San Mateo, California-based PowWow Energy has rebranded as AgMonitor and raised $4.5 million in fresh funding.
The new capital injection includes $1.5 million in new private equity investments from undisclosed tech angels and multi-generational farmers, as well as $3 million in grant funding from the California Energy Commission (CEC) EPIC program.
AgMonitor originated as an AI technology to provide simple water management for California as part of a spin out of the University of California system. It previously received a $3 million CEC grant back in 2015, deploying it to address on-farm pain points.
“[We] saw an opportunity to provide full enterprise software to deal with energy cost management like solar assets, crop management, and water,” founder and CEO Olivier Jerphagnon told AFN.
Today, AgMonitor aims to provide farm management advice using a combination of machine learning and publicly available data. It also seeks to connect farmers with agronomists, accountants, and other specialists.
The platform operates on over 100,000 acres and across a range of crop types. It provides text alerts relating to irrigation scheduling, water reporting, utility rate analyses, and field benchmarking, among other things.
“The difference is that we don’t have a hardware sensor,” Jerphagnon explained. “That’s really the unique component. We gather public data.”
AgMonitor proved a hard sell until Covid-19 hit and teams needed to find ways to work together that didn’t involve being on the farm together or meeting in person, Jerphagnon said. The subsequent boom in demand for digital meeting solutions helped the startup to secure its recent funding. The investors saw its software-as-a-service model as being well-positioned to take off in a world changed by Covid-19.
Some of its growers are finding serious value in the offering.
“I have seen the AgMonitor team bridge the gap between Silicon Valley’s innovation and efficiency, and the Central Valley’s grower needs and values,” said Cannon Michael, a sixth-generation diversified grower from Los Banos, California, in a statement about the funding. “They listen and have delivered value consistently in managing our energy costs.”
“I can’t think of a better partner than AgMonitor,” stated Vincent Ricchiuti of Enzo Oil, a fourth-generation grower and now food processor in Fresno, California, also stated in the same press release. “Our organic almond production and our organic olive oil quality have dramatically increased since we selected their water and crop management platform.”
AgMonitor is also tackling two serious challenges that are rarely discussed in the agrifoodtech world: language barriers and a lack of exposure to technology.
Seventy-seven percent of farmworkers reported that Spanish was the language they were most comfortable using while only 29% reported being able to speak English well, according to the 2015-2016 National Agricultural Workers Survey. Twenty-one percent could not speak any English while 41% reported being able to speak a little.
“It’s a huge issue. If you don’t have an ecosystem in which you can educate people about technology, the cost for the startup to come in there and try to acquire customers is too high because you’re basically doing the education,” Jerphagnon explained.
This barrier creates serious challenges for agrifoodtech adoption. Although the farm owner or manager may be fluent in English, the skilled workforce that provides the bulk of the labor may not be, based on this data.
Part of AgMonitor’s CEC grant involves doing something to help Spanish-speaking workers feel more comfortable with using agrifoodtech solutions. Although classes are available at the community college level, the enrollment process can be intimidating or unworkable. To address this, AgMonitor’s app keys into the language setting of the phone or tablet and offers the same language on its platform. If a user’s smartphone is set to Spanish, for example, that’s how it presents the app.
Accounting for less-than-tech-savvy farmers is another one of its goals.
“There is a big difference between the new generation who grew up with a smartphone even in relatively poor areas and the older generation,” said Jerphagnon. “We made the mobile application very simple so farms can give the older generation a tablet. They often don’t have smartphones themselves.”
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