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Tennessee's AgLaunch brings new tech startups to industry

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Small tractors that can be driven from a laptop, by an operator sitting at a desk, and robots that creep around a field under the plant canopy gathering data on crop health – these are the products of agriculture’s future, according to AgLaunch.

The agriculture accelerator initiative developed as a partnership between Memphis Bioworks Foundation and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture recently accepted three new agricultural technology startup companies into the first phase of its program. AgLaunch is designed to provide ag startup companies the business and financial tools they need to develop their company and integrate it into the agriculture industry.

All three teams accepted bring a technological solution to a problem that the industry faces, a fact that Pete Nelson, president and executive director of AgLaunch, said is intentional for his program.

“Our strategy is, how do we help farmers where they currently are be more efficient and open up new markets, how do we help them diversify utilizing existing equipment and existing infrastructure, but do some new creative things to add value and, ultimately, how do we help them diversify and rethink how their farming system works?” Nelson said.

“Robotics is a great tool along that continuum.”

For EarthSense, an Illinois-based startup company that has developed an ultra-compact, autonomous robot that travels under the plant canopy gathering data, AgLaunch is serving as a tool to help the group expand into different markets.

“We are starting with seed companies and crop scientists, but eventually we want to make the ultra-compact robot or a team of ultra-compact robots as a useful product for farmers to use in large-scale production agriculture,” said Chinmay Soman, EarthSense co-founder and CEO.

“Pete and AgLaunch are going to help us connect more with farmers and learn what kind of problems they are facing currently that they cannot solve with conventional techniques, and then we’ll improve our product to help farmers.”

Rabbit Tractors, another member of the class, is also looking to pilot its product with AgLaunch’s extensive farmer network in 2018. The company has developed smaller tractors that will allow producers to operate multiple units throughout the growing season, completely autonomously.

“The way that we see the world evolving is that autonomous tractors are going to come out in the future, and the real benefit for Midwest and Delta Region farmers isn’t really the autonomy as much as it is in the ability to run multiple tractors at once,” said company founder Zack James. “We still have an operator, but our operator is at a laptop basically watching multiple units at once driving themselves.”

He believes his company’s smaller tractors have the potential to add value to large-scale production farms. “Smaller units deliver value in that they do a lot less damage to the soil with a lot less soil compaction, which can increase yields by 3 to 10 percent.

“Also, it’s about 30 percent more efficient running multiple smaller units than one larger one by being mobile, in that we can go right on the back of a trailer and be pulled by a regular pickup truck from place to place,” James said.

Additionally, multiple tractors allow producers to more tightly manage risk. “If you have one planter out now and it breaks down, every day it’s broken down costs you about $1,400. If you have three planters and one breaks down, your costs are only a third of that, and because the units are smaller and you have more of them, it’s a lot cheaper to carry backup parts.”

According to James, his company’s multipurpose, singular platform can do everything a grower needs pre-harvest, including plowing, planting, cultivating and spraying. He believes his smaller tractors are the key to merging other technologies that have been introduced into the industry.

“I think that with all this technology available to farmers in the past few years that most of that has been data generation plays, so drones and sensors that gather data for farmers,” he explained. “But where it’s lagging is the ability to act on that data.

“A farmer gets a picture of his field on a 4-centimeter accuracy from his drone but the problem is that his John Deere sprayer has a 60-foot boom on either side of it. So, he’s painting with a pencil and he’s spraying with a fire hose. All that data that’s being generated, you can’t unlock the actionability of it until there’s advancement in the technology that actually uses that data, and that’s what the Rabbit Tractor really is.”

Rabbit Tractors and Earth Sense join Dry Max, a Minnesota-based company that is commercializing a low-energy, low-heat radio wave process for drying grain, as the newest class of AgLaunch accelerator participants. Additional companies will be accepted into the program throughout the year, depending on needs.

Nelson, who has seen two classes graduate thus far, is modest about the effect AgLaunch is having on the industry. He cites successes of past participants such as Skycision, a startup that developed aerial imagery and diagnostics for plant health and plant diseases.

“They are continuing to expand their impact in the vineyard industry and they are expanding to specialty crops, nuts and citrus,” he said. “They are emerging as one of the leading players there, so that’s exciting.”

Even though Nelson says the program is still iterating to determine the best way to aid startups, producers and the industry, it is committed to the task. “We’re in this for the long haul to really reinvest all of this interest in ag investment.”