Greenhouse decision support software company iUNU closed a $7.5 million venture round with existing early-stage Midwest investor NCT Ventures and AI-focused BooststapLabs. The Seattle-based startup closed a $6 million round in August 2017 with NCT Ventures, Second Avenue Partners, Joe Montana’s Liquid 2 Ventures, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian’s Initialized Capital, Fuel Capital.
iUNU (pronounced “you knew”) offers greenhouse insights in a “system as a service” package and hopes to take some of the old school manual data entry aspects of greenhouse operation into the 21st century by automating as much of the greenhouse maintenance process as possible.
Using rail-mounted autonomous wireless image scanners, in-canopy sensors, and its AI-powered system called LUNA, iUNU creates a complete visual map of the greenhouse identifying the location of each plant. The camera captures information such as plant growth and signs of disease or pest damage, while sensors measure environmental changes including temperature and humidity. The company provides regular reports to users and a platform that lets them interface with the image to locate specific plants or other information. Launched in 2009, the startup plans to use the new funds to build out its sales and marketing team while also investing in its computer imaging R&D.
Through three- to five-year service level agreements, iUNU offers financing to help the grower install the cameras and other equipment. It schedules consultations with each potential customer to determine the exact level of service that is appropriate for their operation.
“Once you have this map, you can take it to the next level and identify patterns, problems, and issues. You can count how many plants you have, you can figure out where certain plants are located, and you can forecast yields. In greenhouse production, there is a lot of friction between production and sales. Production tries to estimate the amount of yield that the sales team can market, and sometimes there is a disconnect,” Greenberg explains.
Managing all that data
Its product is also aimed at providing grow house operators with something more than a heap of data, which is often useless when it comes to identifying issues before they become costly problems. Greenhouses provide farmers with a controlled environment, but they can also create a perfect storm if mildew, pests, or other unwanted interlopers invade. Once disease or bugs invade the greenhouse, it doesn’t take long for all hell to break loose as they devour everything inside the closed environment.
“Value proposition wise, a lot of people are taking standard types of data and making use of it, which is good, but it’s not really giving users the value that they need,” CEO Adam Greenberg told AFN. “Standard data sets tell you thinks like temperature, humidity, CO2, pH. But the data that we provide tells you things like how fast your plants are growing each day, which plants are happy or sad — if you will — and where problems might be starting to unfold. It’s a matter of identifying symptoms versus causes. We tell you where you don’t need to go in your greenhouse”
When it comes to precision ag and tools that offer actionable insights, some people remain skeptical. Farmers don’t have time to comb through endless data sets to figure out what needs to happen, and it’s hard to know which startups are going to deliver on their promise. Greenberg points to an even bigger problem among agtech startups.
“A lot of people have been burned by agtech. People talk about agriculture like it’s the same across the board and it’s not. Companies have one good case study and all of a sudden they say they can scale that to the entire market when in reality there are many different types of operations and you have to address those different types and how you plan to scale them,” he explains. “Everyone needs to deliver a simple, easy-to-use decision support tool if that’s what they say they are going to do. People are making promises to everyone that applied to one person.
Precision ag: indoor growers aren’t convinced
A whopping 55% of vegetable operations are grown indoors, according to the 2019 State of the Vegetable Industry. But over half of those operators have refrained from using precision agriculture tools because they believe that their operations are too small to reap a benefit, while roughly one-quarter aren’t convinced of the return on investment. Another quarter thinks the price tag is too steep, while 20% don’t think they need precision ag tools.
For Greenberg, overcoming farmers’ skepticism of precision ag has been a matter of building a bridge between farmers and technologists.
“You have to have people on your team from the tech industry and from the agriculture industry. A good CEO needs to translate between the two and too often you see people with just one side of the coin at the table and it leads to a scenario that doesn’t give enough credence, listening, and observation to the other side,” he says.
Tech + agriculture + startup
Greenberg isn’t just walking the walk on this point, he’s talking the talk. He grew up as the son of a botanist, worked for Amazon between 2011 and 2013, and also co-founded a clean water startup that uses light to remove contaminants in water, Pure Blue Technologies. The outfit even won the University of Washington’s 2013 Business Plan competition.
Farmer skepticism over agtech’s value proposition is even more difficult to overcome in light of many farmers’ resistance to widespread change. Collecting information using a clipboard and manually entering into a computer has been a standard industry practice for many years, making it an ingrained habit for many. Forking over a clipboard and letting rail-mounted cameras do the work, may feel like a loss of control or involvement for some. For others, it’s a blessing.
“We asked one of our customers to tell us the greatest thing he experienced during the first three months of using iUNU and he said that he got to take a vacation with his kids to Disneyland during the busy season because he could still keep tabs on what was happening in the greenhouse with our system,” shares Greenberg.
On top of winning over farmers, iUNU also had to overcome some serious mechanical challenges when designing its camera system. Greenhouses provide plants with optimum growing conditions, but the heat and humidity wreak havoc on hardware systems.
“In the first three years, we had an unbelievable amount of iterations because it is the worst environment for a robot. The humidity wanst to get inside the robot and the temperature wants to make it overheat. Now, I see it as a competitive advantage because we have learned so much and we iterated so many times.”
For now, iUNU is focused on selling its product to the North American greenhouse market through its West Coast offices and its subsidiary in Canada.
“We are also looking for good partners who already have a large presence of some sort.”