The question is not whether we’ll experience such an event; it’s whether we’ll be ready when it strikes
— Read more on ScientificAmerican.com
Words I did not expect to read in a scientific paper this week: “The similarity in mass and contact area between modern farm vehicles and sauropods raises the question: What was the mechanical impact of these prehistoric animals on land productivity?” The paper, from Thomas Keller and Dani Or, raises what may be a significant worry: Farm vehicles have grown over the past few decades, to the point where they may be compacting the subsurface soil where roots of crops extend. This poses a risk to agricultural productivity.
The paper then compares that compaction risk to the one posed by the largest animals to ever roam our land: sauropods.
We think of the ground as being solid, but gaps and channels within soil are critical to plant life, since they allow air and water to reach roots. Soil compaction, in its extreme form, gets rid of all these spaces, making the ground much less hospitable for plants. And compaction is hard to reverse; it can take decades of plant and animal activity to break up the compacted soil again and re-establish a healthy ecosystem.
For over a decade, the US has blended ethanol with gasoline in an attempt to reduce the overall carbon pollution produced by fossil fuel-powered cars and trucks. But a new study says that the practice may not be achieving its goals. In fact, burning ethanol made from corn—the major source in the US—may be worse for the climate than just burning gasoline alone.
Corn drove demand for land and fertilizer far higher than previous assessments had estimated. Together, the additional land and fertilizer drove up ethanol’s carbon footprint to the point where the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions—from seed to tank—were higher than that of gasoline. Some researchers predicted this might happen, but the new paper provides a comprehensive and retrospective look at the real-world results of the policy.
Proponents have long argued that corn-based ethanol bolsters farm incomes while providing a domestic source of renewable liquid fuel, while critics have said that its status as a carbon-reducing gasoline additive relies on questionable accounting. Based on the new study, both sides may be right.
By shifting to more plant-rich diets, wealthy nations could cut their agricultural emissions by 61 percent—and sequester nearly 100 gigatons of CO2 equivalent if the surplus farmland is left to rewild.
The global food system is the second-biggest source of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs), accounting for up to a third of emissions. Over half of that number comes from meat and dairy production, despite these sources providing a meager 20 percent of the world’s calories. Wealthy nations drive most of this demand.
A recent study calculated the carbon-saving potential of having these wealthy countries shift away from meat and dairy in a way that would create what the study authors call a double dividend. “Our double dividend means if we change animal-based diets to plant-based diets, we can reduce GHG emissions (dividend one) from direct agricultural production,” explains lead author Dr. Zhongxiao Sun. “The saved agricultural land from diet change can be restored to potential natural vegetation for carbon sequestration (dividend two).”
The distance between their farms and the nearest processor is key for smallholder farmers who need to process their crops. And though Nigeria’s food processing systems have a keen resemblance to the West with respect to big factories and huge economies of scale in high-demand cities, farmers still suffer from poor logistics networks.
With distance and logistics problems, farmers’ crops can go bad and when factories buy them, it affects their processing yields and price. Farmers, witnessing post-harvest loss, also get paid less and miss the opportunity to invest in their crops production.
Nigerian agritech startup Releaf is solving this by building proprietary hardware and software solutions to make these farmers and food factories more efficient and profitable. Today, the company is announcing that it has raised $2.7 million in seed and grants towards this effort.
Pan-African focused venture capital firms Samurai Incubate Africa, Future Africa and Consonance Investment Managers led the round. Individual investors like Stephen Pagliuca, the chairman of Bain Capital and Justin Kan of Twitch also participated.
In addition to the seed round, the agritech startup secured $1.5 million in grants from The Challenge Fund for Youth Employment (CFYE) and USAID.
Founded by Ikenna Nzewi and Uzoma Ayogu, Releaf focuses on value chains where smaller factories are set up near smallholder farmers. This allows them to get better processing yields and fewer logistics costs; in the end, the farmer has more money to work with.
When the pair started the company in 2017, the idea behind Relead was not concrete yet as the team, based in the U.S., had not figured out product-market fit.
First, it planned to increase productivity in Nigeria’s agricultural sector using software. Even after graduating from Y Combinator’s summer batch that year, Releaf toyed around with ideas around trade finance and a marketplace for buyers and sellers of agricultural products.
The team would get a clearer picture of what it wanted to build when the founders moved back to Nigeria. The Americans of Nigerian descent toured across 20 states and studied different value chains for crops spotting inefficiencies that could be solved by technology.
“We took a much more broad approach to what the solution would be, but we really wanted to decide on a specific crop to work in. And we found that opportunity in the oil palm sector,” Nzewi said to TechCrunch in an interview.
The oil palm market in Nigeria is a $3 billion one with over 4 million smallholder farmers cultivating farms where those crops are planted.
These farmers drive 80% of the production of oil palm. But since the industry is quite fragmented, they have many challenges processing the oil palm because it’s a crop that requires serious processing power to extract vegetable oil from it.
Farmers typically go through this process by using rocks or inappropriate hardware — ineffective processes that lead to low-quality oil palm largely unfit as input for high-quality vegetable oil manufacturing.
Nzewi says the team saw an opportunity and set out to build a technology to help farmers crack oil palm nuts. The result was Kraken, a proprietary patent-pending machine.
So here’s how the company’s business model works. Releaf buys nuts from the farmers, then uses the Kraken to crack the nuts and crush the kernels into vegetable oil. Releaf then sells the vegetable oil to FMCG processors and local manufacturers, mainly in Nigeria’s south-southern region.
“Nigeria has about 60% more demand for vegetable oil than it does supply. And it can not be met due to supply shortfall with imports because the government banned the importation of vegetable oil. So there is a need to take these smallholders who are driving 80% of production and make them more efficient so that we can have a better balance of supply and demand for vegetable oil,” Nzewi said about the pain point Releaf is addressing.
But still, why does the company think it can break into a competitive Nigerian vegetable oil market with hardly differentiable products?
Nzewi explains that the answer lies in the quality of products. Typically vegetable oil is driven by a free fatty acid (FFA) metric that measures vegetable oil’s impurity. The CEO claims that while the industry standard is about 5% FFA, Releaf produces at 3.5%.
Despite having an edge in quality of production, Releaf products are sold on an industry standard. Nzewi says that might not be the case in the future as the company is looking to finally take advantage of its product quality and increase prices to improve its profit margins.
According to the company, Kraken already processes 500 tonnes of palm nuts. Its software connects to over 2,000 smallholder farmers who have supplied over 10 million kilograms of quality palm kernel nuts to food factories.
Regarding expansion, Nzewi noted that Releaf has more appetite for moving into new geographies instead of crop offerings. His argument is that processing oil palm and cultivation style is a straightforward method due to its similarities across West Africa.
But for crop expansion, the company may need to find crops that can be planted alongside oil palm and practice intercropping or work with crops like soybeans or groundnuts used in the vegetable oil industry.
Releaf will use the seed investment to develop technology and deploy it to smallholder farmers, Nzewi tells me. Then the $1.5 million in grants will focus on providing working capital financing to these farmers. He adds that Releaf has run financing trials already this year where it has increased smallholder incomes by three to five times.
“We think there’s a really great opportunity to bring both physical technology and financial services to these communities to make them more productive. And it’s kind of central to our thesis,” the CEO said. “We believe that our smart factories can serve as an economic pillar in these rural communities and make it easier for us to supply these communities with other services that they can find valuable like access to working capital, payment for education, and access to insurance services. So we see the food processing as like the first step it cements us in the value chain.”
Earlier this year, agritech startups like Gro Intelligence and Aerobotics raised huge sums of venture capital and showed the sector’s promise in Africa. However, venture capital has slowed down over the past few months and Releaf’s investment brings that spotlight back to the sector, albeit briefly.
Rena Yoneyama, the managing partner at Samurai Incubate Africa, said Releaf’s novel approach sets it aside from other agritech startups the venture capital firm has engaged with.
“We believe the firm’s thesis on decentralizing food processing would have a strong match with Africa’s economic development landscape for the next few decades. Ikenna and Uzo are the perfect founders to disrupt this market in Nigeria and beyond. We are thrilled to back them as they innovate in providing both agro-processing and financial services to rural communities and farmers,” she added.
Speaking on the investment as well, Iyin Aboyeji, general partner at co-lead investor Future Africa said, “…The team at Releaf is building the agro-allied industry of the future from the ground up, starting with palm oil which they have developed a novel technology to aggregate, deshell and process into critical ingredients like vegetable oil and glycerine. Future Africa is delighted to back Releaf to build the future of modern agriculture.”
AgBiome, developing products from microbial communities, brought in a $116 million Series D round as the company prepares to pad its pipeline with new products.
The company, based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., was co-founded in 2012 by a group including co-CEOs Scott Uknes and Eric Ward, who have known each other for over 30 years. They created the Genesis discovery platform to capture diverse microbes for agricultural applications, like crop protection, and screen the strains for the best assays that would work for insect, disease and nematode control.
“The microbial world is immense,” said Uknes, who explained that there is estimated to be a trillion microbes, but only 1% have been discovered. The microbes already discovered are used by humans for things like pharmaceuticals, food and agriculture. AgBiome built its database in Genesis to house over 100,000 microbes and every genome in every microbe was sequenced into hundreds of strains.
The company randomly selects strains and looks for the best family of strains with a certain activity, like preventing fungus on strawberries, and creates the product.
Its first fungicide product, Howler, was launched last year and works on more than 300 crop-disease combinations. The company saw 10x sales growth in 2020, Uknes told TechCrunch. As part of farmers’ integrated pest program, they often spray fungicide applications 12 times per year in order to yield fruits and vegetables.
Due to its safer formula, Howler can be used as the last spray in the program, and its differentiator is a shorter re-entry period — farmers can spray in the morning and be able to go back out in the field in the afternoon. It also has a shorter pre-harvest time of four hours after application. Other fungicides on the market today require seven days before re-entry and pre-harvest, Uknes explained.
AgBiome aims to add a second fungicide product, Theia, in early 2022, while a third, Esendo was submitted for Environmental Protection Agency registration. Uknes expects to have 11 products, also expanding into insecticides and herbicides, by 2025.
The oversubscribed Series D round was co-led by Blue Horizon and Novalis LifeSciences and included multiple new and existing investors. The latest investment gives AgBiome over $200 million in total funding to date. The company’s last funding round was a $65 million Series C raised in 2018.
While competitors in synthetic biology often sell their companies to someone who can manufacture their products, Uknes said AgBiome decided to manufacture and commercialize the products itself, something he is proud of his team for being able to do.
“We want to feed the world responsibly, and these products have the ability to substitute for synthetic chemicals and provide growers a way to protect their crops, especially as consumers want natural, sustainable tools,” he added.
The company has grown to over 100 employees and will use the new funding to accelerate production of its two new products, building out its manufacturing capacity in North America and expanding its footprint internationally. Uknes anticipates growing its employee headcount to 300 in the next five years.
AgBiome anticipates rolling up some smaller companies that have a product in production to expand its pipeline in addition to its organic growth. As a result, Uknes said he was particular about the kind of investment partners that would work best toward that goal.
Przemek Obloj, managing partner at Blue Horizon, was introduced to the company by existing investors. His firm has an impact fund focused on the future of food and began investing in alternative proteins in 2016 before expanding that to delivery systems in agriculture technology, he said.
Obloj said AgBiome is operating in a $60 billion market where the problems include products that put toxic chemicals into the ground that end up in water systems. While the solution would be to not do that, not doing that would mean produce doesn’t grow as well, he added.
The change in technology in agriculture is enabling Uknes and Ward to do something that wasn’t possible 10 years ago because there was not enough compute or storage power to discover and sequence microbes.
“We don’t want to pollute the Earth, but we have to find a way to feed 9 billion people by 2050,” Obloj said. “With AgBiome, there is an alternative way to protect crops than by polluting the Earth or having health risks.”
Agricultural robotics firm Carbon Robotics (not to be confused with our former Battlefield contestant) announced this week that it has secured $27 million in funding. The round — which features Anthos Capital, Ignition Capital, Fuse Venture Partners and Voyager Capital — follows an $8.4 million Series A raised back in 2019. The company’s total funding is now at around $36 million.
“Weeding is one of the biggest challenges farmers face, especially with the rise of herbicide-resistant weeds and increasing interest in organic and regenerative methods,” founder and CEO Paul Mikesell said in a release. “This round of investment will enable us to scale our operations to meet the increasing demand for this technology. Additionally, this funding will allow our team to continue to innovate new products and identify revolutionary ways to apply technology to agriculture.”
The Seattle-based startup’s primary offering is an autonomous robot that uses lasers to zap weeds. The round follows the April announcement of Carbon’s latest-generation Autonomous Weeder, which it says is capable of eradicating around 100,000 weeds per hour. The pandemic has continued to accelerate interest in many agricultural robotics companies, as labor shortages continue to mount.
Carbon notes some international bans on various pesticides have left many farmers searching for an alternative solution. A system that works without the need for harmful chemicals that also reduces human labor in an industry often suffering from shortages in headcount has clear appeal.
The company says it has already sold out of its 2021 and 2022 stock, so one assumes scaling up production and headcount will be key investments from this round.
Pivot Bio makes fertilizer — but not directly. Its modified microorganisms are added to soil and they product nitrogen that would otherwise have had to be trucked in and dumped there. This biotech-powered approach can save farmers money and time and ultimately may be easier on the environment — a huge opportunity that investors have plowed $430 million into in the company’s latest funding round.
Nitrogen is among the nutrients crops need to survive and thrive, and it’s only by dumping fertilizer on the soil and mixing it in that farmers can keep growing at today’s rates. But in some ways we’re still doing what our forebears did generations ago.
“Fertilizer changed agriculture — it’s what made so much of the last century possible. But it’s not a perfect way to get nutrients to crops,” said Karsten Temme, CEO and co-founder of Pivot Bio. He pointed out the simple fact that distributing fertilizer over a thousand — let alone ten thousand or more — acres of farmland is an immense mechanical and logistical challenge, involving many people, heavy machinery, and valuable time.
Not to mention the risk that a heavy rain might carry off a lot of the fertilizer before it’s absorbed and used, and the huge contributions of greenhouse gases the fertilizing process produces. (The microbe approach seems to be considerably better for the environment.)
Yet the reason we do this in the first place is essentially to imitate the work of microbes that live in the soil and produce nitrogen naturally. Plants and these microbes have a relationship going back millions of years, but the tiny organisms simply don’t produce enough. Pivot Bio’s insight when it started more than a decade ago was that a few tweaks could supercharge this natural nitrogen cycle.
“We’ve all known microbes were the way to go,” he said. “They’re naturally part of the root system — they were already there. They have this feedback loop, where if they detect fertilizer they don’t make nitrogen, to save energy. The only thing that we’ve done is, the portion of their genome responsible for producing nitrogen is offline, and we’re waking it up.”
Other agriculture-focused biotech companies like Indigo and AgBiome are also looking at modifying and managing the plant’s “microbiome,” which is to say the life that lives in the immediate vicinity of a given plant. A modified microbiome may be resistant to pests, reduce disease, or offer other benefits.
It’s not so different from yeast, which as many know from experience works as a living rising agent. That microbe has been cultivated to consume sugar and produce a gas, which leads to the air pockets in baked goods. This microbe has been modified a bit more directly to continually consume the sugars put out by plants and put out nitrogen. And they can do it at rates that massively reduce the need for adding solid fertilizer to the soil.
“We’ve taken what is traditionally tons and tons of physical materials, and shrunk that into a powder, like baker’s yeast, that you can fit in your hand,” Temme said (though, to be precise, the product is applied as a liquid). “All of a sudden managing that farm gets a little easier. You free up the time you would have spent sitting in the tractor applying fertilizer to the field; you’ll add our product at the same time you’d be planting your seeds. And you have the confidence that if a rainstorm comes through in the spring, it’s not washing it all away. Globally about half of all fertilizer is washed away… but microbes don’t mind.”
Instead, the microbes just quietly sit in the soil pumping out nitrogen at a rate of up to 40 pounds per acre — a remarkably old-fashioned way to measure it (why not grams per square centimeter?) but perhaps in keeping with agriculture’s occasional anachronistic tendencies. Depending on the crop and environment that may be enough to do without added fertilizers at all, or it might be about half or less.
Whatever the proportion provided by the microbes, it must be tempting to employ them, because Pivot Bio tripled its revenue in 2021. You might wonder why they can be so sure only halfway through the year, but as they are currently only selling to farmers in the northern hemisphere and the product is applied at planting time early in the year, they’re done with sales for the year and can be sure it’s three times what they sold in 2020.
The microbes die off once the crop is harvested, so it’s not a permanent change to the ecosystem. And next year, when farmers come back for more, the organisms may well have been modified further. It’s not quite as simple as turning the nitrogen production on or off in the genome; the enzymatic pathway from sugar to nitrogen can be improved, and the threshold for when the microbes decide to undertake the process rather than rest can be changed as well. The latest iteration, Proven 40, has the yield mentioned above, but further improvements are planned, attracting potential customers on the fence about whether it’s worth the trouble to change tactics.
The potential for recurring revenue and growth (by their current estimate they are currently able to address about a quarter of a $200 billion total market) led to the current monster D round, which was led by DCVC and Temasek. There are about a dozen other investors, for which I refer readers to the press release, which lists them in no doubt a very carefully negotiated order.
Temme says the money will go towards deepening and broadening the platform and growing the relationship with farmers, who seem to be hooked after giving it a shot. Right now the microbes are specific to corn, wheat, and rice, which of course covers a great deal of agriculture, but there are many other corners of the industry that would benefit from a streamlined, enhanced nitrogen cycle. And it’s certainly a powerful validation of the vision Temme and his co-founder Alvin Tamsir had 15 years ago in grad school, he said. Here’s hoping that’s food for thought for those in that position now, wondering if it’s all worth it.
As more consumers embrace plant-based diets and sustainable food practices, Rise Gardens is giving anyone the ability to have a green thumb from the comfort of their own home.
The Chicago-based indoor, smart hydroponic company raised $9 million in an oversubscribed Series A round, led by TELUS Ventures, with existing investors True Ventures and Amazon Alexa Fund and new investor Listen Ventures joining in. The company has a total of $13 million in venture-backed investments since Rise was founded in 2017, founder and CEO Hank Adams told TechCrunch.
Though he began in 2017, Adams, who has a background in sports technology, said he spent a few years working on prototypes before launching the first products in 2019. Rise’s IoT-connected systems are designed to grow vegetables, herbs and microgreens year-round.
Customers can choose between three system levels and get started with their first garden for about $300.
There is a “kind of joyousness” in being able to grow something, but people are looking for assistance because they don’t want to get into a hobby that will become demanding or stressful, Adams said. As a result, Rise’s accompanying mobile app monitors water levels and plant progress, then alert users when it’s time to water, fertilize or care for their plants.
“People are paying attention to food, and they care about what they eat,” he added. “Then the global pandemic played a part in this, with people leaning into growing their own food.”
In fact, customers leaned into growing food so much that Rise Gardens saw its sales eclipse seven figures in 2020, and gardens sold out three times during the year. Customers purchased close to 100,000 plants and have harvested 50,000.
The company estimates it helped keep more than 2,000 pounds of food from being wasted and saved 250,000 gallons of water since launching in 2019.
The concept of an indoor farm is not new. Incumbents include AeroGarden, AeroGrow, which was acquired by Scotts-Miracle Gro last November, and Click & Grow. Rise is among a new crop of startups that have raised funds that include Gardyn.
However, Rise Gardens is differentiating itself from those competitors by making its gardens from powder-coated metals and glass and are designed to be a focal point in the room. It is also offering ways for people to experiment with their gardens.
“We wanted something that would be flexible because once you have mastered a hobby, you will get bored,” he added. “You can start at one level and they swap out tray lids to grow more densely. We have a microgreens kit you can add, or add plant supports for tomatoes and peppers. You can also build a trellis to vine snap peas.”
Adams will focus the Series A dollars into product development, inventory, manufacturing, expansion into new markets and building up the team, especially in the areas of customer service and marketing. Rise has about 25 employees and plans to bring on another eight this year.
In addition, Rise Gardens’ products will soon be available on Amazon — its first channel outside of its website. The company is also expanding into schools in what Adams calls “version 2.0” of the school garden.
When Rich Osborn, president and managing partner of TELUS Ventures, evaluated the indoor garden space, he told TechCrunch that Adams and his team rose to the top of the list because of their background, data experience and syndication with Amazon.
Not only was consumer demand there for these kinds of products, but the sustainability and social impact created from these kinds of investments couldn’t be overemphasized, he said.
Nishan Majarian, co-founder and CEO of TELUS Agriculture, said he sees a future where there is a spectrum of food growth, and crop management will be at the plant level.
“Ever since Climate Corp. was acquired by Monsanto, there has been a massive influx into agriculture to get to the next billion-dollar exit,” Majarian added. “Agrifood is the last segmented supply chain. Every crop is different, every market is different. That makes it local, complex and fertile soil — pun intended — for startups who get capital to solve those issues and scale.”
While working as the chief operating officer of a pizza chain in Vietnam, Taku Tanaka saw how difficult it is for restaurants to connect with farmers. Many small F&B businesses can’t buy in large volumes, so they rely on nearby markets or multiple suppliers who only sell one category. In turn, this means farmers are disconnected from the end customers of their products, making it hard to predict selling prices or plan their crops. Tanaka founded Kamereo, B2B platform with its own warehouse and last-mile delivery network, to focus on those problems.
Based in Ho Chi Minh City, the company announced today that it has raised $4.6 million co-led by food conglomerate CPF Group, Quest Ventures and Genesia Ventures. The capital will be used for hiring, building a new warehouse management system, user interface upgrades and expanding into Hanoi next year.
Before founding Kamereo in 2018, Tanaka was COO of Pizza 4Ps, which grew from one location in Ho Chi Minh City when he joined to 10 stores three years later (it now has more than 30 locations in Vietnam).
Kamereo works with about 15 farmers, including cooperatives, and serves more than 400 active customers, ranging in size from family-owned restaurants to chains with more than 20 locations. Despite COVID-19 related movement restrictions and temporary business closures, Kamereo says it has grown by 15% every month over the last 12 months. It currently has about 100 employees.
F&B businesses use the platform to order from multiple farmers. Kamereo handles supplier negotiations, order processing and management, and fulfillment. Tanaka told TechCrunch that the company operates its own warehouses and last-mile delivery network because it is cheaper than working with third-party providers.
Most of Kamereo’s last-mile deliveries are done by motorbikes since Vietnam has many small roads that are inaccessible to trucks. Tanaka said one drawback is how many goods can be delivered in one trip. Since drivers need to make multiple trips each day, Kamereo plans to expand its micro-warehouse network in Ho Chi Minh City so they don’t need to travel long distances. Its tech team is also building an internal system to manage inventory, fulfillment and last-mile deliveries with the goal of minimizing variable costs.
In a statement about the investment, Quest Ventures partner Goh Yiping said, “Kamereo sites in one of the largest food production hubs of Southeast Asia, and there is much room to grow in solving many of the inefficiencies of the supply chain today, improving farmers’ livelihood outcomes and procuring the best products for businesses and homes.”
Max Q is a weekly newsletter from TechCrunch all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Mondays in your inbox.
This week, China started staffing up its own space station, and Rocket Lab got the nod from NASA to develop small satellites for the purposes of exploring Mars. Meanwhile, space startups continue to raise money and it doesn’t look like the pace of that is going to slow much heading into summer.
China has launched astronauts to its space station for the first time, delivering three to the station’s core module, where they’ll remain for a mission that lasts until September. This is the first time China has flown a crewed mission since 2012, and it’s also going to set a record for the longest period of time a Chinese astronaut has remained in space continuously.
This will be a big step forward for China’s space program, and a key evolution of its ambitions to establish a continuous presence in low Earth orbit. China is not an International Space Station partner, and no Chinese nationals have ever set foot aboard that station. The European Space Agency had welcomed overtures for them to participate as a member nation in the ISS last decade, but the US refused.
China has sated outright that it will welcome participation in its space station from foreign astronauts, though there hasn’t been any specific agreements put in place for who those might be, or from what countries.
Rocket Lab has landed a contract of a different sort from its usual business, tapped to build small spacecraft that will go to Mars and perform valuable science and exploration missions on behalf of NASA and its partners. These will make use of Rocket Lab’s Photon platform, which is a satellite platform that it originally developed as one of its value-add offerings for its launch customers.
This is unique for Rocket Lab because the spacecraft its developing won’t be launched aboard a Rocket Lab Electron spacecraft, and will instead fly them on a commercial rocket to be selected by NASA in a separate contract process that will happen later.
The goal is to have these fly to the red planet by 2024, and it’ll help support NASA’s deep space exploration ambitions more broadly.
Some interesting funding rounds this week, including $5 million for Hydrosat, a company that’s spotting ground temperature from space and providing that to customers for use in industries like agriculture, wildfire and drought risk, water table information and more.
This kind of data has been monitored by weather and environmental monitoring agencies in the past, but Hydrosat aims to collect it at a frequency that hasn’t been possible before.
Meanwhile, another startup whose entire focus is making sure that companies and other users on the ground can make use of Earth observation data also raised a chunk of cash. Skywatch picked up $17.2 million to help expand its platform, which not only provides access to the data for customers, but can actually also provide the customers themselves, a useful feature for brand new satellite companies.
Last year we held our first dedicated space event, and it went so well that we decided to host it again in 2021. This year, it’s happening mid-December, and it’s once again going to be an entirely virtual conference, so people from all over the world will be able to join — and you can, too.
TaniHub Group, an Indonesian startup that helps farmers get better prices and more customers for their crops, has raised a $65.5 million Series B. The funding was led by MDI Ventures, the investment arm of Telkom Group, one of Indonesia’s largest telecoms, with participation from Add Ventures, BRI Ventures, Flourish Ventures, Intudo Ventures, Openspace Ventures, Tenaya Capital, UOB Venture Management and Vertex Ventures.
Openspace and Intudo are returning investors from TaniHub’s $10 million Series A, announced in May 2019. The new funding brings its total raised to about $94 million.
Founded in 2016, TaniHub now has more than 45,000 farmers and 350,000 buyers (including businesses and consumers) in its network. The company helps farmers earn more for their crops by streamlining distribution channels so there are less middlemen between farms and the restaurants, grocery stores, vendors and other businesses that buy their products. It does this through three units: TaniHub, TaniSupply and TaniFund.
TaniHub is its B2B e-commerce platform, which connects farmers directly to customers. Then orders are fulfilled through TaniSupply, the company’s logistics platform, which currently operates six warehousing and processing facilities where harvests can be washed, sorted and packed within an hour, before being delivered to buyers by TaniHub’s own couriers or third-party logistics providers.
Finally, TaniFund is a fintech platform that provides loans to farmers they can use while growing crops and pay off by selling through TaniHub. Co-founder and chief executive officer Eka Pamitra told TechCrunch its credit scoring system is based on three years of performance, the company’s agriculture value chain expertise and partnerships with financial institutions.
“More than 100 data points are considered when doing the credit risk assessment. For example, for cultivation financing products, TaniFund tailors each credit scoring based on agriculture risks and market risk of each commodity, on top of the typical borrower E-KYC scoring and process,” he explained. “Beyond credit scoring, having TaniSupply and TaniHub as a standby buyer within the ecosystem also helps to mitigate risk of each loan. TaniFund aims to further boost its credit scoring system with smarter data processing and better machine learning models.”
Pamitra said TaniHub will use its new funding to build the upstream and midstream parts of its supply chain—in other words, new cultivation areas, processing, packing centers and warehouses. The company will also expand its coverage beyond Java and Bali to source and sell locally, and continue improving its supply-demand forecast model to help farmers plans crop cultivation and timing, with the goal of reducing price fluctuations and maintaining a consistent supply. Pamitra added that TaniHub will also explore precision farming technology.
Over the last couple of years, TaniHub has started exporting several types of fruits and spices to the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and South Korea. This year, it plans to focus on expanding within Indonesia because the F&B (food and beverage) market there is worth $137 billion and the Indonesian agriculture sector is still highly fragmented, Pamitra said.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, TaniHub says it was able to grow its revenue 600% year-on-year in 2020 as demand for online groceries increased.
“We postponed our branch expansion plan and focused on increasing the seven existing warehouses’ since there was a surge of demand on the B2C segment and the process of onboarding farmers. This benefited us since the adoption of purchasing fresh groceries online increased significantly, and the willingness of farmers to work with us became remarkably high because the local traditional markets were closed due to lockdowns,” Pamitra said. “Since COVID-19, the eagerness of provincial governments to open communications for TaniHub to work with local farmers and SMEs in their region has been quite impactful.”
TaniHub is now working with several Indonesian government agencies, including the Ministry of Trade, Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Cooperatives and SMEs, to onboard more farmers, F&B businesses and increase exports.
In a press statement, MDI Ventures director of portfolio management Sandhy Widyasthana said, “TaniHub Group has an important role in transforming the agriculture sector and has proven that its presence can deliver positive impact on the quality of life of farmers. We hope our investment can help them continue their work and expand their coverage to more and more farming communities in Indonesia.”
In the 1930s, an archeologist from the Smithsonian wrote a short paper remarking on the exquisite vegetation around First Nation villages in Alaska. The surroundings were filled with nuts, stone fruit, berries, and herbs—several non-native to the area and many that would never grow together naturally. Apart from this brief mention, however, the significance of these forest gardens went largely overlooked and unrecognized by modern archeology for the next 50-plus years.
In the last decades, archeologists have learned that perennial forest management—the creation and care of long-lived food-bearing shrubs and plants next to forests—was common among the Indigenous societies of North America’s northwestern coast. These forest gardens played a central role in the diet and stability of these cultures in the past, and now a new publication shows that they offer an example of a far more sustainable and biodiverse alternative to conventional agriculture.
In a collaboration with the Tsm’syen and Coast Salish First Nations, this research shows that these gardens have become lasting hotspots of biodiversity, even 150 years after colonists forcibly removed the inhabitants from their villages. In a project combining archeology, botany, and ecology, this work is the first to systematically study the long-term ecological effects of Indigenous peoples’ land use in this region. Beyond the impressive longevity of these gardens, they offer ideas for farming practices that might restore, rather than deplete, local resources to create healthier, more resilient ecosystems.
Optical frequency combs are essentially high-tech “rulers” for measuring different colors of light; they’re useful for making better atomic clocks and hunting for exoplanets, among other things. Now scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), collaborating with researchers at Kansas State University (KSU), have introduced the “agricomb,” an optical frequency comb that measures the gassy emissions from cow burps—the first use of frequency combs in an agricultural setting. The tool could one day help boost agricultural yields and enable the design of cleaner farms, according to a recent paper published in the journal Science Advances.
According to the authors, the so-called “digestive processes” of livestock account for the largest US source of methane and ammonia emissions. (The former is a major greenhouse gas, while ammonia is an atmospheric pollutant.) A single cow belches about 220 pounds of methane every year.
That’s one reason why there are calls in some quarters to drastically cut down on consumption of beef. However, some scientists—notably Frank M. Mitloehner of the University of California, Davis—have pointed out that cows and other ruminants nonetheless currently account for just 4 percent of all greenhouse gases produced in the US, thanks to better breeding, genetics, and nutrition, among other advances.
Indoor farming company AppHarvest this week announced that it has acquired Root AI. The deal is valued at around $60 million, with $10 million in cash and the reminder coming from AppHarvest stock.
Root AI is a Boston-based robotics startup, with a mission fairly in line with that of its future parent company. We’ve covered the startup a handful of times, including last August, when it announced a $7.2 million seed round. Robotics, generally, have gotten a boost during the pandemic, but agriculture and food production have gotten special looks, as organizations are looking for ways to automate their processes.
Including the aforementioned seed, Root has raised a total of $9.5 million to date, fueled by interest in its Virgo harvesting system. Founder and CEO Josh Lessing will step into a CTO role at AppHarvest if the acquisition clears. The startup is still fairly lean, with 19 full-time employees.
According to quotes from both parties, robot-gathered data for crop yields is a key part of the acquisition.
“Farming as we’ve known it is broken because of the increasing number of variables such as extreme weather, droughts, fire and contamination by animals that make our food system unreliable,” AppHarvest founder and CEO Jonathan Webb said in a release tied to the news. Indoor farming solves for many of those challenges, and the data gathered can exponentially deliver more insights that help us predict and control crop quality and yield.”
The sweeping infrastructure package put forward today by President Joe Biden comes with a price tag of roughly $2 trillion (and hefty tax hikes) but gives startups and the broader tech industry about $1 trillion worth of reasons to support it.
Tech companies have spent the past decade or more developing innovations that can be applied to old-world industries like agriculture, construction, energy, education, manufacturing and transportation and logistics. These are industries where structural impediments to technology adoption have only recently been broken down by the advent of incredibly powerful mobile devices.
Now, these industries are at the heart of the President’s plan to build back better, and the hundreds of billions of dollars that are earmarked to make America great again will, either directly or indirectly, be a huge boost to a number of startups and large tech companies whose hardware and software services will enable much of the work the Biden administration wants done.
“The climate-oriented investment in Biden’s new plan would be roughly ten times what came through ARRA,” wrote Shayle Kann, a partner with the investment firm, Energy Impact Partners. “It would present a huge opportunity for a variety of climate tech sectors, ranging from clean electricity to carbon management to vehicle electrification.”
Much of this will look and feel like a Green New Deal, but sold under a package of infrastructure modernization and service upgrades that the country desperately needs. Indeed, it’s hard to invest in infrastructure without supporting the kind of energy efficiency and renewable development plans that are at the core of the Green New Deal, since efficiency upgrades are just a part of the new way of building and making things.
Over $700 billion of the proposed budget will go to improving resiliency against natural disasters; upgrading critical water, power, and internet infrastructure; and rehabilitating and improving public housing, federal buildings, and aging commercial and residential real estate.
Additionally there’s another roughly $400 billion in spending earmarked for boosting domestic manufacturing of critical components like semiconductors; protecting against future pandemics; and creating regional innovation hubs to promote venture capital investment and startup development intended to “support the growth of entrepreneurship in communities of color and underserved communities.”
Given the steady drumbeat of climate disasters that hit the U.S. over the course of 2020 (and their combined estimated price tag of nearly $100 billion), it’s not surprising that the Biden plan begins with a focus on resiliency.
The first big outlay of cash outlined in the Biden plan would call for $50 billion in financing to improve, protect and invest in underserved communities most at risk from climate disasters through programs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and new initiatives from the Department of Transportation. Most relevant to startups is the push to fund initiatives and technologies that can help prevent or protect against extreme wildfires; rising sea levels and hurricanes; new agriculture resource management; and “climate-smart” technologies.
As with most of Biden’s big infrastructure initiatives, there are startups tackling these issues. Companies like Cornea, Emergency Reporting, Zonehaven are trying to solve different facets of the fire problem; while flood prediction and weather monitoring startups are floating up their services too. Big data analytics, monitoring and sensing tools, and robotics are also becoming fixtures on the farm. For the President’s water efficiency and recycling programs, companies like Epic CleanTec, which has developed wastewater recycling technologies for residential and commercial buildings.
Fables of the reconstruction
Energy efficiency and building upgrades represent by far the biggest chunk of the Biden infrastructure package — totaling a whopping $400 billion of the spending package and all devoted to upgrading homes, offices, schools, veteran’s hospitals and federal buildings.
It gives extra credence to the thesis behind new climate-focused funds from Greensoil Proptech Ventures and Fifth Wall Ventures, which is raising a $200 million investment vehicle to focus on energy efficiency and climate tech solutions.
As Fifth Wall’s newest partner Greg Smithies noted last year, there’s a massive opportunity in building retrofits and startup technologies to improve efficiency.
“What excites me about this space is that there’s so much low-hanging fruit. And there’s $260 trillion worth of buildings,” Smithies said last year. “The vast majority of those are nowhere up to modern codes. We’re going to have a much bigger opportunity by focusing on some not-so-sexy stuff.”
Decarbonizing real estate can also make a huge difference in the fight against global climate change in addition to the its ability to improve quality of life and happiness for residents. “Real estate consumes 40% of all energy. The global economy happens indoors,” said Fifth Wall co-founder Brendan Wallace, in a statement. “Real estate will be the biggest spender on climate tech for no other reason than its contribution to the carbon problem.”
The Biden plan calls on Congress to enact new grant programs that award flexible funding to jurisdictions that take concrete steps to eliminate barriers to produce affordable housing. Part of that will include $40 billion to improve the infrastructure of the public housing in America.
It’s a project that startups like BlocPower are already deeply involved in supporting.
“Get the superhero masks and capes out. The Biden Harris Climate announcement is literally a plan to save the American economy and save the planet. This is Avengers Endgame in real life. We can’t undo the last five years… but we can make smart, massive investments in the climate infrastructure of the future,” wrote Donnel Baird, the chief executive and founder of BlocPower. “Committing to electrify 2 million American buildings, moving them entirely off of fossil fuels is exactly that — an investment in America leading theway towards creating a new industry creating American jobs that cannot be outsourced, and beginning to reduce the 30% of greenhouse gas emissiosn that come from buildings.”
As part of the package that directly impacts startups, there’s a proposal for a $27 billion Clean Energy and Sustainability Accelerator to mobilize private investment, according to the White House. The focus will be on distributed energy resources, retrofits of residential, commercial and municipal buildings; and clean transportation. A focus there will be on disadvantaged communities that haven’t had access to clean energy investments.
Financing the future startup nation
“From the invention of the semiconductor to the creation of the Internet, new engines of economic growth have emerged due to public investments that support research, commercialization, and strong supply chains,” the White House wrote. “President Biden is calling on Congress to make smart investments in research and development, manufacturing and regional economic development, and in workforce development to give our workers and companies the tools and training they need to compete on the global stage.”
To enable that, Biden is proposing another $480 billion in spending to boost research and development — including $50 billion for the National Science Foundation to focus on semiconductors and advanced communications technologies, energ technologies and biotechnology. Another $30 billion is designed to be targeted toward rural development; and finally the $40 billion in upgrading research infrastructure.
There’s also an initiative to create ARPA-C, a climate focused Advanced Research Projects Agency modeled on the DARPA program that gave birth to the Internet. There’s $20 billion heading toward funding climate-focused research and demonstration projects for energy storage, carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, advanced nuclear and rare earth element separations, floating off shore wind, biofuel/bioproducts, quantum computing and electric vehicles.
The bulk of Biden’s efforts to pour money into manufacturing represents another $300 billion in potential government funding. That’s $30 billion tickets for biopreparedness and pandemic preparedness; another $50 billion in semiconductor manufacturing and research; $46 billion for federal buying power for new advanced nuclear reactors and fuel, cars, ports, pumps and clean materials.
Included in all of this is an emphasis on developing economies fairly and equally across the country — that means $20 billion in regional innovation hubs and a Community Revitalization Fund, which is designed to support innovative, community-led redevelopment efforts and $52 billion in investing in domestic manufacturers — promoting rural manufacturing and clean energy.
Finally for startups there’s a $31 billion available for programs that give small businesses access to credit, venture capital, and R&D dollars. Specifically, the proposal calls for funding for community-based small business incubators and innovation hubs to support growth in communities of color and underserved communites.
Water and power infrastructure
America’s C- grade infrastructure has problems extending across the length and breadth of the country. It encompasses everything from crumbling roads and bridges to a lack of clean drinking water, failing sewage systems, inadequate recycling facilities, and increasing demands on power generation, transmission and distribution assets that the nation’s electricity grid is unable to meet.
“Across the country, pipes and treatment plants are aging and polluted drinking water is endangering public health. An estimated six to ten million homes still receive drinking water through lead pipes and service lines,” the White House wrote in a statement.
To address this issue, Biden’s calling for an infusion of $45 billion into the Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act grants. While that kind of rip and replace project may not directly impact startups, another $66 billion earmarked for upgrades to drinking water, wastewater and stormwater systems and monitoring and managing the presence of contaminants in water will be a huge boon for the vast array of water sensing and filtration startups that have flooded the market in the past decade or more (there’s even an entire incubator dedicated to just water technologies).
The sad fact is that water infrastructure in America has largely failed to keep up in large swaths of the country, necessitating this kind of massive capital infusion.
And what’s true for water is also true increasingly true for power. Outages cost the U.S. economy upwards of $70 billion per year, according to the White House. So when analysts compare those economic losses to a potential $100 billion outlay, the math should be clear. For startups that math equals dollar signs.
Calls to build a more resilient transmission system should be music to the ears of companies like Veir, which is developing a novel technology for improving capacity on transmission lines (a project that the Biden administration explicitly calls out in its plan).
The Biden plan also includes more than money, calling for the creation of a new Grid Deployment Authority within the Department of Energy to better leverage rights-of-way along roads and railways and will support financing tools to develop new high-voltage transmission lines, the White House said.
The administration doesn’t stop there. Energy storage and renewable technologies are going to get a boost through a clutch of tax credits designed to accelerate their deployment. That includes a ten-year extension and phase down of direct-pay investment tax credits and production tax credits. The plan aslo calls for clean energy block grants and calls for the government to purchase nothing but renewable energy all day for federal buildings.
Complimenting this push for clean power and storage will be a surge in funding for waste remediation and cleanup, which is getting a $21 billion boost under Biden.
Companies like Renewell Energy, or various non-profits that are trying to plug abandoned oil wells, can play a role here. There’s also the potential to recover other mineral deposits or reuse the wastewater that comes from these wells. And here, too, investors can find early stage businesses looking for an angle. Part of the money frm the Biden plan will aim to redevelop brownfields and turn them into more sustainable businesses.
That’s where some of the indoor agriculture companies, like Plenty, Bowery Farms, AppHarvest could find additional pots of money to turn unused factory and warehouse space into working farms. Idled factories could also be transformed into hubs for energy storage and community based power generation and distribution facilities, given their position on the grid.
“President Biden’s plan also will spur targeted sustainable, economic development efforts through the Appalachian Regional Commission’s POWER grant program, Department of Energy retooling grants for idled factories (through the Section 132 program), and dedicated funding to support community-driven environmental justice efforts – such as capacity and project grants to address legacy pollution and the cumulative impacts experienced by frontline and fenceline communities,” the White House wrote.
Key to these redevelopment efforts will be the establishment of pioneer facilities that demonstrate carbon capture retrofits for large steel, cement, and chemical production facilities. But if the Biden Administration wanted to, its departments could go a step further to support lower emission manufacturing technologies like the kind companies including Heliogen, which is using solar power to generate energy for a massive mining operation, or Boston Metal, which is partnering with BMW on developing a lower emission manufacturing process for steel production.
Critical to ensuring that this money gets spent is a $25 billion commitment to finance pre-development activities, that could help smaller project developers, as Rob Day writes in Forbes.
“As I’ve written about elsewhere, local project developers are key to getting sustainability projects built where they will actually do the most good — in the communities hit hardest by both local pollution and climate change impacts. These smaller project developers have lots of expenses they must pay just to get to the point where private-sector infrastructure construction investments can come in,” Day wrote. “Everyone in sustainability policy talks about supporting entrepreneurs, but in reality much of the support is aimed at technology innovators and not these smaller project developers who would be the ones to actually roll out those technology innovations. Infrastructure investors are typically much more reticent to provide capital before projects are construction-ready.”
Building a better Internet
“Broadband internet is the new electricity. It is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning, health care, and to stay connected,” the White House wrote. “Yet, by one definition, more than 30 million Americans live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds. Americans in rural areas and on tribal lands particularly lack adequate access. And, in part because the United States has some of the highest broadband prices among OECD countries, millions of Americans can’t use broadband internet even if the infrastructure exists where they live.”
The $100 billion that the Biden Administration is earmarking for broadband infrastructure includes goals to meet 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage and prioritizes support for networks owned, operated, or faffiliated with local governments, non-profits and cooperatives.
Attendant with the new cash is a shift in regulatory policy that would open up opportunities for municipally-owned or affiliated providers and rural electric co-ops from competing with prive providers and requiring internet providers to be more transparent about their pricing. This increased competition is good for hardware vendors and ultimately could create new businesses for entrepreneurs who want to become ISPs of their own.
Wander is one-such service providing high speed wireless internet in Los Angeles.
“Americans pay too much for the internet – much more than people in many other countries – and the President is committed to working with Congress to find a solution to reduce internet prices for all Americans, increase adoption in both rural and urban areas, hold providers accountable, and save taxpayer money,” the White House wrote.
Many work teams, especially stores and restaurants, rely on manual spreadsheets to ensure their operations are running smoothly. Based in Singapore, Nimbly develops software that automates more of that process. Its features include digital checklists, inventory management and field audits that can be accessed through a mobile app. The startup announced today it has raised $4.6 million in pre-Series A funding, led by Insignia Ventures Partners, with participation from Sovereign’s Capital and Saison Capital.
Founded in 2018 by Daniel Hazman and Jonathan Keith, Nimbly is currently used by more than one hundred organizations in seven countries, including Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the United States. Most of Nimbly’s users are in the retail or food and beverage industries, and include KFC, Kopi Kenangan, 7-Eleven and Under Armour. Some clients also come from the fast-moving consumer goods and agriculture sectors, like Cargill and Wilmar.
The new funding brings its total raised to $5.7 million and will be used for Nimbly’s Southeast Asia expansion, including a new partnership with restaurant operator Express Food Group, and adding products like more analytics, mystery shopper and employee training.
Nimbly is designed to replace spreadsheets, emails and messaging apps by combining their functionalities into one app. This includes checklists, audits and live video to ensure that standard operating procedures are followed across all locations. For example, restaurants may use Nimbly to see if food safety and hygiene standards are being followed. FMCG companies can use it to track inventory at stores and share information about how their sales and promotions compare to competitors, while use cases for agriculture include verifying that suppliers are following sustainability measure at their farms.
In a statement, Insignia Venture Partners founding managing partner Yinglan Tan said, “SaaS enterprise is an emerging vertical in Southeast Asia with more businesses of all sizes and across industries seeking to transition and even upgrade their capabilities to software tools. That makes us very excited to have partnered with Daniel, Jonathan and their team at Nimbly as they lead this space in building software stack capable of serving the operational needs of companies first in Southeast Asia, and then globally.”
As indoor farming expands, a number of new companies are cropping up to provide better data and monitoring tools for the businesses aimed at improving efficiencies and quality of indoor crops.
One of these companies, the Copenhagen-based Nordetect, is entering the U.S. market with around $1.5 million in funding from government investment firms and traditional accelerators like SOS V, with a tech that the company claims can give vertical farms a better way to monitor and manage nutrients and water quality.
Controlled agriculture, whether in greenhouses or warehouses, benefits from its ability to administer every aspect of the inputs to ensure that plants have the optimal growing conditions. It is, however, far more expensive than just seeding the ground.
Proponents say that these farms can overcome the additional expense by improving efficiency around water use, reducing the application of pesticides and fertilizer, and cultivating for better, tastier produce.
That’s where Keenan Pinto and Palak Sehgal’s Nordetect comes in. The two co-founders have known each other since they were undergraduates in India eight years ago. They went on to do their masters work together and after working in bioengineering plants — Sehgal focused on flowering systems in plants and Pinto focused on roots — they both went into more digital fields — but maintained their fascination with plants and kept in touch with each other.
Professional work in medical diagnostics for Sehgal and lab instrumentation for Pinto kept both busy, but they continued their discussions around plant science and soil health.
Roughly three years ago, the two hit on the idea for a combined toolkit for water quality monitoring and soil health. Sehgal left the India Institutes of Technology, where she had been working, and joined Pinto in Copenhagen to begin developing the tech that would form the core of Nordetect’s business proposition full time.
The company’s technology consists of an analyzer and a cartridge, a microfluidic chip that users can insert into their water tank to take a sample. From the data that the device collects, farmers can control the nutrients they put into the water to optimize for traits like color and flavor, Pinto said.
The company was accepted into SOSV’s Hax accelerator in 2017 and the two first time founders moved from Denmark to Shenzhen to begin developing the business. In late 2018 the company moved back to Denmark and raised a small amount of additional capital from SOSV and Rockstart.
By 2020, watching the expansion of vertical farming, the company took what had initially been a soil monitoring tool and added water quality monitoring features to support indoor farming. That’s when the business started taking off, according to Pinto.
“One of the interesting things is when i consider the outdoor vs. the indoor markets. The outdoor felt a bit conservative… the indoor seems much more forthcoming… and that traction allowed us to pull together this funding round $1.5 million,” Pinto said.
The new round came from Rockstart, Preseed Ventures, SOSV, the government of Denmark’s growth fund, and Luminate, a Rochester, NY-based accelerator that focuses on optical electronics technology.
Luminate’s participation is one reason why Nordetect is coming to the U.S., but it’s hardly the only reason. There’s also the capital that has come in to finance indoor ag companies. The two largest vertical farming companies in the U.S., Plenty and Bowery Farming have raised $541 million and $167 million between them.
“The vertical movement has put people into the position where they are what I call data farmers,” said Pinto. “Each batch of produce is being used to learn and the data is more important than the output. We used this market as a beachhead.”
Back in the pre-legalization days, cannabis production meant finding a rarely visited patch of land and growing outside, or it meant taking cultivation indoors—typically to a basement where your product wouldn’t be visible from the outside world. But the power use involved in lighting a basement growing space was legendary.
With legalization, it’s really only the scale that has changed. Most legal marijuana is grown indoors, with some pretty hefty electrical use to match. Now, researchers have attempted to quantify the greenhouse gasses emitted, and they came up with some impressive figures. Based on their calculations, cannabis production results in over 2,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide emitted for every kilogram of product (defined as dried flowers), and its legalization has had a measurable effect on Colorado’s greenhouse gas output.
In many locations that have legalized cannabis production, a lot of factors make indoor growth a reasonable option, including simplifying security, enabling year-round production, and simply the experience that comes from now-professional growers having years of practice as amateurs. But Colorado—one of the first states to legalize the wacky tabacky—added what is presumably an accidental inducement by requiring that the majority of the cannabis put up for sale has to be grown on the site where it is sold. You can either use good agricultural land to grow it, or you can sell it near the urban centers and campuses where demand i higher—but not both.
The vast majority of startups remain focused on consumers, knowledge workers and the opportunities to provide services to those that are already operating completely, or at least partially, in digital environments. But today comes news of funding for a startup building a social network for what is probably one of the least digital business sectors of all: independent, small-hold farmers in the developing world.
Wefarm, a social networking platform aimed at independent farmers to help them meet each other, exchange ideas and get advice, and sell or trade equipment and supplies, has raised $11 million funding to continue expanding its business, which now has 2.5 million users.
To put that number and the growth opportunity into some perspective, Wefarm estimates that there are some 400 million small-hold farmers globally, with a large proportion of them in developing markets.
The funding, an extension to the company’s 2019 Series A, is being led by Octopus Ventures. True Ventures (which led the 2019 round), Rabo Frontier Ventures, LocalGlobe, June Fund and AgFunder also participated. Wefarm has raised $32 million since being founded in 2005.
To date, London-based Wefarm has primarily found traction in countries in East Africa. Its service is available via a website, but most of its users are accessing without any internet use at all, via the company’s SMS interface. The SMS format has now hosted more than 37 million conversations from farmers engaging in around 400 different types of farming (from livestock or dairy to grains and fruits and vegetables) and $29 million in marketplace sales, the company said.
But rolling out SMS services can be slow, in part because it requires Wefarm to strike local deals with carriers over data usage. (That has also meant that the company has tightly controlled growth: if you go to the site, you’ll see that you can either join a waitlist or join by way of an invitation from an existing member.)
Kenny Ewan, Wefarm’s founder and CEO, said this latest tranche of funding in part will be used to roll out an app (currently in beta) that will help it launch in more countries and pick up more farmers.
“The big step we’re taking is going from SMS a digital, app-based service, which will remove the digital barrier,” he said in an interview. “We compare it to the shift from sending DVDs in the mail to streaming video online. We feel like the time is right and believe it could take us to the 100 million mark of users.”
Wefarm’s role in helping link up independent farmers — traditionally and by its nature one of the most analogue of industries — has taken on an interesting profile particularly in the last year.
The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown a stark light on a number of digital divides in the world, and one of most distinctive has been in the wider world of business. Entrepreneurs, companies and organizations that had digital strategies in place could hit the ground running to adapt to a “new normal” with less physical interaction. Those that did not had to scramble to get there to avoid a nosedive in activity.
Wefarm was around for years before the Covid-19 pandemic, and in some regards it has always been championing and giving a digital voice to the underdogs.
The wider agricultural industry — globally a multi-trillion dollar enterprise, accounting for up to 25% of GDP in some markets — has undergone some significant digital transformation, but that has been focused on tools and other technology for the agribusiness sector, which includes the giant conglomerates and multinationals like Cargill, Archer-Daniels-Midland, Bayer (Monsanto’s parent), John Deere and others.
Wefarm’s importance (and often singular presence) as a tool for independent farmers to communicate, trade and generally network with others like them was already playing out before Covid-19. When we covered the company’s previous raise in 2019 (the first part of its Series A, a $13 million round) it had already grown to 1.9 million members. And, as it happens, for many of its users, Covid-19 was in some regards the least of their concerns:
“In reality a lot of people in rural Africa were concerned about the weather, or the effect of a locust plague,” Ewan said. “What we saw was traffic around not Covid, but these topics. They had different preoccupations.”
But the pandemic has had an impact, nevertheless. On the platform itself, as we saw in other e-commerce scenarios, Wefarm emerged as an essential service for trading at a time when in-person meetings were halted. As for Wefarm as a business, Ewan said that it essentially meant that the company’s country expansion plans had completely halted mainly because business development teams could no longer travel as they had before: another reason why launching an app could be a useful growth tool.
(That lack of travel was also potentially helpful to Wefarm: despite that the company still managed to grow by 600,000 more users, Ewan pointed out, underscoring a clear demand for the service among its target audience.)
Going forward, there are other ways in which Wefarm aims to leverage its user base, its network and the data that it potentially can amass from them.
“We see the possibility of providing more analytics and data. Our users want that very much,” Ewan said. “We now know more about small scale farmers than any one else, because they talk to us.” Areas that Wefarm is considering to develop over the next two years are whether it can help provide more insight into more workable business models, pricing models and more data on particular aspects like ripening periods.
“By building a highly engaged community of millions of small-holder farmers, Wefarm has created a powerful platform providing greater access to vital knowledge and information, which allows farmers to unlock greater economic potential from their land,” said Kamran Adle, early stage investor at Octopus Ventures. “In practice that might mean understanding which fertilisers work best, what the market price is for certain goods, or new farming techniques that result in better yields, all of which can make a significant difference to livelihoods. It’s also an enormous market with more than 400 million small-holder farmers globally who collectively spend around $400 billion on farming inputs. There is a huge opportunity for Kenny and the team at Wefarm to achieve incredible scale and we’re excited for the launch of its digital platform which will further accelerate growth.”
Anuvia Plant Nutrients has raised $103 million to commercialize its novel fertilizer technology.
The company, backed by investors like TPG ART, Pontifax Global Food and Agriculture Technology Fund, Generate Capital andPiva Capital, is now ready to roll out its tech, which is already used on roughly 1200 farms and is projected to be on 20 million acres of farmland by 2025.
Now led by longtime agriculture executive Amy Yoder, who represents the sixth generation of a Michigan farm family, Anuvia pitches its tech as a supplement for crops that can boost productivity by taking excrement, food waste and agricultural processing waste and converting that into useful fertilizer using a proprietary catalytic process.
By treating the waste with a specific blend of chemicals Yoder said Anuvia’s technology can control the release of nutrients as plants grow to make more productive crops and reduce leaching into soil, protecting groundwater and restoring carbon to the soil.
Anuvia is one of a growing number of agriculture technology companies trying to juice crop productivity and capture carbon to provide additional revenues from more abundant crops and carbon capture and storage. Other startups, including Pivot Bio, Indigo Agriculture, AgBiome, and Agrinos, are all developing other crop treatments that can purportedly boost agricultural production.
“Most of what I see would be very complimentary to us,” said Yoder. “Because we put the carbon back into the soil, because the nutrients are held in different way. You could utilize the pivot technology and the Anuvia technology. Those things when they could piggyback together could make really nice solutions in the longterm.”
The Winter Garden, Fla.-based company has a 1.2 million ton facility for production, but the company wants to build out additional capacity and continue developing new fertilizers to take to market, Yoder said.
Farmers using the product see increased yields of around five times their previous production levels and the product can be used on all the main row crops, according to Yoder.
That claim has been verified by Environmental Resources Management (ERM), a leading global environmental consulting firm, versus traditional fertilizer on corn, rice, and cotton.
Anuvia’s treatment can also reduce greenhouse gases on production by up to 32% compared to commercial fertilizers. Anuvia estimates that its products could provide emissions reductions equivalent to removing 30,000 cars from roads. If the company can get farmers to apply its treatment to the 90 million acres of corn in the U.s. that would reduce the equivalent emissions of 1.8 million cars, according to a statement.
“With the world’s population expected to hit 10 billion by 2050, we need technology-enabled, large-scale agriculture to meet this growing demand,” says Dr. Geoff Duyk, Founder and Managing Partner of Circularis and Anuvia Board Member. “Anuvia’s technology will help farms continue to feed the world, while also advancing the circular economy, increasing sustainability, and enhancing resource efficiency.”
When people ask me which robotics categories are poised for the biggest growth, I often point to agriculture. The technology already has a strong foothold in places like warehouse and logistics, but it’s impossible to look at the American – and global – farming community and not see a lot of potential for human-assisted automation.
The category still seems fairly wide open — but not for lack of interest. There are a number of companies both large and small carving out niches in the category. For now, at least, it seems there’s room for a number of different players. After all, needs vary greatly from farm to farm and crop to crop.
Santa Monica-based Future Acres is launching today, with plans to tackle grape picking. An outgrowth of Wavemaker Partners — the same firm that gave the world burger-flipping Miso Robotics — the startup is also announce its first robot, Carry.
“We see Carry as a kind of harvesting sidekick for workers. It’s an autonomous harvesting companion,” CEO Suma Reddy tells TechCrunch. “What it can do in the real world is transport up to 500 lbs. of crops in all terrain and all weather. It can increase production efficiency by up to 80%, which means it pays for itself in only 80 days.”
Carry relies on AI to transport hand-picked crops, working alongside humans rather than attempting to replace the delicate picking process outright. The company is expecting that farms will purchase multiple machines that can work in tandem to speed up their process and help reduce the human strain of moving the crops around manually.
The company is still in early stages, having developed a prototype of Carry. It’s also exploring some partnerships for development. The systems would run $10,000-$15,000 up front, though the company says it’s looking at a RaaS (robotics as a service) model, as a way to defer that cost.
Interest in agricultural robotics has only increased during the pandemic, amid health concerns and labor issues. The company is building on that interest by launching a campaign on SeedInvest, in hopes of raising $3 million, in addition to funding already provided by Wavemaker.
Pula, a Kenyan insurtech startup that specialises in digital and agricultural insurance to derisk millions of smallholder farmers across Africa, has closed a Series A investment of $6 million.
The round was led by Pan-African early-stage venture capital firm, TLcom Capital, with participation from nonprofit Women’s World Banking. The raise comes after Pula closed $1 million in seed investment from Rocher Participations with support from Accion Venture Lab, Omidyar Network and several angel investors in 2018.
Founded by Rose Goslinga and Thomas Njeru in 2015, Pula delivers agricultural insurance and digital products to help smallholder farmers navigate climate risks, improve their farming practices and bolster their incomes over time.
Agriculture insurance has traditionally relied on farm business. In the U.S. or Europe with typically large farms, an average insurance premium is $1,000. But in Africa, where smallholding or small-scale farms are the norms, the number stands at an average of $4.
It is particularly telling that the value of agricultural insurance premiums in Africa represents less than 1 percent of the world’s total when the continent has 17 percent of the world’s arable land.
This disparity stems from the fact that the traditional method of calculating insurance through farm visits is often unaffordable for these smallholder farmers. Thus, they are often neglected from financial protection against climate risks like flood, drought, pestilence and hail.
Pula is solving this problem by using technology and data. Through its Area Yield Index Insurance product, the insurtech startup leverages machine learning, crop cuts experiments and data points relating to weather patterns and farmer losses, to build products that cater to various risks.
But getting farmers on board has never been easy, Goslinga told TechCrunch. According to her, Pula has understood not to sell insurance directly to small-scale farmers, because they can suffer from optimism bias. “Some think a climate disaster wouldn’t hit their farms for a particular season; hence, they don’t ask for insurance initially. But if they witness any of these climate risks during the season, they would want to get insurance, which is counterproductive to Pula,” said the founder in a phone call.
So the startup instead partners with banks. Banks provide loans to farmers and make it compulsory for them to have insurance. With the loan, banks can pay the insurance on behalf of the farmers at the start of the season. But at the end of the season, the farmer has to repay the loan with interest.
“The unit economics doesn’t work for us to work with farmers directly. But with banks, we know they provide loans to farmers with much better margins to pay for insurance. Also, we work together with government subsidy programs since they’re also interested in protecting their farmers.”
Through its partnerships with banks, governments and agricultural input companies, Pula is at the center of an ecosystem that provides insurance to smallholder farmers and has amassed 50 insurance partners and six reinsurance partners.
Its clientele includes the likes of the World Food Programme and Central Bank of Nigeria as well as the Zambian and Kenyan governments. Social enterprises like One Acre Fund, startups like Apollo Agriculture, and agribusiness giants like Flour Mills and Export Trading Group are also among Pula’s clients.
When Goslinga met Njeru in 2008, she worked for Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA). There, she started Kilimo Salama, as a micro-insurance program for more than 200,000 farmers in Kenya and Rwanda. She met Njeru who was the lead actuary at UAP Insurance, a partner to the Kilimo Salama program, at the time.
After staying with Syngenta for six years and recognising the need to provide standard insurance products for smallholder farmers, Goslinga left to start Pula with Njeru in 2015. However, it wasn’t until two years later that Njeru joined fulltime as he had a six-year engagement with Deloitte South Africa from 2012 as a consultant actuary. The pair both act as co-CEOs.
“When Thomas and I launched Pula in 2015, we had one goal in mind: to build and deliver scalable insurance solutions for Africa’s 700 million smallholder farmers,” Goslinga said. “With our latest funding, now is the time to break into new ground. In our five years since launching, we’ve built strong traction for our products. However, the fact remains that across Africa and other emerging markets, there are still millions of smallholder farmers with risks to their livelihoods that have not been covered.”
According to Goslinga, the COVID-19 pandemic helped Pula double its footprint and size as rural farming activities and operations continued despite pandemic-induced lockdowns.
Therefore, the new financing will scale up operations in its existing 13 markets across Africa, where it has insured over 4.3 million farmers. They include Senegal, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique. Likewise, the Kenyan startup hopes to propel its expansion for smallholder farmers in Asia and Latin America.
Pula is one of the few African startups disrupting the farming industry with technology. Its Series A investment attests that investors’ appetite for agritech startups is still on the rise.
A week ago, Aerobotics, a South African startup that uses artificial intelligence to help farmers protect their trees and fruits from risks, raised a Series B round of $17 million. Last month, SunCulture, a Kenyan startup that provides solar power systems, water pumps and irrigation systems for small-scale farmers, raised $14 million.
Another startup is Apollo Agriculture which raised $6 million Series A, akin to Pula. Not only did the pair raise the same round, Apollo Agriculture and Pula both deal with providing financial resources to smallholder farmers. But while both companies might look like competitors, even to the admission of Goslinga, she argues that the startups are partners and complement each other.
As part of the new fundraise, TLcom’s senior partner Omobola Johnson will join Pula’s board. However, it was her colleague, Maurizio Caio, the firm’s managing partner, who had something to say about the round.
“The potential for the insurance market for smallholder farmers in Africa is huge, and under the leadership of Rose and Thomas, Pula has rapidly established a strong presence throughout the continent and has several high-profile clients on their books. We are confident of Pula’s potential for growth in spite of the pandemic and look forward to partnering with them as they execute the next phase of their journey,” he said in a statement.
Christina Juhasz, CIO at Women’s World Banking, the other investor in the round, explained that the organisation cut a check for Pula “given the legions of women engaged in small-hold farming and securing the food supply for communities around the globe.”
As the global agricultural industry stretches to meet expected population growth and food demand, and food security becomes more of a pressing issue with global warming, a startup out of South Africa is using artificial intelligence to help farmers manage their farms, trees, and fruits.
Aerobotics is a South African startup that provides intelligent tools to the world’s agriculture industry. It raised $17 million in an oversubscribed Series B round.
South African consumer internet giant Naspers led the round through its investment arm, Naspers Foundry, investing $5.6 million, according to Aerobotics. Cathay AfricInvest Innovation, FMO: Entrepreneurial Development Bank, and Platform Investment Partners, also participated.
Founded in 2014 by James Paterson and Benji Meltzer, Aerobotics is currently focused on building tools for fruit and tree farmers. Using artificial intelligence, drones and other robotics, its technology helps track and assess the health of these crops, including identifying when trees are sick, tracking pests and diseases, and analytics for better yield management.
The company has progressed its technology and provides independent and reliable yield estimations and harvest schedules to farmers by collecting and processing both tree and fruit imagery from citrus growers early in the season. In turn, farmers can prepare their stock, predict demand, and ensure their customers have the best quality of produce.
Aerobotics has experienced record growth in the last few years. For one, it claims to have the largest proprietary data set of trees and citrus fruit in the world having processed 81 million trees and more than a million citrus fruit.
The seven-year-old startup is based in Cape Town, South Africa. At a time when many of the startups out of the African continent have focused their attention primarily on identifying and fixing challenges at home, Aerobotics has found a lot of traction for its services abroad, too. It has offices in the U.S., Australia, and Portugal — like Africa, home to other major, global agricultural economies — and operates in 18 countries across Africa, the Americas, Europe, and Australia.
Within that, the U.S. is the company’s primary market, and Aerobotics says it has two provisional patents pending in the country, one for systems and methods for estimating tree age and another for systems and methods for predicting yield.
The company said it plans to use this Series B investment to continue developing more technology and product delivery, both for the U.S. and other markets.
“We’re committed to providing intelligent tools to optimize automation, minimize inputs and maximize production. We look forward to further co-developing our products with the agricultural industry leaders,” said Paterson, the CEO in a statement.
Once heralded as a frontier for technology centuries ago, the agriculture industry has stalled in that aspect for a long while. However, agritech companies like Aerobotics that support climate-smart agriculture and help farmers have sprung forth trying to take the industry back to its past glory. Investors have taken notice and over the past five years, investments have flowed with breathtaking pace.
For Aerobotics, it raised $600,000 from 4Di Capital and Savannah Fund as part of its seed round in September 2017. The company then raised a further $4 million in Series A funding in February 2019, led by Nedbank Capital and Paper Plane Ventures.
Naspers Foundry, the lead investor in this Series B round, was launched by Naspers in 2019 as a 1.4 billion rand (~$100 million) fund for tech startups in South Africa. Asides Aerobotics, Naspers Foundry has invested in online cleaning service, SweepSouth, and food service platform, Food Supply Network.