Agricultural imaging and analytics firm Taranis has raised $30 million in a Series C round co-led by Vertex Growth — an affiliate of Singapore sovereign fund Temasek — and Orion Fund, a subsidiary of Malaysian conglomerate, the Kuok Group.
New backers joining the round included affiliates of two of the world’s largest semiconductor companies — US-based Micron’s VC arm, Micron Ventures, and UMC Capital, an investment unit of Taiwanese foundry UMC.
Other first-time investors were the French private investment club La Maison, along with two Japanese giants: tech conglomerate Hitachi via its venture arm Hitachi Ventures, and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group’s VC unit.
Existing investors Vertex Ventures Israel, Viola, Finistere, and OurCrowd also took part in the round, bringing Taranis’ total raised to date to $60 million.
A dogged drone survivor
The round’s large Covid-19 closure further cements Taranis’ reputation as a dogged drone survivor in an area of agtech that has been under plenty of scrutiny in recent years. According to AgFunder research, aerial observation tech via agri-drones reached its funding peak five years ago, when investors committed $326 million to startups promising skies filled with super-agronomist drones capable of mapping or spraying fields with unprecedented efficiency and precision.
But the years since then have seen a litany of problems around high price points, tough regulations, technical glitches, and disillusioned, wary farmers. In many cases, these obstacles sent the hyped-up visions of 2015 into a tailspin long before the global Covid-19 outbreak forced investors to reassess expectations across all sectors.
While that has mostly spelled pullbacks or pauses for investors across the board, the new normal of Covid-19 is bringing hints of revived interest in agri-drones. They are, after all, suitable for strict social distancing in the workplace; and they can enhance supply chain traceability amid major disruptions in the movement of global goods.
Nevertheless, Vertex Growth managing director Hock Chuan Tam was reluctant to declare drones back in vogue, describing how his investment team was “looking less at Taranis in terms of drone technologies.”
“Yes, they have something there – but ultimately what Taranis is about is capturing good data. How the picture is captured is secondary,” he told AFN.
As a longstanding startup now reaching a solid growth stage, he noted, Taranis had “a head start” with “a very powerful and accurate algorithm.”
That said, other early agri-drone fundraising survivors can, like Taranis, claim to have made a head start on their own pathways to scalability. PrecisionHawk has a $75 million Series D under its belt to build AI-powered aerial data analytics, and DroneDeploy raised a $35 million Series D backed by Bessemer VP — albeit to expand into new industries — according to AgFunder’s 2019 investment report.
Centralized approaches like these aren’t the only way to go, with newer entrants like Israel’s AgroScout opting to take on the older startups with what its founder Simcha Shore describes as the “uberization” of aerial data capture.
Taranis’ core service to farmers centers around pest control. Its AI2 SmartScout Solutions leverages a database of more than 1 million threat species to create prescription plans that customize treatments. With its combined images from drones and planes that can cover 100 acres in six minutes, the company says it’s now capable of capturing 0.3 millimeter pixel resolution images of fields.
This technology allows Taranis to generate precise, leaf-level diagnosis 20 times faster than the manual alternative of a human scout walking a section of a field, and with 20 times more data points. These findings are cross-referenced with a constant stream of supporting imagery from satellite constellations when the drones are docked or deployed elsewhere.
Farmers can decide whether they want to operate their own machinery, or leave it to Taranis contractors. So far, though, 80% of clients opt for the latter, avoiding the day-to-day hassle of flying drones to and fro in remote locations with connectivity bottlenecks. On the to do list, Taranis wants to identify new pests or weed varieties for a widening range of crops, while cranking up its percentage accuracy on those it already has pinned down. This is where much of the funding will go, along with geographic expansion across the Americas.
Taranis’ Asian investors have also been working to open doors to new clients in the Asia-Pacific region, CEO Ofir Schlam told AFN. For now, that involves potential inroads with Asian growers of soy, wheat, and sugar. A dominant staple like rice will come later down the road, Schlam explained, as it is often more complicated for imagery solutions — particularly satellites — due to reflections off of the water in paddies. Besides, the smaller size of farms with this crop, in general, makes the promise of speed and scale less meaningful or affordable for rice farmers.
Work to do
Ominously, Taranis is named after the Celtic god of thunder. To keep its new investors thunderstruck with awe rather than anger, the team still has work to do on affordability, diagnostic accuracy, and comprehensiveness. In the months to come, the need to offer more options for farmers to act on the data will become crucial, and the same goes for linking this with any machinery a farmer wishes to use. Schlam does not see his company heading into the world of spraying on its own; that is a piece of the puzzle for other companies. Instead, the likelihood is it will work to integrate its data findings with partners like those it already has with retail, ag equipment, and crop protection companies like John Deere, Syngenta, Nutrien, Climate Corp, and BASF.
Programs in the pipeline “will completely change the reactive risk mitigation model of today, to an outcome-based approach informed by predictive threat thresholds and yield expectations,” Schlam said.
Potential competitors to Taranis include the UK’s Hummingbird Tech and Sentera out of the US, both of which use drones as well as other aerial imagery and data capture tools to provide farmers with actionable insights. [Disclosure: Sentera is an AgFunder portfolio company.]