Aerobotics, a South African agtech company with a smart scouting platform to identify pests and diseases in tree crops, has closed a $2 million Series A.
The round was led by Nedbank CIB Venture Capital, the VC arm of one of South Africa’s largest banks, with participation from AgFunder, AngelList, 4Di Capital, Savannah Fund, Lee Edwards, former CTO of TeeSpring, and Justin Spratt, head of business for Sub-Saharan Africa at Uber.
Farming is a risky business with pests and disease often causing major reductions in farmers’ yields. Aerobotics has developed a system that tracks every tree on the farm, detecting problems early, and guides farmers to the location of the threat.
Aerobotics’ platform combines weekly satellite data, automated drone scouting, and infield scouting data to identify and track every tree on the farm. Aerobotics then uses machine learning to automatically detect pest and disease problems, and then alerts the farmer to those locations to ground-truth the data and diagnose the specific problems. By bringing farmer validation into the loop, Aerobotics gets smarter all the time, which benefits all the growers on the platform.
Aerobotics reconstructs 3D models from 2D imagery of each tree.
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“Aerobotics is one of the best entrepreneurial teams we’ve seen on the continent, and we’re incredibly excited about this business and its ability to deliver precision farming tools to clients,” says Stuart van der Veen, head of disruption and innovation for Nedbank Corporate and Investment Banking (CIB). “The work we’ve done in partnership with Aerobotics is a prime example of our commitment to going beyond mere innovation, and how disruptive technology can add value to our clients. That work has entailed experimenting and commercializing Aerobotics with forward-looking agricultural cooperative and farming clients on more than 250 farms. When we tabled the analytics to farmers, we immediately saw value and delight, and some couldn’t wait for the meeting to end so that they could get back to their farms. We were showing them functionalities they had no idea existed.”
The company was founded by James Paterson, CEO, and Benji Meltzer, chief technology officer, who first met while studying robotics in college. After college James, a 10th generation farmer, went on to MIT for a Master in Aeronautics and Astronautics, while Benji did a Masters in Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College London before joining Uber as a data scientist. In early 2014, James and Benji teamed back up when they realized the abundance of data that could be captured through satellite and drone imagery and then analyzed at scale through machine learning. Since then they’ve been joined by Andrew Burdock (COO), headed Tyco ADT’s coastal branches in South Africa leading a sales and support team of over 400 people; and Timothy Willis (CFO) who previously led Strategy & Analytics for Uber’s Europe/Middle East and Africa Central Operations Team.
While Aerobotics may have been founded in South Africa, they believe they can compete on the global stage. Earlier this year Aerobotics was selected for Google Launchpad, the global accelerator setup to match startups with some of the best people at Google. There Aerobotics had an opportunity to work with some of Google’s most senior leaders, including from Eric Schmidt, Peter Norvig, and Dan Ariely. The team also worked side by side with Google’s engineers and data scientists from the Brain and Perception teams to optimize Aerobotics’ computer vision and machine learning capabilities: building systems that are automatically extracting meaningful information from noisy, multi-modal aerial imagery.
Aerobotics CEO, James Paterson, notes that “pests and diseases move quickly and can devastate a crop. The early detection of these problems can be the difference between a profitable crop, or not. Coming from a farming family, it’s personally exciting to use the latest technology to help Farmers detect and manage their pest and disease risks.” He adds that “with the insights gathered from our algorithms, we could help offer Farmers insurance and financing options based on their crop status.”
Aerobotics is currently tracking 5 million trees and has captured nearly 20% of the South African citrus market in less than 24 months and is quickly moving to other crops. In the past six months, Aerobotics has captured 40% of the South African macadamia market, the world’s largest exporter of macadamia. Today, its customers include some of South Africa’s biggest growers including Mayo Macs Cooperative, Crookes Brothers Limited, and Bester Fruit & Nuts. Aerobotics has started meeting with tree growers in California, Florida, and Michigan and the team will be in the US later this month for their US rollout.
“AgFunder’s global reach affords us an opportunity to identify and invest in the best companies from around the world, not just the best companies in our backyard,” said Rob Leclerc, AgFunder’s CEO. “Some of the best agtech opportunities we see today are coming from outside the US market. In fact, Aerobotics bears a lot of similarities to two of our other portfolio companies Solinftec (Brazil) and The Yield (Australia) in that both of those companies had rapid and unimpeded growth in their local markets and are now in a position to rival any U.S. based competitor. Unlike U.S. startups that need to spend a lot of their money on distribution in a very crowded market, these companies can focus their efforts on building a great product that customers love.”
Hal Robertson, a cherry grower in California and AgFunder investor, helped evaluate Aerobotics during AgFunder’s due diligence: “I’ve tried the well-known names in the space and Aerobotics is more advanced than any of the other solutions I’ve tried.” said Hal, “Identifying pests from the air is a game changer.”
Aerobotics will use the funding to grow and expand internationally, with priority markets being the US, South America, Australia and Southern Europe. They’re looking for key industry partners, as well as top business development talent to help move quickly into these markets. If you’re interested in applying, you can learn more here.
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