Editor’s Note: Rob Leclerc is founding partner at AgFunder, the online VC investing in transformational foodtech and agtech investors.
Last year we invested in Aerobotics’ Series A, a South African imagery analytics startup focused on decision support in tree crops. Aerobotics’ platform combines weekly satellite data, automated drone scouting, and infield scouting data to identify and track every tree on the farm.
When it seemed like every imagery analytics startup was chasing low-value/high acreage row crops, Aerobotics was laser-focused going after the highest value crop markets, and this got our attention. And while most VCs are hesitant to invest in non-US based startups, we see this as an opportunity because international markets are often more structurally favorable to agtech startups. This can include selling to larger farms; a younger farmer base embracing technology; weaker incumbents; or simply less competition that allows a startup to cut through the noise and make a sale. For Aerobotics, they were able to get a solid toehold in the South African citrus market, that’s half the size of Florida market, to test and scale their technology stack, rather than spending all their time and money on sales and marketing.
As Peter Thiel famously said, “competition is for losers;” so when you find yourself in a noisy market, you’re better off looking somewhere adjacent or simply wait for a breakout winner (like we did with Sentera).
At the time, we were excited by how the company was building its machine learning algorithms by bringing the farmer into the loop by sending him or her to specific problem areas on the farm to ground-truth and identify the problem, therefore teaching the algorithm and constantly improving it. A year on, the company has now processed 38 million trees up from 5 million this time last year. These technological developments have clearly impressed clients as they’ve lost just two clients in the last year even as they expanded to the US where farmers are awash with imagery-enabled tech solutions.
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Decision support for tree crops can be significant: pest and disease cause up to 30% yield loss, Citrus Greening and Phytophthora kill 5 million citrus trees per year, and poor yield estimates can generate losses of $2k/acre. So for smaller farms with higher value per acre compared to row crops, this turns the sales conversation for this tech from a ‘nice-to-have’ to a ‘must-have.’ And the results are compelling.
In one case study, the team recently showed us they saved 256 trees for a citrus client in South Africa after they diagnosed an early nematode infestation and the farmer was able to treat the trees before it was too late. It also stopped the spread of the infection to a greater land area. Aerobotics was able to update the client on the positive impact of his action within 10 weeks with a new drone flight.
Frank Sinatra famously sang about New York: “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” Well, in the world of high-value crops, here is California. And so earlier this year, James Paterson (CEO) and Andrew Burdock (COO) moved to California to scale their rapidly-growing US business, which now accounts for over 60% of their revenue.
Sales have grown 50% each quarter on average and revenues are up 4x from last year.
Aerobotics has also partnered with other leading agtech startups including Farmers Business Network, which is now distributing the product to its 8,000 farmer network.
In good company
And word has been getting around. They recently won Innovator of the Year at CNBC’s All Africa Business Leader Awards, Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Africa by Fast Company, and French President Macron’s Award for Best Startup in Africa at VivaTech in Paris. It also participated in Google’s LaunchPad Accelerator, where they had an opportunity to work with Google’s Director of Research Peter Norvig and some of Google’s top research scientists.
Aerobotics founders James Paterson and Benji Meltzer, met while studying robotics at college. James is a 10th generation farmer, who did a Masters at MIT in Aeronautics and Astronautics, while Benji did a Masters in Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College London before joining Uber as a data scientist. We love backing strong technical founders and this is one of the most formidable agtech teams working in the imagery analytics and robotics space. Since then they’ve been joined by Andrew Burdock who headed Tyco ADT’s coastal branches in South Africa leading a sales and support team of over 400 people; and Timothy Willis who led Strategy & Analytics for Uber’s Europe/Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa’s Central Operations Team.
We’re excited for Aerobotic’s next chapter. This year they’ll be expanding to South America and Australia. Stay tuned for more updates!