If there is any doubt about whether agtech is moving into the mainstream, one only needs to look at some of 2015’s biggest startup competitions to see just how much traction new food and agriculture technologies are gaining.
Verizon’s annual Powerful Answers Award (PAA) competition recently selected six food and agriculture technology startups to join a shortlist of 36 to present at the finals this week. And last week, two agtech companies — Agrilyst and Green Bits — placed first and second during Tech Crunch’s 2015 Disrupt SF competition.
Greenhouse data sensor provider Agrilyst took first place out of 1,000 contestants, earning the Brooklyn-based company the $50,000 prize and the 2015 Disrupt Cup. The company offers data integration, farm management, and real-time analytics to provide greenhouse operations with recommendations that reduce costs and boost yields.
Second place went to Green Bits, a point-of-sale solution for cannabis retail stores. Branding their platform as the easiest way for cannabis shops to run their businesses, Green Bits’ platform offers full workflow integration through inventory tracking and a mobile app to help cannabis companies keep track of their business on the go.
“I think Agrilyst is actually providing a solution to an industry that could help make it more efficient, productive and profitable,” says Ruchi Sanghvi, one of the final-round judges for Disrupt SF’s competition and Dropbox’s VP of operations. For Sanghvi, who serves as Dropbox’s VP of Operations, the statistics suggesting that we will need to substantially ramp up our food production system over the next few decades, creates an immediate need for sustainability and efficiency. “All of these questions and topics are things that are being discussed more and more. I think it’s an interesting time to be working in agtech.”
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According to Sanghvi, who also played a key role in shaping Facebook, there are many opportunities for tech companies in agriculture, especially when it comes to helping farmers become more efficient.
This year, Verizon’s annual PAA competition has tasked tech companies with doing exactly that. One of the competition’s three main categories for its 2015 round is the Internet of Things (IoT), which includes a Smart Agriculture subcategory.
When analyzing the benefits of entering these competitions, entrants are obviously drawn to the possibility of winning cold hard cash — PAA has a top prize of $1 million —and a chance to work with well-established entrepreneurs, investors, and experts. But there are other factors motivating agtech companies to throw their hats into the startup competition ring.
“Just as with any operational business, getting our name out there is really important,” Andrew Klein, CEO, and founder of PAA finalist Smart Barn told AgFunderNews. “Winning would be great, but just the experience and exposure in this competition is huge. We are reaching that point where we need to make these connections on a broader level and this definitely helps us do that.”
Klein’s Ohio-based company provides wireless sensors and a software platform that help farmers monitor livestock remotely. The sensors track a number of data sets including temperature and electricity and provide farmers with up-to-date reports on their livestock’s habitat through both a desktop platform and a mobile app.
“Think of the farmer who raises a couple thousand hogs separated between a couple different barns that are a few miles apart,” says Klein. “Instead of having to wake up every few hours in the middle of the night to make sure the fans are still running or that it’s warm enough, they can quickly check the app and go right back to sleep.”
For Smart Barn, making it to the final round of Verizon’s competition was particularly rewarding. “When we were doing initial research, their website had the most information. They were one of the only companies we could go to and get information about what devices were out there.” The company, which has been largely self-funded so far, won $15,000 in the University of Dayton’s 2015 business plan competition, in addition to expert advice and support.
Fellow PAA finalist flux is also using IoT technologies to help a different type of farmer become more efficient. The company’s smart consumer device is designed to help users grow food more efficiently at home using hydroponics. “The best analogy would be Nest for hydroponics,” says co-founder and CEO Karin Kloosterman.
“We’ve created a device that is really accessible to anyone to help them reap the benefits of hydroponic farming immediately.” Kloosterman’s customers include everything from urban dwellers wanting to grow food in their homes to larger urban farms operating rooftop hydroponic operations in major cities. “They’re begging for tools that can help their end users become experts really quickly.”
Kloosterman sees participation in the PAA competition as providing many benefits, including the accolades that come with being on a major multinational company’s radar. “I really am humbled and proud just to be at this stage with a large company recognizing the potential of ground-roots projects and startup dreams,” says Kloosterman. “This one is worth it.”
As agtech companies continue to stake out territory in the startup competition landscape, one cannot help but wonder if their tenure is limited. “This is just the beginning,” says Kloosterman. “There’s a new generation of people that are trying to bring this industry up to speed and they see opportunities in the high-tech world. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Sanghvi also sees a place for agtech in the future of startups and tech development. “It’s not just about taking an industry as status quo and improving it,” she says. “It’s about imagining where it will go in the next 10 to 15 years and imagining technology for that time, as well.”
Rob Leclerc, AgFunder’s CEO, was a judge at the Verizon event.
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