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Sugar cane hasvest plantation aerial

The Road to Automated Agriculture Begins in Brazil

July 10, 2019

Editor’s Note: Rob Leclerc is founding partner of AgFunder and co-leads the AgFunder investment team.

Last year, we joined private equity leader TPG as an investor in Brazilian farm operations management startup Solinftec, which we called at the time “the most successful agtech company no one has ever heard of.” When we invested, Solinftec was operating on about 50% of Brazil’s sugarcane acreage, they had just started to adapt their solution to soybeans and other row crops with, and they had some early ambitions to enter the US market.

Fast forward a year, and Solinftec has earned the title of being one of the most successful agtech startups in the world. They’re expecting revenue to double this year and the company is operating on about 65% of Brazil’s sugarcane. And what started as a small pilot in soybeans, has grown to a business operating on over 5 million acres, nearly 6% of the Brazilian market. The company converts about 92% of customers from pilot to full customers, and they’ve had 0% customer churn. This kind of customer retention is something you just don’t see in the farm management space.

If you’re not familiar with Solinftec, they have a great story. A brilliant team of automation engineers started the company–these are the people who go into factories, automate the hell out of it, stamping out inefficiencies and increasing profits. Initially they started out automating sugar mills, but if the trucks with the raw ingredients show up late, then it doesn’t matter what you’re doing in the mills, and so the team started to develop hardware and software to monitor each piece of farm equipment and then orchestrate the activities of all the equipment operators, telling them where they needed to be at exactly what time. 

Basically, Solinftec treats farming as a manufacturing process, and they build solutions to automate this process as much as possible. Today there is a lot of manual work and their system acts as a central executive directing the process. For large integrated sugar operations that may have thousands of pieces of equipment, Solinftec was able to eliminate a lot of pain for their customers and quickly captured the market. If you walk into the command centers for these growers, you’d think you’re walking into a NASA mission control room.

Brazilian farms are huge and the biggest challenge for Solinftec was going to be adapting their solution to the US market where the farms are much smaller and therefore less complicated. But Solinftec had a lot of technological surface area to work with and quickly started to win over skeptical US customers. Since launching in the US in November, they’ve landed major partnerships with Land O’Lakes, Growmark, AGCO and are working with growers like Kip Tom (former AgFunder Advisor who stepped down after he was appointed this year to the US Ambassador to the UN for Food & Agriculture). They’re also running pilots with 20 individual farmers in partnership with WHIN – Wabash Heartland Innovation Network and Purdue University, to develop new and outstanding solutions for American farmers across the country.

Solinftec is mostly working with large growers today, but as farms get more complicated with IoT devices, data, and robotics, even small farms are also going to need automation intelligence. And at the point we get to self-driving tractors and equipment, Solinftec will stop directing equipment operators and start directing the equipment itself. For this reason, we think Solinftec could be the operating system for the autonomous farm.

The next phase for Solinftec is rapid global expansion, and they have now appointed a new CEO, Rodrigo lafelice dos Santos, to lead this effort. 

Rodrigo lafelice dos Santos, CEO, Solinftec

Rodrigo has more than 20 years of international experience in agribusiness, as an executive in multinationals in 50 countries on four continents, including leading roles in commercial functions, logistics, financial solutions, supply chain management, and traceability. He lived and worked in Europe for seven years and in Argentina for three years, where he was CEO of an agribusiness company and also responsible for operations in Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia. Latterly he founded AgTrace, an IBM-powered blockchain platform, in partnership with Solinftec, so he’s certainly more than qualified for the job.

Their Brazilian team is amazing, and they often compare their CTO and former CEO Britaldo Hernandez to Elon Musk. But with Solinftec’s rapid growth, they needed someone with more international experience to spend more time stateside and internationally to expand their global business.

Rodigro also knows the team well having worked with them for over two years on AgTrace. And for Britaldo, the transition makes sense and will allow him to focus on his passion, which is developing disruptive technologies.

Rodrigo is going to be the leader to take the solution to as many farmers and countries around the world as possible in the next 18-24 months, and to make sure their new AI platform, Alice, has the most advanced AI to deliver the most accurate insights to any farmer in any crops, anywhere.

Alice is Solinftec’s Artificial Intelligence platform that is helping farmers increase efficiency even further through its machine learning technology, operating from a farmer’s mobile phone, smart TV or any other appliance, through natural voice and in real-time. 

Solinftec is now focusing on Eastern Europe, where it already has trials with some of Russia and Ukraine’s largest growers, and South America. Their key crops currently are soybean, corn, cotton, wheat, sugarcane, coffee, oranges, and grapes. 

I expect Solinftec will soon become a household name among the world’s farmers and should make a great story to warrant a Harvard Business Case one day.

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