Regulators across the world are gradually pushing back against the overuse of chemicals on crops. Just last week, for instance, the European Commission set out proposals to reduce pesticide use in the EU by 50% by the end of the decade.
But as strong a push as that may seem, farmers need not panic: these proposed reductions are minimal when set against what technology could be able to achieve by then.
Take the Israeli startup Greeneye Technology as an example; the young company is developing an AI platform to help farmers detect and spray weeds in real-time. Greeneye combines camera sensors and AI to precisely spray weeds, and only weeds, a major departure from the current broadcast spraying method. Trials already indicate how a precision method like Greeneye’s can reduce a farmer’s herbicide usage by 65‒92%, according to Greeneye.
These spray trials have wafted their way toward some high profile investors; Greeneye co-founder and CEO Nadav Bocher has disclosed to AFN that his company has raised a seed funding round of $7 million led by Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP).
“Governments, farmers and the general public are striving for a reality in which agriculture protects the environment,” anticipates JVP founder and chairman Erel Margalit, in a statement sent to AFN. “In just a few short years, farmers worldwide will be implementing Greeneye’s revolutionary technology in everyday use.”
The round notably also sees participation from the agri-chemicals giant Syngenta via its venture arm. Swiss-headquartered Syngenta, now owned by ChemChina, has traditionally built its business model on the opposite of agri-chemicals reduction. (Bluntly put, it was about the more chemicals sold, the merrier.) In this respect, the rise of herbicide reduction technology seems like it stands to cannibalize this line of business. But according to Shubhang Shankar, managing director of Syngenta Ventures, that is one possible reason why investments like these actually make strategic sense. In this way, Syngenta takes part in any disruptive changes rather than gets disrupted.
Syngenta’s taking part to avoid disruption
“It’s one more arrow in the quiver,” he said by phone from Switzerland, explaining how Syngenta’s Greeneye stake sits among a wider portfolio of early-stage investments that envision more sustainable paths to bio-control for crops. Getting involved in new approaches like those of Greeneye help Syngenta get a taste for exploring or even adopting new business models like spray-as-a-service or subscription. The firm is not wedded to chemicals for the sake of it, noted Shankar. “We don’t see ourselves as a chemicals company,” he said. “We see ourselves as a weed control company.”
Shankar will join the Greeneye board alongside JVP Partner Michal Drayman, who calls Greeneye’s technology “unique.” Drayman reckons this sort of technology will increase the yield for agricultural crops, save money, and reduce pollution levels. “This is the future agricultural model,” he claims. “We believe that the growing demand for environmental protection, along with regulatory requirements, are generating a significant market for Greeneye, including from the global players who lead the agriculture industry.”
Other major investors in the round who have also bought into this future agricultural model include 2B Angels, One Way Ventures, Panache Ventures, Techstars, and Hyperplane Venture Capital.
Yet it is also a future model that has been touted before. Founded in 2017, Greeneye’s pitch has echoes of the Californian agrobotics startup Blue River Technology, which was sold to John Deere that same year for $305 million. (AFN revealed at the time that the company’s sale price was roughly four times greater than the $87 million post-money valuation the company fetched at its last round of funding.)
Three years on from that vast Blue River purchase, however, and John Deere is still meandering its “See and Spray” technology to market; farmers worldwide still spray their fields uniformly using a chemical-intensive treatment, without distinguishing between the crop, the bare soil, and weeds.
Costly unit economics and hazy computer vision are likely suspects; the technology needs to work at a reasonable speed, detect subtly distinct species of weeds early enough, fast enough, reliably enough, or, at times, in different soils or lighting. See and Spray’s high-resolution cameras capture 20 images per second, not quite fast enough to allow tractors to go at the speeds farmers want, for instance.
By the start of this year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, John Deere was showing off its latest version of See and Spray, a successor to the model first pioneered by Blue River in 2016. Even then, a company engineer conceded that it was still not commercially available. Still, farm robotics technology using computer vision that can see, diagnose, and execute actions fast enough not to slow down other farming operations is not far off. But even when it is, adoption, as is often the case with agtech, will come down to the business model deployed. Here Greeneye offers a key differentiator with Blue River; it is not building and selling new equipment; its selective spraying (SSP) system technology will be retrofitted to existing sprayers, or manufactured in collaboration with sprayer manufacturers. Other weeding robot prototypes wheeled into the International Federation of Agricultural Robotics in Toulouse last December have also opted for this approach instead of manufacturing entire standalone products.
“The point of stacked up technology challenges is the key,” said Syngenta’s Shankar: “designing a machine as well as a smart recognition system simply takes longer.”
Sprayer turned scout
Besides any savings that Greeneye’s precision spraying technology offers to farmers regarding fewer chemicals used, there are also plans for it to map entire fields with cameras at a plant level resolution, offering a scouting solution.
Bocher noted how differentiation here lay in his company’s tailored dataset and algorithms that can detect weeds in crops (green on green) and can even classify weeds down to the species level. “This is crucial to fight herbicide-resistant weeds,” he said, “and inject the most appropriate herbicides.”
But a final rogue thought to disperse into the mix here would be whether the future ends up with Greeneye spraying herbicides at all in the long run, or if it might go the way of a company like Rootwave — replacing herbicides with searing zaps of electricity. That would be a shocking disruption!
Any shocking thoughts on the future of herbicides? Let us know by dropping a note over to firstname.lastname@example.org