Editor’s note: Gabriel Wilmoth is investment manager at Syngenta Ventures, which he joined in 2013. Gabriel recently attended the InfoAg conference and agreed to share some of his thoughts about the day.
These are good days to be a precision agriculture company. At least that seemed to be the mood at the InfoAg conference last week in St. Louis, which attracted more than 1500 attendees and showcased more than 100 precision ag-related companies. The only downside: with so many new technologies coming to market — one investor counted nine for soil testing, 10 for data management, and 13 for imagery — discerning which technologies are truly differentiated and poised to become “must haves” for growers is getting tougher.
To help make sense of the emerging landscape, here are some lessons from InfoAg:
The glass is half-full
Like any good tradeshow, InfoAg’s exhibit hall teemed with sales reps delivering upbeat assessments: precision ag tools, like variable rate technologies, are saving growers money and at the current low adoption rates, the market shows tremendous growth potential for years to come. Since many sectors like data management lack a clear market leader, multiple startups have the potential to emerge as the go-to-platform.
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Side conversations with farmers and other investors offered a more cautious perspective. With so many choices and competing claims, it’s hard to understand what makes each solution unique. One industry veteran noted that there appeared to be fewer farmers and ag retailers at this year’s event, perhaps reflecting that more growers may be taking a “wait-and-see” approach to some technologies.
Don’t get obsessed with any single variable
Veteran crop advisors like Dan Frieberg reminded attendees to keep a holistic perspective. He explained in the early days of precision ag, “we were so focused on managing Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium that we neglected other important variables.” As the ability to capture and store data increases, the problem may be getting worse. Some early adopters are now measuring and managing more than 200 attributes on a single meter of field. Which one of those variables is most important? Speaking in reference to soil test results, Tom McGraw cautioned that “you can’t obsess over any one single variable.” In isolation, individual data layers can lead you astray!
Data remains silo’d
Unfortunately, integrating the data captured from multiple discrete devices into a whole-farm perspective remains challenging. Different enterprises aim to overcome this obstacle — from venture-backed start-ups like Granular and Conservis, to the Chinese government agency NERCITA and to individual growers with custom built platforms. Until one or more succeeds, the turn-key farm management solution for mass-market growers remains an unmet need.
It’s a business problem, not a technology problem
As in other industries, the adoption of new technology depends on a compelling business case. In one of the most talked-about presentations, Marc Vanacht cited success stories from European orchards to Brazilian coffee equipment to self-driving tractors (which he claimed will be standard equipment in the next 10 years) that demonstrated how precision ag technologies can enable higher quality products with less resources. He cautioned, however, that far more tools already exist than are currently used. Consider the concept of 100 percent climate-controlled, indoor “plant factories.” They exist today in Holland and Japan and select urban markets; but in most markets, the business case isn’t justified. Ag investors should keep in mind that technology innovations may also require business model innovations to reach full potential.
Gabriel Wilmoth is an investor with Syngenta Ventures. Opinions expressed are his own. He tweets occasionally @agrigabe.
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