The Netherlands is one of the smallest, most densely populated, and most urbanized countries on Earth. And yet, despite its dearth of arable land, it is the planet’s second-largest exporter of agricultural produce by value – behind only the US.
The Dutch have been able to do this thanks to their early adoption of commercial-scale greenhouses in the 19th century – as well as their continued openness to new forms of farm mechanization and agtech innovation. Today, blessed with well over a hundred years of indoor growing knowhow, they’ve become experts in controlled environment agriculture (CEA); and as climate change makes the task of feeding the world’s growing population ever trickier, sharing that knowhow as far and as wide as possible could be a gamechanger.
That’s the idea behind CEA platform Source Ag, which is aiming to turn this human expertise into AI that can be easily deployed by indoor growing operations the world over.
“The Netherlands is deeply experienced in greenhouse ag, which is a proven answer to climate-resilient production of fresh fruits and vegetables,” said the Amsterdam-based startup’s co-founder and CEO Rien Kamman. “It uses significantly less land, gives around 15-times higher yield, uses 20-times less water, there’s no run-off [from agrochemical products], plus it’s resistant to heatwaves and other extreme weather events,” he told AFN.
While Kamman calls it “the gift the Netherlands can give the world,” he acknowledges that it isn’t possible to “just copy-paste solutions” from the country and expect them to work elsewhere.
“This has been the core of our philosophy in developing our AI from beginning,” he said. “It’s all about how transferable we can make our algorithms” – both to other geographies, and to other CEA formats like vertical farms.
“What we see is demand for this form of agriculture is growing globally, but growth is hindered because you rely on human growers to do it. We’re trying to solve this bottleneck by capturing decades of knowledge into our systems and thereby enabling more growers to grow more food for more people in a way that’s better for our environment.”
$10 million seed round
Co-founded by Kamman and chief technology officer Ernst van Bruggen in November 2020, Source Ag recently closed $10 million in seed funding to advance its glass-plated, AI-powered vision of future food production.
The trio is among the first customers to have used Source Ag’s subscription-based solution. In a statement, Agro Care CEO Kees van Veen said that the startup’s AI “provides unprecedented insights and instantly shows us crucial information that can make or break a season,” allowing the grower to “optimize for key factors that can help us get to more consistent results at scale.”
Kamman describes these clients as some of the “most advanced growers in the world” in terms of the complexity of their operations.
“They are truly superheroes in what they do,” he told AFN. “Typically they have to work around 60 to 70 parameters every day: how many leaves do I leave on the stem, which trusses do I trim, and so on – and these amazing growers have been able to do this based on experience and handing this knowledge down over decades.”
Kamman likened Source Ag’s app to a satnav for greenhouse growers.
“If you’re driving from A to B nowadays, you use Google Maps, to find out what’s the quickest route, to avoid where the traffic bottlenecks are,” he said.
“What we’re building is the same for these growers – it’s decision support. How will the weather pan out, what will prices be: you cannot have a set strategy for these parameters. You need a system that dynamically helps growers in having the right cultivation strategy based on changing factors.”
Source Ag’s AI learns from the reams of data generated by the Netherlands’ longstanding greenhouse industry; nowadays, lots of that data comes from cutting-edge sensors and cameras – but much of it is from more archaic sources, too.
“I think our big insight was that there’s actually a lot of data already being generated in a typical greenhouse, whether that’s from climate control equipment, or resource pricing records – there’s a lot of inputs available,” Kamman said.
“The data itself is just a starting point; we see ourselves more as a layer of intelligence that’s wrapped around the greenhouse.”
Democratizing indoor ag
Source Ag will use the seed capital it has just raised to make hires and grow its 30-strong team, with a view to accelerating expansion at home and in overseas markets.
“Our vision to democratize access to fresh fruit and vegetables globally – not just to help more mature markets like the EU or the US to grow more indoor produce, but also to drive the transition to more climate-resilient food systems in other regions of the world,” Kamman said.
Explaining his firm’s lead role in the seed round, Acre managing partner Lucas Mann said that “greenhouse agriculture is a proven and viable solution, but without innovation, demand will be impossible to meet.”
“Climate change is driving substantial scarcity and strains in our global food supply. As this accelerates in the coming years, we must find ways to scale efficient growing solutions that lighten the footprint of agriculture,” he said in a statement.