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Descartes Labs
Descartes Labs

Cargill Invests in Predictive Ag ‘Data Refinery’ Descartes Labs’ $30m Series B

August 24, 2017

**UPDATE: Added comments from Cultivian Sandbox Managing Partner Andy Ziolkowski**

Big data analysis platform Descartes Labs has raised an oversubscribed $30 million Series B round led by new investor March Capital, a Californian venture capital firm. Agriculture commodities giant Cargill also invested in the startup for the first time alongside existing investors Crosslink Capital and agtech specific VC Cultivian Sandbox. Cargill was already a customer of Descartes Labs before investing.

This marks a massive jump in funding for the startup, which raised a $5 million Series A round in 2015 led by Cultivian, and a $3 million seed round in 2014 led by Crosslink.

Descartes Labs gathers and processes large amounts of imagery — largely from satellites — and other data to make predictions about crop yields. The company started building its predictive capacity using satellite imagery and weather data to predict corn crops in 2014 and has now built what it deems a “cloud-based supercomputer.” In 2016, Decartes added soybean forecasting to its weekly production forecasts and now is broadening the application of the platform beyond agriculture.

Andy Ziolkowski of Cultivian Sandbox told AgFunderNews that through working with customers like Cargill, the company has learned from its customers how its capabilities can be most useful to growers.

“Descartes’ platform has really been refined to address the needs of the people they have been talking to and working with. If you are selling to a farmer, they need actionable information.”

Descartes refers to its platform as a “data refinery” both cleaning and processing data into usable, actionable information using computing capabilities the company claims have only been available to governments in the past.

“Much like Google has created a data refinery for web data and GE has created a data refinery for industrial data with Predix, Descartes Labs is focusing on a data refinery about the physical world, starting with satellite imagery,” reads a Medium post published by Descartes Labs earlier today. The company writes that the platform may have applications far beyond agriculture, such as in shipping & logistics, forestry, energy infrastructure, and human activity. Apart from various types of remote sensing data and weather information, the platform can now digest data from drones, IoT, and geo-located social media.

Ziolkowski of Cultivian said the agricultural applications for Descartes’s capabilities are wide reaching and expansion could come in many forms, from selling predictions directly to consumers, adding geospatial analysis into existing farm management tools, or providing predictive information regarding inputs to the customers of large strategic ag companies as a value-added service.

Ziolkowski confirmed that despite Descartes’s wide ranging capabilities, agriculture will remain its primary focus. The Descartes team has grown from 15 to 40 in the last two years and more hiring is forthcoming, he added.

In March, the company unveiled an open “GeoVisual Search” tool for the entire world (“a demo, not a product yet,” said the company). The tool can search for visual elements and find things like wind turbines, solar farms, and football fields. 

Also in March, Descartes announced that it had won a $1.5 million, three-year contractwith the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the US Defense Department’s emerging technology department, to create crop failure warning alerts based on satellite imagery derived indicators for the Middle East & North Africa region. 

Descartes realized that the infrastructure it uses to generate its model around corn yield predictions was it’s greatest asset after customers requested models for other crops, according to its Medium post today.

Descartes’s technology was first developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico where the team spent years developing artificial intelligence technology and working on global events like hurricanes and wildfires.

Several Descartes competitors also working the agriculture space among others, have raised funding this year.

Orbital Insight, the frontrunner in terms of funding, raised a $50 million Series C Round in May bringing its fundraising total to $78.7 million. Astro Digital raised a $16.65 Series A round in March. TellusLabs, raised a $3.1 million seed round in January.

Ziolkowski said that further competition may come from more established entities. “You could argue that Google and some of the satellite companies themselves will be competitors. A lot of people want to move more into software,” he said.

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