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Business Report

Farm Technology Catches Investor Attention

A shift toward software and data analysis has made agriculture a more appealing sector for investors, says leading venture capitalist Brook Porter.

Silicon Valley has not generated much farming innovation, but that’s changing, and venture capitalists have taken notice. Among them: Brook Porter, a partner in Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. KPCB’s $1 billion Green Growth Fund has invested in an Israeli company called Kaiima, which is improving breeding programs without genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and a company called Farmer’s Edge, which uses satellite imagery to develop customized farming prescriptions. The firm has yet to cash out of any of its ag-tech investments, which are typically in the $15 million to $25 million range. Porter spoke with journalist Nate Berg about how technology is changing farming and why investors are suddenly interested.

Brook Porter

Are farms finally going high-tech?

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It’s not actually that new to see technology on farms. The autonomous driving being discussed today in cars has been in farming equipment for well over a decade. For big farms, if you overlap your tractor on each turn you end up wasting a lot of time and resources. So the ability to steer very precisely and automatically was pretty valuable to farmers. That enabled the broad rollout of what is now a connected hardware platform in farming. There’s so much potential to add software tools to that platform.

Which technologies will be most important to farmers?

One is remote sensing, from satellites to drones. A number of new startups—and SpaceX is driving some of this—are dramatically reducing the cost of satellite imagery while improving the quality and frequency of the images being produced. There’s a growing understanding that remote sensing can identify issues in farming, such as when a plant is deficient in nitrogen or not getting enough water, before you might see it in some visible characteristic like brown leaves. Simply informing a farmer precisely how much fertilizer to use and where to put it can boost profits by 30 percent. At the same time, that data provides valuable information about how the crop was grown, which is increasingly important to consumers.

Large companies like John Deere and Monsanto recognize that the industry is evolving, and they’re rapidly coming after this space. However, we think independent companies offering unbiased advice will be more desirable to farmers than large incumbent companies trying to sell them seed or chemicals at the same time.

What are the opportunities?

The first is in plant breeding tools. The cost of genetic sequencing has dropped dramatically in the past decade, enabling breeders to leverage a whole new area of science. The second category is big data, which is being driven by connected hardware; new data from sensors, satellite imagery, and drones; and advanced cloud-based analytics that make this data and statistical information accessible on mobile devices. The third is reducing the use of chemicals in food production. Today many growers try to use biological alternatives, but they often fail to work as effectively as chemicals. We’re starting to see better versions of these biological alternatives and more convenient techniques for farmers to deploy those biologics. We’re also seeing entirely novel approaches that could nearly eliminate the use of herbicides and pesticides.

Agriculture seems like an unconventional investment for a venture capitalist. Do you have much competition? What are the risks?

Historically, ag tech has been based on trait development through genetic modifications, which has not been a viable sector for venture capital, as it requires large investments—$100 million and up—and involves long time frames, typically five to 10 years. However, software, data, and analytics are now the disruptive forces in agriculture, which is something new to the industry and very relevant to Silicon Valley. The risks are those of any business in agriculture. There’s a limited pace for the adoption of new products, due to the growing seasons. There have been limited exits for investors: no IPOs yet in the software-­plus-agriculture sector. And generally, there’s limited investor experience in agriculture as a whole. That said, we do see many other investors now coming into this space. Competition is mainly from strategic investors today, companies that operated in the industry, but other venture investors are becoming more active.

How will technology make farming more efficient?

Today there are so many jobs in agriculture that require hard manual labor, whether it’s a guy walking around chopping weeds, a pilot dusting crops with pesticides, or breeders measuring crop performance. Much of this can be done cheaper and better by drones and robots. This is technology I have seen. Machine vision is good enough now that with the $3 camera you have in your iPhone and open-source software, robots can be trained to identify the difference between your crop and a weed and then kill the weed automatically. That reduces bulk spraying of chemicals in our food production system, improves resource efficiency, and could one day save farmers money.

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