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How a Farmer and His Two Sons Launched an Agtech Startup

February 23, 2016

The Applegates have been inventing and building farm technology since they were nine years old. For their father Doug Applegate, a corn farmer from Oakland, Iowa, this meant each year he could give his two sons a list of projects he’d like to have around the farm, and they’d work on them often submitting the end result to state or county fairs.

“Each year and with each project we tried to have them learn a new skill,” he said. “As they grew older, the projects got more complex and more useful around the farm,” said Applegate. “We had micro-controllers married with machines, software and electronics and machinery working together, and all of this just led in stages to more complex things.”

Fast forward to today and with two agricultural engineering degrees in hand, the Applegates have built their biggest project yet and with their father have launched Praxidyn, an agtech startup company. 

Praxidyn’s first product is an agricultural chemical blending system called Mixmate. “When our sons came back to the farm after working in the industry for about three years each, Mixmate became the lead idea from our long list of tools needed on the farm,” said Applegate. “It was one of the more complicated things to do because there is so much behind it in terms of software and computer electronics.”

Applegate has wanted a solution to the way chemicals are handled on the farm for over 25 years, he tells AgFunderNews, after first spraying crops with chemicals when he was 14 years old.

Farmers in most agricultural regions of the US buy ag chemicals in big bulk — think 120-gallon tanks — and using manual calculations measure them out using flow meters. But this method can be hugely inaccurate, and Applegate has heard from a local ag retailer that it had several thousands of dollars of lost inventory last year.

“The flow meters commonly used on farms are not as precise as those in gas stations because they’re subject to temperature changes, and different chemicals can throw the accuracy off,” he said. “It only takes a few percentage points of error, and the measurement is completely off, and you’re losing money. In these days of low crop prices, farmers and retailers are watching all of these details.”

Mixmate streamlines or completely automates the mixing process for several different chemicals, attached to it in their bulk containers. It uses multiple scales to weigh the chemicals and a range of flow meters to control the valves going into the mixer.  It’s a portable unit and is modular — built with a combination of pumps, valves, flowmeters, and scales — so the system can be bespoke for each client.

Mixmate is controlled through an Android app which enables users to set up mixing jobs ahead of time, and adjust chemical blends to field conditions such as weed size or wind speed. It also collects data regarding which chemicals have been mixed, how much, when and so on. This data can be used in inventory tracking or reporting and is the part of the technology that Applegate is most excited about.

“Record-keeping is the least enjoyable part of operating a farm for many farmers, and when you’re in a rush to get the work done, you forget little details and later have to work out what you did. If we capture the data automatically you don’t have to do any record-keeping,” he said.

Mixmate focuses on capturing and recording data around chemical application on the farm, but Applegate is excited by the potential for big data more generally. He is part of non-profit 

Mixmate design
Mixmate design

business consortium AgGateway‘s SPADE Project, which farmers discussed at the recent PrecisionAg Innovation Series in St. Louis. The project is aiming to produce a set of data standards for agtech companies, agribusinesses, farmers and other stakeholders to follow to enable connectivity between agriculture devices, machinery, servers, software and so on. 

“We’re trying to develop communication standards between field equipment and office applications,” said Applegate. “Let’s work on getting data beyond compatibility across hardware and software, but from the planter to the tractor to the cloud and onto a server in a format that can be shared between servers. And ultimately the goal is to get the data to move between software systems transparently.”

Applegate doesn’t use a cloud-based software solution on his farm yet but is starting to get some information from startups like Farmers Business Network and Farmobile.

“There are a lot of cloud-based software solutions out there, but at this point I don’t see many like us out there that are collecting data to supply the software companies,” he said.

Pointing him to some of the integrated systems that offer data capturing hardware as well as providing a software tool, Applegate raised concerns that they will still need to be connected to other software and hardware later.

“It certainly gets them to market faster, but in the long run, I really think that the platform coming through AgGateway will be the key to connecting Mixmate to all of these software companies; no one person can provide the perfect solution,” he said. “AgGateway’s SPADE project is essential to the success of this segment, although some people think it’s taken too long.”

There are over 30 companies involved in the SPADE project, including a wide range of multi-national agribusinesses, startups, and farmers.

“Today I will speak with an equipment manufacturer that builds monitors to go on a sprayer, and also a software company, which is a consumer of the data generated on the tractor. I’m an individual farmer and a self-funded startup, and it’s great to sit at the table with these representatives from the world’s largest ag companies and hammer out details of the data standards, said Applegate.

Praxidyn, which is aiming to sell its first product into the market by the end of the year, will target individual farmers, multiple users in a farming operation, and other commercial entities such as sewage treatment businesses that have already shown interest, according to Applegate.

What are your views on ag big data and the software solutions in the market today? Get in touch on [email protected]

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