The Institute - September 2018 - 7
Technologists are helping farmers increase yields,
monitor soil health, and manage crop production.
Plenty of Money to Be Made
in the Emerging AgTech Field
Venture capitalists are seeking innovations that help farmers
improve food production and distribution B Y K A T H Y P R E T Z
H E N E E D F O R tech innovation to help
farmers become more efficient and address
food waste, drought, labor shortages, and
other problems has never been greater.
And venture capitalists are ready to invest.
Agriculture food (agrifood) tech funding grew
by nearly 30 percent over 2016, according
to AgFunder, which invests in agtech companies.
Last year US $2.6 billion was raised for farm technology businesses.
"The world's population is increasing rapidly, so
there's a great need to improve efficiencies in farming
and provide farmers with a means of subsistence," says
Theofanis "Fanis" Tsoulouhas. A professor of financial
management at the University of California, Merced,
he helped spearhead the school's agtech program.
Here's where to find opportunities and investors
in the emerging field.
K NOW YO U R C U S TO M E R
Engineers can contribute in many ways to the agtech
field: software to better manage crop production, big
data and predictive analytics to increase yield, smart
sensors to monitor soil health, and data analysis for
Just like any business, you need to do your
market research and understand your customers.
That means meeting with farmers to get a better
understanding about their operations and what
challenges they face.
That's what IEEE Senior Member Stefano Carpin did. He's a professor of electrical engineering and
computer science at UC Merced. Carpin and other
researchers met with California grape growers to
discuss how technology could help them. The growers asked if their irrigation systems could be made
to reduce the amount of water they used, and with
less human intervention. The researchers came up
with the Robot-Assisted Precision Irrigation Delivery
system [see p. 5].
RAPID involves inexpensive, adjustable, plastic
water emitters attached to the holes in drip irrigation lines. Each emitter can help regulate the
amount of water discharged. And because there
aren't enough workers to adjust the hundreds of
emitters each vineyard is expected to need, the
group is designing rugged, battery-operated, mobile
robots to handle the job.
Because most engineers have never set foot on
a farm, UC Merced's agtech program ensures its
students visit farmers in the nearby San Joaquin Valley,
one of the most productive agricultural regions in the
world. More than 200 crops are grown there. Students
learn about food processing and efficient ways to
organize agricultural production, especially on a large
scale, Tsoulouhas says. They then go back to the lab to
explore technologies that can meet farmers' needs.
Another way to get up to speed on how
technologies can benefit farmers is to attend agtechrelated conferences.
FO L LOW THE M ONEY
Financial literacy is key to running any company,
Tsoulouhas says. That includes understanding how
to raise money for your venture on crowdfunding
platforms and pitching to venture capitalists.
Tsoulouhas says initial coin offerings-a means
of crowdfunding centered around cryptocurrency-
are becoming one of the hottest vehicles for startups. According to CoinSchedule.com, there were
more than 200 last year.
Senior Member Joseph Wei, cofounder of hardware
incubator Lab360, who has invested in an agtech company, suggests checking out Royse AgTech. It supports
companies focused on creating technologies for the
agriculture and food industries. Royse connects promising startups with markets, financiers, and partners. For
select startup companies, it hosts demo days and pitch
sessions with farmers, companies, and investors.
Wei also recommends looking at microfunds and
applying for grants and funding from government
agencies that help small businesses. In the United
States, he suggests the Small Business Innovation
Another place to seek funding is from IEEE's
network of members, Wei notes.
"IEEE has a lot of luminary members who might be
interested in investing in your startup," he says. "They
understand what I call deep technologies, like chips,
and can relate to what you are trying to accomplish."
He invested in IEEE Member Manu Pillai's startup,
WaterBit. It's a precision irrigation company that uses
wireless sensors to automate the amount of water
needed based on weather conditions. Using WaterBit,
farmers can monitor and manage irrigation with a
Wei and Pillai met through the IEEE Santa Clara
Valley Section, in California, which Wei chairs. Pillai
approached Wei in 2014 about his startup after learning about Lab360.
"I explained that he had to be fully committed to
his company before we would invest," Wei says. "After
six months, he proved to me that he was." Pillai had
recruited a cofounder. He also demonstrated that
his idea was unique and that he had the technical
skills to follow through. The company now employs
13 people and is led by executives who previously
worked at Fujitsu and Cypress Semiconductor.
There's also the IEEE N3XT program, which seeks
out ventures with engineering-driven innovation at
their core, and ones that align with IEEE's mission to
advance technology for humanity. The program aims
to help founders take their venture to the next level
by connecting them with technical experts, funding
sources, strategic partners, and news media exposure.
The agtech startup Solho was selected as an IEEE
N3XT Star. Solho, a green energy company in Delft,
the Netherlands, is working on a solar energy system
that could support a greenhouse untethered from
the electric grid. The founders are developing the
Sprhout system, which is designed to harness heat
from the sun and convert it to electricity to power
greenhouses' heating, cooling, and irrigation. The
system will use automation software that will allow
remote control, the company says. ◆
S EP TEM B ER 2018 TH E IN STITUTE
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