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Climate Corp’s Former Head of Product Joins Arable as CEO

August 16, 2018

Jim Ethington, former head of product at Monsanto’s digital agriculture division The Climate Corporation, has joined agriculture sensor and analytics startup Arable as CEO.

Ethington to taking over the role from Adam Wolf, the company’s co-founder, who is now chief scientist.

“Arable is delighted to welcome Jim Ethington as our new CEO. Jim’s deep understanding of grower challenges and experience in successfully scaling product will take our company to the next level,” said Wolf in a statement.

Arable is a real-time crop management platform that collects and analyzes in-field data with the aim of providing valuable to insights to farmers including yield forecasts, microclimate monitoring, and crop status.

Under Ethington’s leadership, Arable will focus on product iteration, team building, scaling the go-to-market plan, as well as accelerating new R&D initiatives and partnerships in data and analytics.

Before joining Climate, Ethington worked as a software engineer at PriceWaterhouseCoopers where he built machine learning-based data systems and a few different products. He graduated from Duke with a degree in computer science and economics.

Working at Monsanto’s Climate
Jim Ethington, CEO of Arable

Ethington joined Climate two years after it was founded when the team was only 10-strong and remained with the company through its $1 billion acquisition by Monsanto in 2013 until a couple of months ago. He was always leading the product team starting as product manager, moving to director of product in 2012 and ultimately VP of product.

He played a large role in building and rolling out Climate’s FieldView platform, which is now on 50 million paid acres globally and is “by far the most used digital ag product,” according to Ethington who attributes a “huge part” of that growth to the acquisition by Monsanto.

“I would like to believe a lot is based on the product itself, but it’s also based on a successful distribution model, which we would have been very far from without Monsanto,” Ethington told AgFunderNews.

“We lacked a couple of key elements in making that product successful, and an essential one was access to growers. The acquisition was a game changer for Climate; it gave us the ability to go out and reach customers in a scalable and successful way.”

While mostly positive about the acquisition, the transition from a 160-strong team to the 680 person business Climate is today was not without a few headaches. Scaling to a business that size reduced the speed and agility at which Climate could operate as the number of processes and meetings required increased, said Ethington.

He is, however, “excited to see the next wave happen” at Climate as Monsanto’s acquisition by German agribusiness Bayer rolls out. “It will bring lots of potential and exciting opportunities for Climate.”

Why Arable?

A key development for Climate since its acquisition by Monsanto was the creation of a sensor network where Climate opened up its technology platform to other data providers. Much like how Apple opened up the iPhone to independent application providers, Climate aims to be a hub for agriculture sensing and data companies to essentially sell their wares, at the same time capturing their data and integrating it into the FieldView platform. This can give farmers a more detailed view of their farms by incorporating various different types of data and Climate participates in the revenues gained by those partners through the platform.

It was at this time that Ethington first became aware of Arable as the team surveyed the sensor market during the rollout of the platform and purchased a few of Arable’s sensors.

“My initial reaction was that this was far better than other products I’d seen in the space having installed a number of weather stations and sensors on farms; they’re clunky and cumbersome and not sought out in terms of having a simple and easy-to-use experience. So that design element of Arable made me take note, but that was about the extent of it,” said Ethington.

He was later approached by recruitment firm Caldwell Partners about the CEO role.

The underestimated importance of high-quality data

Starting out as WeatherBill, where the model was to give farmers information about the potential for weather events to impact their operations to help them manage the associated risks, Climate soon realized this was not enough; the company needed to help them make in-season decisions based on that data to decrease or avoid those risks altogether.

Many digital ag startups since have built businesses on the promise of giving farmers recommendations and decision support at various points in the growing season based on the data they collect and analyze.

But the digital ag industry at large largely underestimated the need for high-quality data to glean these insights in the early days, leading to some poor recommendations and skepticism among farmers.

“There were significant challenges in trying to use data to better inform decisions on the farm, and one of the core difficulties was the quality of the data that all those insights were based on. If you’re starting with data that has errors, bias, and is only a certain level of resolution or accuracy, it’s hard to move into really complex, difficult challenges and model on agronomics,” said Ethington. “The current state of the system, certainly at scale, lacks sufficient high-quality data actually to do that, but that’s a big part of why I see so much potential in Arable.”

Arable’s sensor, named the Mark, which is deployed in the field above the leaf canopy of the relevant crop, captures 40 different data streams including rain, canopy leaf area, crop water demand, environmental stresses, and microclimate. This data is fed into the startup’s software platform which uses machine learning algorithms to provide a range of insights to agribusinesses including yield forecasts.

According to Ethington, Arable’s continuous measurement of the plant and the weather around it throughout the growing season — which involves a seven-band spectrometer, 4-way net radiometer, and acoustic rain gauge — is unmatched by any other agriculture sensor company today.

Giving farmers information that they never had before about their fields is essential to the success of digital agriculture, according to Ethington. “Augmenting a farmer’s knowledge and experience is key; prescriptions and recommendations can come later.”

Distribution decisions

Arable, which is already deployed in 19 countries, on six continents, in 22 different crop types with customers ranging from Driscoll’s, Treasury Wine Estates, to Valley Irrigation, is still working out its distribution model but could, in theory, become a FieldView Platform Partner in the future, according to Ethington. However, Climate’s network of in-field sensors has yet to include ground-based sensors like Arable’s; its now 22-strong network consists largely of remote sensing providers such as drones platforms and satellite imagery, as well as software providers.

“Climate doesn’t yet offer products like Arable’s on their platform, but I see that there’s a great opportunity for collaboration in the future,” said Ethington.

Incorporating sensor products that provide a continuous time series of field and atmospheric conditions is challenging, he added.

“It’s complicated. There’s already a lot of weather data in FieldView and if you start including third-party sensors, you want to be able to marry up data sets and ensure the user gets better data through the combination of the two; there was a technical challenge in completing that work and an element of customer demand too.”

Could Arable itself become a center point of connectivity for other sensors and devices? “That could be an opportunity where Arable could succeed too,” said Ethington.

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