INNOVATOR SPOTLIGHT: ARABLE LABS – REAL-TIME MONITORING AND PREDICTIVE ANALYSIS FOR ‘DECISION AGRICULTURE’

October 10, 2018 | By Leanna Sweha

Arable Labs provides agricultural enterprises with real-time, continuous monitoring and predictive analytics of crop growth, harvest timing, yield, and quality using its in-field sensor platform.

Headquartered in Princeton, NJ, the firm has its origins in California. Co-founder and Chief Scientist Dr. Adam Wolf has a Master’s in Agronomy from UC Davis and a PhD in Biology from Stanford University.   

Arable was a winner in the 2017 THRIVE AgTech Accelerator program.  That same year, the company closed a $4.25 million Series A funding led by Middleland Capital and S2G Ventures.

We spoke with Adam Wolf to find out what’s new in Arable’s fascinating startup story.

 

Tell us briefly about your MarkTM sensor.

The Mark is an all-in-one weather and crop monitoring sensor that transmits data in real time to our cloud based analytics platform and gives growers real-time, actionable information.

It has a seven-band spectrometer, 4-way net radiometer, and acoustic rain gauge. It is also solar-powered so it doesn’t need to be plugged in or require frequent battery changes, and has its own cellular modem, so it doesn’t need a separate base station.

The Mark measures hourly surface wetness readings for insight into disease; hourly surface, sky, and dew temperature readings plus daily chlorophyll index to monitor plant stress. It also measures hourly radiation and daily NDVI & MSAVI reports to track photosynthesis and growth.

Can you tell us about the underlying IP?

The biggest patented feature is the acoustic disdrometer or acoustic rain gauge. People were so ready for the old rain gauges to go away, and we came up with a “better mousetrap” so to speak.

The patent is extremely broad – basically, if you put a microphone in a box to measure rain and try to sell that, you are infringing our patent.

How many units are in use and what are some examples of the specific value it gives to growers?

There are around one-thousand devices operating today, more in North America than elsewhere, although most of our customers are overseas.  Right now, we are in strawberry, wine grape, coffee, cacao, spices, corn, wheat, soy, and many other crops.

Basically, one Mark covers a field of 40-160 acres, in which you typically have a uniform crop variety and management. Growers are trying to understand how variations in microclimates and varieties impact outcomes among their fields to maximize yield and quality.  They want to know why one section of a field is disease-prone, etc. Our platform encapsulates this data and allows growers to learn about their fields in real-time.

For example, losses in the fresh produce supply chain exceed 50 percent, and most of this comes from not knowing basic things like when a crop is ready to harvest, its quality indicators, risk factors, and the like. We can provide this data.

Growers have a lot of information to handle and we can help them avoid black swan events that can cause huge losses.

Who are your California customers?

We have many customers in California, but I’d love to highlight two: – Driscoll’s and Treasury Wine Estates. Both companies were our research and development partners on our Phase 2 SBIR grant. They are great partners who still do a lot of R&D with us.

Each has a distinct business model. But, both share traits you find all around the state – that is, the daily relationship between what’s going on in the field and what’s going on in the office, including the information that gets lost in between those locations. We need to be able to serve both the field and the office.

Physically, the fields are dispersed, while the office is centralized. There are also cultural differences. You’re more likely to find a Cal Poly as Director of Farming and a UC grad doing applied research. The folks in the field are getting constantly bombed with information which must be acted on immediately, while the office’s time horizon is a lot longer and involves planning and continuous improvement.

What is your strategy to increase your California customer base?

We’ve learned it’s important to keep in mind just how heterogenous the customer base is in California. I can pitch to a strawberry grower who will buy ten units on the spot, while a lettuce grower won’t commit – even though both crops are equally perishable. Why is this? Because lettuce is grown on annual contract, while strawberry is sold on a spot market.  So, you can see that it’s really important to understand the business model for different commodities.

Another example is almonds, which is a high value specialty crop where we find the most traction.  But since growers have little to no price leverage owing to the large volume of stored almonds, there isn’t a great urgency around yield forecasting.

Your device operates on cellular networks. Have you encountered any issues with limited cellular service in rural California?

We haven’t had any real problems using cellular in California so far.  But we realize connectivity is the number one issue determining a seamless customer experience.  Weak or dropped signals are not our fault, but our customers experience that through the use of our product. With that in mind, we are going in the direction of LTE-M band, which uses the existing cellular network but can transmit at a greater distance.

We are not going in the direction of LoRA because, as a technologist, I want to find one way to serve the globe. That one way is cellular with satellite backup.  With LoRA, you need a base station, which raises costs. Our device is actually its own base station at a fraction of the cost.

I am pessimistic about mesh networks – they put the burden on the grower to set up a base station and a bunch of daughter devices that talk to it.  Instead, let’s accept the growing global system of cellular communications as our network, with devices that talk directly to the main trunk.

The Mark is easy to install – you don’t need training for installation or maintenance. That’s a central bottleneck for devices running on LoRA, because you need to train people or have a network of trained people on installation and the maintenance protocols, which is an additional cost. Those costs fall on the company and make growth difficult.  

You’ve documented the story of Arable in a series of interesting blog posts on your firm’s website. What was your motivation?

Interesting question, it’s the first time I’ve been asked that. I’m somebody who likes to understand how things work. I went to UC Davis in 1992 to study brewing. In high school I was buying grain and hops and making beer. At UC Davis, I realized that brewing is just a part of a long process that includes breeding and growing barley. That’s when I fell in love with agronomy.

When I quit professional science to start Arable, it was a whole new world, learning about building a business, finding customers, presenting to investors, etc. It’s incredibly fascinating.

I no longer wrote scientific papers, so I started to blog. I found myself writing in two categories – explaining the science behind what we are doing, and explaining the process of building Arable.

Your new CEO, Jim Ethington, was formerly at The Climate Corporation. What are the synergies with his move to Arable?

Jim was the tenth employee at Climate Corp, which had the single largest exit in our industry and he built the single most widely used product in our industry, which is now on over 50 million acres.

Here’s the interesting backstory: Before I started Arable, I was giving a talk about the Mark prototype in a lab at Stanford. A student raised his hand and said his former boss would buy 10,000 of these devices.  It took me four years to learn that the former boss was Jim!

Here I am a postdoc talking about research, and the idea that someone would buy this thing I built was the first inkling I had of a commercial endeavor. As researchers, we knew that there was a thirst for granular, hi-fidelity data to feed the development of agronomic models. And then someone says there’s a commercial market for that, someone who was at Climate Corp, a successful company actually doing this kind of work. That was a big moment for me.

Jim has not only a product mindset but brings a strong problem-solving mindset to agriculture problems. He truly understands what makes a product “sticky” because it’s useful and scalable in a way totally new in an old industry like agriculture. Jim brings a level of sophistication to Product with capital “P.”

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs about marketing and new technology adoption?

For us, one key is understanding distinction between agronomic decisions and business decisions, and this is true for any new product or service in terms of product-market fit.

In California, UC Cooperative Extension is one of the most respected voices on agronomic issues, yet UCCE agents often don’t understand how their advice fits into their clients’ business decisions. Advisors may be pushing water management tools, but growers are more worried about labor availability or regulatory compliance and don’t have the bandwidth to think about it.  This has led to myths in the perception of farmers adopting new technologies.

Take Yolo County, which moved to 100% subsurface drip irrigation practically overnight. This was not because UCCE was recommending it, rather it was because GPS technology became sufficiently accurate that they could transplant tomatoes exactly above the buried dripline. And that boosted yields a full 50%. When something provides a return, farmers will adopt it quickly.

So the big lesson for entrepreneurs is that you will end up in conversations about agronomy with potential customers, but you have to remember to put that discussion into the business context, how this will provide a return.  

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Arable Labs’ discrete knowledge of agribusiness in California has definitely helped in getting product-market fit right. We look forward to seeing them in more and more California crops.

New Innovator Spotlights will appear soon, featuring the innovators and change makers in the sustainable food and ag innovation space. If you know of someone we should be covering, please email us at hello@thevine.io

About the author: Leanna Sweha is an attorney with an agtech background and is Program Director for AgStart. She is passionate about promoting new sustainable agriculture companies.


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