John Deere‘s recent investment in crop health startup InnerPlant is far bigger than the $16 million figure attached to the deal. In many ways, it seems Deere is investing in not one company but an entirely new way of doing crop protection and, ultimately, commodity farming.
InnerPlant co-founder and CEO Shely Aronov tells AFN that her company started talking to Deere about a year ago. In what she describes as a “really easy” and “frictionless” process, the two companies discussed how to work together more, with Deere eventually suggesting it lead the Series A.
“That wasn’t something we expected, knowing how rare it is that they fund companies,” says Aronov. “I’ve never seen a company move this quick,” she adds.
A ‘clear integration’
The Series A deal is one piece of a larger vision InnerPlant and Deere share.
InnerPlant “recodes” plant DNA to make those plants’ natural distress signals visible to the human eye when viewed through field equipment or satellite imagery. In the event of pests, fungi, lack of water, or some other danger, the recoded plants’ fluorescent protein lights up in the leaves to signal that distress to farmers.
This process helps farmers reduce losses to pathogens and ultimately increase yields by identifying early on what the stressors are. Farmers can treat the impacted area without having to spray the entire acre or crop. This precision helps eliminate unnecessary chemical use in the field, which is a welcome thought at a time when input prices are soaring and pricing is volatile.
Deere, meanwhile, is something of a trailblazer when it comes to ag corporates adopting new technologies. It launched its See & Spray Ultimate precision ag tool this year. Using cameras and machine learning, the See & Spray system precisely targets weeds with herbicide for corn, soybean, and cotton crops. Deere also unveiled a fully autonomous tractor in 2022.
The idea is to eventually merge InnerPlant’s “living plant sensors” with Deere’s machinery.
“When the plants are going to communicate that they’re under fungal pressure or insect pressure, nitrogen deficiency for corn, then the tractors can go out to the field and take action,” Aronov explains. “That action will eventually be plant-by-plant.”
She adds that this marriage of the two different technologies is ultimately what will provide the most value to the farmer customers.
“It’s not about the technology itself. The potential comes not just from providing the data but from bringing in all the different ecosystem partners that can deliver additional value to farmers. It’s always been our goal to grow the second system. Deere was the clear integration there.”
What’s next for InnerPlant?
Aronov says InnerPlant has “a very clear roadmap” of what it wants to accomplish.
The company plans to have “living plant sensor” varieties of soy that are sensitive to fungus exposure available next year. There are also plans to launch a satellite that can identify and “talk to” InnerPlant’s crop varieties; the company is currently working on a deal for this with a still-undisclosed partner.
InnerPlant’s vision for the future is a three-pronged approach to stress detection in plants. “There are the plants creating signals, satellites collecting [the signals] so we have the most affordable, scalable, easy way for farmers to access that data. Then the tractors go into the field based on what they know and take better action on the plant level,” says Aronov.
“John Deere and InnerPlant envision a future that enables plants to communicate stress directly to John Deere machines and technology, ultimately allowing machines to make agronomic management decisions at the plant level much sooner than what’s possible today,” a spokesperson for John Deere told AFN.
“Both companies believe crop health must be solved on a plant-by-plant basis and that matching application of nutrients and pesticides to individual plant needs is foundational to best serving customers. By digitizing a plant’s stress with living sensors we can help farmers pick the right response at the right place and time.”
A call to action for Big Ag
Climate change, labor issues and those soaring input costs have made it more important than ever to monitor agriculture more precisely and improve the data available.
Aronov flatly says we need more companies like Deere in order to accomplish this and make ag technologies and services more accessible for farmers.
“I’ve never seen a company that’s innovative like Deere. They’re willing to, as the market leader, work on technologies that are going to change their business model, disrupt themselves, do things differently, and lead that ages ahead of anyone else.”
Deere has always sold tractors. Now the company is selling data and software, she says.
Deere’s spokesperson added that the InnerPlant partnership is “closely aligned with the John Deere Smart Industrial strategy that focuses on delivering intelligent, connected machines and applications that will revolutionize production systems in agriculture and construction, unlocking customer economic value across the lifecycle in ways that are more sustainable for all.”
“Now is the time for big companies to change their business models so they are in line with the value they are actually trying to create for farmers,” says Aronov. “In reality, all the technologies we need are here. It’s really just about rolling them out in the best way.”
For more on this deal, check out an in-depth analysis by Shane Thomas on Upstream Ag Insights.