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Azaneo co-founders Jason Chaffey and Liam Hescock

Why AgFunder invested in Azaneo’s low-power electric weeding tech

September 11, 2023

Editor’s Note: Azaneo recently announced a AUD $1.4 million ($893,000) pre-seed  round led by Tenacious Ventures with participation from AgFunder and IP Group. Here, we dive into why AgFunder chose to back the Australian startup’s rapid-pulse, low power electrical weeding technology.

Ask any farmer about their top challenges, and they’ll almost invariably name weeds as a major one, if not the major one.

Weeds compete with crops for space, nutrients and water in the field. They are easily spread by wind, water and humans tromping around, and they’re indiscriminate about where they invade — smallholder farms and commercial agriculture settings alike face similar unending battles when it comes to weed management.

Crop protection chemicals like glyphosate (e.g., Monsanto’s Roundup) promised to fix this when they were introduced decades ago, but they carried an environmental toll we’re only now beginning to fully understand.

And these days, some weeds have changed their internal biology to become more resistant to those chemicals, further putting crop yields at risk. 

For Liam Hescock, founder and CEO of Australian agtech startup Azaneo, this resistance to herbicide was a major motivator to start the company.

“When you go out and talk with farmers, they’ll tell you we’re starting to get species that aren’t responding to mainstream chemistry,” says Hescock, who comes from a farming background.

Spraying, too, presents its own challenges. Spray drift — the airborne movement of chemicals on or right after application — can reach neighboring fields from as far as 30 kilometers away, impacting those crops.

Azaneo co-founders Jason Chaffey and Liam Hescock. Image credit: Azaneo

A low-energy way to fight weeds  

In search of a more efficient, environmentally friendly way to control weeds, Azaneo turned to electricity. 

Hescock says Azaneo’s proprietary, electric weed technology can damage the cells of unwanted weeds using very low energy.

“We’re not the first to use electricity to control weeds, but I think the way we’re doing it has a few specific differences,” he notes. 

“We’ve seen other companies that are just pumping out thermal energy to kill weeds with either gas or through diesel generation. We want to be pretty clear that that’s not what we want to do. We want to be low energy; this enables us to scale across the agriculture value chain.”

Azaneo built its first weed-zapping unit about a year ago and initially started testing on plants in a greenhouse. Over the last several months, the company has moved out to the field, where it has, according to Hescock, “reasonable competence in certain species” of weeds.

All of this was enough to interest Tenacious Ventures, who led the company’s recent pre-seed round. AgFunder, too, believes Azaneo’s approach to weed control promising on several levels. 

“It is imperative for us to adopt sustainable, long-term solutions to the broad-scale use of synthetic chemicals in agriculture, and herbicide-free weeding is fundamental to this transition,” says AgFunder partner Michael Dean.

“Azaneo is developing very promising quick-pulse, low-power electrical weeding technology, which, coupled with the great team Liam and Jason are building, convinced us that we had to be involved.”

Image credit: Azaneo

Funding the shift from chemical herbicides

The new funding will allow Azaneo to further develop its next unit, which can be towed behind a tractor and that operates similar to a boom structure used for spraying herbicides. The unit will be ready to start testing on Azaneo’s demo site in three to four months, says Hescock. The company will also make trial units available to customers in Australia later next year.

“After knowing this was a real problem for farmers we developed a technology to solve the problem,” says Hescock. “An electric approach is very convenient and can be integrated easily into different platforms.”

“We believe that the chemical intensity [of herbicides] will reduce over time, and it has to reduce over time,” adds Jason Chaffey, Azaneo’s head of commercial operations. “Today, farmers don’t have many other options for managing this.”

He adds that while removing chemicals altogether is something of a moonshot, it will take much more than a single step. “It’s going to take some time. But what we’re doing is really moving in that direction. Farmers need to be able to manage their input costs and yield, and killing weeds is one of their most important jobs to be done.”

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