - Photo: Rantizo
Rantizo’s electrostatic spraying system for a multi-rotor drone applies neat chemical to optimise the payload and greater productivity. - Photo: Rantizo

Small Robot Company

This UK-based business launched in November last year aims to commercialise robotic field vehicles using artificial intelligence to ‘digitise’ fields and use robots to seed and care for individual plants.

The rewards will include precision crop treatments, reductions in pesticides, energy and CO2 emissions, lower production costs and improved soil structure from using light robots rather than heavy tractors, says co-founder Ben Scott-Robinson. The Small Robot Company is being mentored by Professor Simon Blackmore, who is behind 15 years of precision farming research at the UK’s Harper Adams University, and where the first crop of cereals was established, managed and harvested by autonomous vehicles.

Use of Small Robot Company’s specialised vehicles and software will be on a Farming as a Service subscription model.

Also read: Small Robot Company launches planting robot

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A field-working robot as imagined by the new Small Robot Company, which aims to supply robots on a service basis.
A field-working robot as imagined by the new Small Robot Company, which aims to supply robots on a service basis.

TekWear AgVoice

This US-based start-up, founded in 2015 by Bruce Rasa, is developing voice-activated data recording software to help growers and other agricultural professionals capture data more accurately in the field.

It was one of 7 projects selected by The Yield Lab agriculture technology accelerator in 2016 to receive $ 100,000 (£76,000, € 85,000) in funding, plus nine months of networking, mentorship and other benefits.

AgVoice is a hands-free workflow management service for recording and processing raw data files with time stamps and location tracking for use in analytics and note-taking.

The Yield

Collecting and putting good data to use for improved vegetable and salad crop production performance is the aim of The Yield ag tech company in Australia.

It was founded by Ros Harvey “to help growers – who know their land better than anyone – make faster, more informed decisions that impact yield and reduce their risks by providing integrated solutions that sense, analyse and predict on-farm growing conditions.” Sensing+ combines sensors, analytics and apps for managing intensively irrigated crops.

The Yield was named Startup of the Year for big data and machine learning innovation in the national awards of the Australian Information Industry Association last year.

“An important thing that I picked up in doing due diligence on The Yield was the accuracy of the information they’re getting. And, because they started out in harsh, marine environments, the sensors are very hardy, with many producers saying they never need to calibrate them, which is rare,” said Michael Dean, CIO of online venture capital investor AgFunder.

Ros Harvey’s vision of providing big data analysis for improved crop management decision-making is the driver for The Yield company. - Photo: The Yield
Ros Harvey’s vision of providing big data analysis for improved crop management decision-making is the driver for The Yield company. - Photo: The Yield

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