Drone, sensor, and software company SeeTree launched today and announced the close of a $15 million Series A led by Hanaco Ventures with participation from existing investors Canann Partners Israel and Waze app founder Uri Levine. Other investors participated in the round including international multi-sector VC firm Mindset and iAngel. The funding follows a $3.2 million seed round in September 2017.
Until now, the Tel Aviv-based startup has been operating in stealth mode, honing its technology and accelerating adoption of its service with a clandestine list of growers including large-scale citrus growers in California’s orchard heartland. The new round of funding will be used to further the development of its technology for citrus orchards. Eventually, it plans to expand to other types of crops like nut varieties and to open more offices beyond its existing locations in California and Brazil.
“This was a very big round considering the timeframe. It’s very rare to raise a multi-million dollar seed round and shortly after to raise a substantial Series A. Part of that is related to the strength of the people in the ground and the diversity of unique experience that we have,” co-founder and chairman Barak Hachamov told AgFunderNews. Hachamov is a serial entrepreneur with multi-industry startup experience. The second co-founder and CTO, Guy Morgenstern, brings over 18 years of R&D management experience.
The third co-founder, Israel Talpaz, is a former ranking military intelligence officer who decided to take his 33-years worth of experience in running international information-gathering campaigns and apply it to permanent crop cultivation. His father is Professor Hovav Talpaz a farmer, researcher, and pioneer in the agtech space, in the US at Texas A&M University and in Israel at the Volcani Research Institute. Turning to agriculture for his civilian career was a natural segue.
SeeTree’s end-to-end service aims to provide growers with intelligence on individual trees and tree clusters from the air, ground, and underground. Data extraction is performed using high-resolution, multi-dimensional sensing imagery obtained from drones, paired with ground sensors and rangers with boots-on-the-ground who collect samples for further analysis. Farmers are not required to perform any data collection or analysis as part of the service.
“The basic subscription package that we offer is a health package that creates an identity for each tree. We start from the air using a lot of AI to find the prime suspect or the main problems on a tree-by-tree level. Then we go down to find the root cause of the issue. There’s a different score or medical record for every single tree,” Hachamov said. “The uniqueness of our technology is based on the premise that you cannot solve big problems with a silver bullet like a single sensor. You have to initiate a campaign of data collection that uses different techniques and levels of data acquisition to reach the highest value for the farmers. This includes sending people out to walk through the orchards and touch the trees.”
For citrus growers, predicting the amount of fruit that a crop cycle will yield is a difficult proposition, which also means the farmer isn’t quite sure how much income to anticipate at the end of the cycle. The ability to provide tree-specific information might assist growers in capturing a more accurate picture of their estimated yields and, ultimately, profits.
The company is gaining new customers based solely on word-of-mouth and relying on the close-knit community of permanent crop growers throughout California.
Can precision ag for orchards follow through on its promise?
Precision agriculture is a crowded space and growers often lament the lack of clarity they have regarding which service will yield the best improvements for their operations. On top of that, many growers report that the technologies provide mountains of data, but don’t always make it clear what they’re supposed to do with that information. Many of them must further consult an agronomist or crop scientist to make sense of the spreadsheets the tech tools churn out. Although there are far fewer precision ag solutions geared towards permanent crops, orchardists’ frustrations with the digital tools appear to be similar to Hachamov’s experience.
“Some of the farmers in California have known about precision agriculture for decades and it didn’t succeed to bring enough value or to cause a critical mass of followers. When we met with the owner of the biggest permanent crop company in the world, he told us quite straight that precision ag is a promise that did not deliver for the last 10 years and that brought him zero value,” Hachamov explains. Our goal was to provide value to the farmers. With trees, unlike row crops, it’s completely different and much more intense to collect all of this data.”
The differences between row crops and permanent crops probably explains why fewer companies have set their sights on providing precision ag tools for things like nuts, fruits, and other high-value permanent crops. Row crops are planted, grown, and harvested within the same year or even short season. This provides a very short window for gathering data and limits the amount of history that can be aggregated about each crop that goes into the ground.
“Some of the trees have existed for 30 years. I think the reason there are fewer precision ag startups for permanent crops is that many companies fail to provide value using the same techniques they are using in an open field. Imagery is much easier for row crops and its way harder for permanent crops because the foliage of the tree creates a three-dimensional object that cannot simply be captured with a picture from above,” Hachamov explains. “There’s also potentially a lot more at stake with permanent crops where the loss of one tree takes five-to-seven years to replace due to the growth cycle.”
Florida-based AGERpoint was one of the first big data startups to target the permanent crops sector, giving it a headstart and competitive edge today. Other startups innovating solutions for citrus growers and orchardists include TerViva, which has developed a non-GMO oilseed tree that they describe as high-yielding, Aerobotics, whose smart scouting platform identifies pests and disease in tree crops, and Saturas, which claims that its sensors are the only ones embedded in tree trunks to provide direct contact with plant water issues. Last year, Israeli farm management software startup FieldIn has raised a $4m second seed round to expand its pest management platform for specialty crops.