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Why the world’s largest beer company is investing in agtech

June 17, 2020

Editor’s note: Sentera is an AgFunder portfolio company, and this article was written by the AgFunder investment team. AgFunder is AFN’s parent company. 

“We’re the largest beer company in the world and the largest user of malting barley, so when you think about where investment into breeding research or the supporting tech comes from, if we’re not going to do it, who will?” 

Katie Hoard, global director of Agricultural Innovation & Sustainability at Anheuser-Busch InBev is speaking to AgFunder about the company’s recent partnership with Sentera, a drone imagery analytics company.

Taking its role as the largest malting barley consumer seriously, AB InBev works closely with barley growers across 13 countries globally to help them increase their productivity sustainably and mitigate any challenges they may face. AB InBev has a team of agronomists across the globe offering advice to its growers. The company also conducts crop breeding research to improve yields and other characteristics of the barley crop. One example of a painpoint they’re trying to solve is around lodging, which is when barley crops bend over at the stem affecting performance and making it difficult to harvest. This is something that AB InBev would like to avoid no matter how high-yield the bending variety may be.

And this is where Sentera comes in; it’s integrated with AB InBev’s SmartBarley platform for AB InBev’s agronomists and growers to gain agronomic insights and rapid-speed data analytics from aerial imagery. Powered by real-time weather data, satellite, drone, and mobile phone imagery, and field activity information, SmartBarley’s analytics and alerting tools will give AB InBev agronomists the ability to rapidly detect problems, analyze alternatives, and work with farmers to take action from acre-to-acre. This includes tailored recommendations for the application of crop inputs and water, eliminating the overapplication and overuse of resources.  

“We were looking for partners with strong technical capability that could complement what we’d already been doing, by partnering data from our farmers and research organization with Sentera’s rapid detection capabilities.”

Sentera started by helping AB InBev gather results from trials. Sentera CEO Eric Taipale says that after just one hour of flying a drone over some of their fields, the startup was able to gather thousands of data points to make their trials more accurate. The two groups then moved onto trying out Sentera’s other analytics products including weather modeling using satellite data and disease and pest movement analytics.

SmartBarley is also key to AB InBev’s goal of financially empowering its growers; by 2025, the company has pledged that 100% of the farmers it contracts with directly will be connected, skilled and financially empowered. This is all parts of its sustainability 2025 initiative, which is aimed at helping its growers achieve greater productivity with fewer inputs, thereby enabling them to optimize their land stewardship.

“The goal is to create a single SmartBarley branded experience for their growers. It is very interesting for us serving such a wide variety of customers. Some are incredibly sophisticated with 4,000 or 8,000 acres in North Dakota that have anything and everything in terms of instrumentation or field equipment and who can gather any data they want instantly,” Taipale says. “The other side of the spectrum is a grower in Uganda who might have to send imagery from a mobile device with a weak cellular connection.”

Barley is hopefully just the first step in the partnership. AB InBev currently works with 30,000 farmers across 13 countries and five continents to grow a range of ingredients for beer including corn, rice, hops, sorghum, and cassava. 

“There are all kinds of ingredients in beer,” Taipale explains. “I can’t speak for AB InBev, but I think if this really proves out the way we think it will and growers have the tools to make them able to have more productive conversations with their agronomists, AB InBev will see certainty around its supply chain as well as better insights about product quality and availability.”

This isn’t AB InBev’s first startup partnership and Sentera is in good company. In January 2019, it announced a new partnership with crop genetics startup Benson Hill Biosystems to develop improved barley varieties using Benson Hill’s computational platform Breed powered by its CropOS technology. It’s also partnered with Indigo to address sustainability in rice production. Indigo will deliver 2.2 million bushels of Indigo Rice, grown with specific environmental attributes, to the brewer.

In drones, pragmatists prevail

The rise of drones for agricultural applications came with many promises, but in the early days, many were empty. Tales of the potential for swarms of drones to autonomously monitor fields and even take action at the same time such as spraying for a certain pest were appealing to both entrepreneurs and investors as revolutionary for the industry. The reality was incredibly tough and it’s taken many companies quite some time to get to a point where they add value to farmers and provide more than just a pretty picture. For others, the challenges were too many and they moved onto other less complicated industries such as mining and construction inspection work.

Sentera has made steady progress in the sector, as others have fallen by the wayside. 

“I think even though the stargazing has receded somewhat, I take a pragmatic view that drones will be able to carry more, fly longer over time and that they will be able to operate beyond the visual line of sight maybe even without human observers in the field that will on a very linear path reduce the cost of going out and gathering data via a drone. But that’s it,” Taipale explains. “We are building a sensing and machine learning technology that contemplates that future but it is really just at its heart a data gathering and insight development tool that serves one portion of an agronomist’s needs to manage an operation optimally.”

Building a full stack drone imagery and analytics platform is an extremely hard problem — one that wasn’t going to be solved in the span of a few years. This led many investors and founders to prematurely foreclose on the sector,” Rob Leclerc, AgFunder founding partner says regarding Sentera’s progress. “We see a very strong decade ahead for Sentera, which is experiencing an incredible market pull through and demonstrating that it can be a significant and important company powering the future of agriculture.”

“Partnering with Sentera allows us to dramatically accelerate progress toward achieving our 2025 sustainability goal to ensure 100% of our direct farmers are skilled, connected and financially empowered,” said Ezgi Barcenas, global vice president of sustainability at AB InBev. “Technology and innovation play pivotal roles in reaching our goal as well as ensuring the long-term viability of our supply chains. Sentera is a key strategic partner in helping us achieve this commitment.”

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