The technology developed by PowWow in collaboration with the University of California was deployed at an almond orchard near Davis part of a 6,000 acre deployment in 2018. Names from left to right: Stanley Knutson, Director of Software Development at PowWow, Ricardo Neto, Director of Farming at Vann Family Orchards, Jose Baer, Agronomist and Senior Project Mgr. at PowWow, Cameron Boomgaarden, Water & Technology Mgr. at Vann Family Orchards, Olivier Jerphagnon, Chief Executive Officer at PowWow, Blake Vann, Chief Operating Officer at Vann Family Orchards.
The founder of PowWow explains how forging technical collaborations across the UC system and business connections with farms helped this award-winning start-up impact agriculture. We sat down with Olivier Jerphagnon, Founder and CEO of PowWow, to talk about his experience starting a company at the nexus of food, energy, and water. He explained that forging collaborations and connections between the public and private sector was critical. PowWow provides a water management platform for farms to balance water demand and supply, reduce energy costs, and improve crop yield with data-driven insights. The platform is deployed on more than 100,000 acres in California including an almond orchard near Davis managed by Vann Family Orchards.
Olivier logged over 2000,000 miles on his car since he started PowWow in 2013. When asked why he has to travel so much, he simply explains “that’s ag.” He later expands on this, noting how important it is to build direct connections with people actually working in agriculture. He believes that The VINE initiative at the UC Agricultural and Natural Resources (UC ANR) will make it easier for the next generation of entrepreneurs in Food and Agriculture. There was little support in agriculture technology back when he started the company. He simply started with a few farms and ranches he knew near Sacramento and Santa Barbara. The term “AgTech” did not exist then. By the time Monsanto acquired Climate Corporation and venture capitalists started to talk about AgTech, PowWow had won the Cleantech Open and a working app.
The VINE Team: When did you get into agriculture? You live in the Bay Area and you have a degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from UC Santa Barbara.
Jerphagnon: I started looking at energy data for the agricultural sector in 2013. At the time I had finished my second company in Australia and was looking for a problem to solve in California. The first start-up I got involved with was spun out of UC Santa Barbara in the late nineties. It was focused on large-scale fiber optic switching and I used statistical process control to improve manufacturing yield. The second start-up came out of Melbourne University in the late 2000s. I learned about Machine Learning and I focused on improving telecommunication infrastructure. This was during the big Australian drought. So in 2013, I knew water in California was going to be important. But it is difficult to innovate in water sector because of regulations. So I looked at the two biggest users in North America: agriculture is second with 32% and energy sector is first with 49%.
So I went back to UCSB as an Entrepreneur in Residence at the Institute for Energy Efficiency. We started to look at how people respond to energy and water information on campus and also some farms we interviewed.
We shared the study utilities and the California Public Utility Commission. It showed that people in general, and growers specifically, are willing to adjust their behavior if the information that they are given is aligned with their daily activities, like protecting the pumping infrastructure or improving crop yield. More often than not, what they had was raw data to interpret on their own.
What growers really want are answers, not just data. That’s our mission. We try to make the life on a farm easier, not harder. We use machine learning to solve practical problems in agriculture.. Our goal ultimately is to improve the profit margins as in any business but also help them pass on a sustainable farm to the next generation. We do that by crunching all kinds of data to improve yield and save water or other inputs. But you have to start with saving them time. Working on a farm emans long hours, and there is always something to fix.
The VINE Team: So you took what you learned from your background and your career to build an AgTech startup?
Jerphagnon: Yes.I grew in a farming community in France in the eighties. So when I was looking at analyzing energy data in the course of the accelerator ‘Cleantech Open’ in 2013, a few investors and advisors challenged me to focus on agriculture. One friend in SIlicon Valley who had experience running a small family farm worked with me on the first prototype. I keep a picture of the first investment check that we got when we won the California stage. It was just $10,000 but it helped build the first website.
The VINE Team: And you won at that national stage out of 200 companies that entered the competition. The grand prize was of $200,000. Were you incorporated by that time?
Jerphagnon: Yes, PowWow was incorporated early 2013 with our first patent applications. But we closed our seed round after the competition. I think one reason why we won the competition was that we had clear validation with three customer pilots and a working app available on a utility website.
PowWow was among the first companies to leverage a Department of Energy data standard called ‘Green Button’ released in 2012. We were the first company in agriculture to use the standard, which allows utility customers to grant us access us to their smart meter data on the utility website. Two other co-founders joined the company in 2014. We applied for 3 patents with the USPTO, which have been granted in 2017 and 2018 for managing water from smart meters and aerial images. It takes time to build the right foundations of a company.
The VINE Team: How were you able to leverage the data standard to make things easier for the customers?
Jerphagnon: Unlike other companies that start by installing sensors and telemetry stations at the time, we leveraged a device already connected to the pumps. The same ‘SmartMeter’ used for our homes is also used for automated energy billing for pumping. SmartMeter data was becoming easily available via the Green Button standard. I knew Ag and I was part of a group of data scientists in energy sector. Innovation is a lot about taking things that you know and applying to new situations with a novel technique. I connected the dots and it made pump monitoring a 5-minute process online as opposed to a 5-week project with a local hardware dealer.
The VINE Team: So that worked out very well for you?
Jerphagnon: Yes, I was there at the right time. We expanded the concept to let a farm load data it already has and look at aerial images to set a baseline, so it is clear what improvements need to be made to increase yield or save water. Taking the time to build the right tool meant some sacrifices. I did not have a full-time job. I started a company with a couple of patent applications and a few customer interests. It took me a year to raise the funds. Taking calculated risks to solve a business problem is what makes the difference between an engineer, which I am, and an entrepreneur, which I became over time by working with more experienced people in my previous two start-ups.
The VINE Team: Can you tell us more about how you developed your first app? That is of interest among our readers who Want to start a company.
Jerphagnon: I worked with a friend on applying machine learning (a combination of statistical analysis and pattern recognition) to detect anomalies in electricity usage, and we proved at a ranch that we could recognize when a pump was not working properly. I still remember when I got the first email response from a ranch. It was fun. That was the invention that got the company started. It was more about the simplicity of the solution (getting an answer to someone who was not interested to look at the data) than the technical implementation (using advanced algorithms to detect patterns in electricity data).
The website itself for the PumpMonitor™ application was developed with students during a Capstone project in Computer Science that I sponsored at UCSB. We had access to more meters on campus and it was a controlled environment to analyze behavior. Later, we also sponsored a Capstone project in Ag Business at UC Davis. We learned how to introduce technology tools to farms and added a few more features that farms needed to adopt the application. I love involving our next generation of leaders in the process of entrepreneurship.
The VINE Team: To use a technical term in Silicon Valley terms, it’s essentially an API that the energy sector to unlock data. It allowed you to innovate in an adjacent water sector…
Jerphagnon: Yes. It was actually in California that the first openstack to share energy data was developed. The XML format came later from the White House CTO Office after the success of the Blue Button standard in Healthcare. The utilities developed an open platform based on a standard that’s the same across homes and farms. It makes is cheaper and it includes strong privacy protections. But the innovation comes from the private sector: a person willing to take risks and take the time to solve a problem in a market that is underserved. There has to a reward for that and a venture a good vehicle for that. It is also important that companies give back as they grow. For instance, PowWow helped organize the first hackathon for agriculture in Coalinga in 2015. We made some lifelong friends that we still work with today.
The VINE Team: How has innovation changed since you started your career?
Jerphagnon: Everybody is learning. On one end it is harder to raise money because investors ask for more customer validation. On the other end it is cheaper to start a company. There are also more co-working spaces and accelerator programs today than 20 years ago. The UC system is growing too by integrating alumni within the activities on campus to accelerate technology transfer. I was one of the co-founder of the Technology Management Program at UC Santa Barbara, and I go back there frequently. It is great to see new leaders emerging. For instance, Apeel Sciences came out of the business plan competition organized every year by TMP at UCSB. It took a few years for the founder to graduate and get the company founded. But he did it with the support of local investors and professors. Apeel recently raised $70M to reduce food waste with their technology, and that is a lot of new jobs in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties that are old agricultural areas that have been transformed by technology. Innovators breed other innovators.
The VINE Team: How did you get to know the Water Energy Technology (WET) Center at Fresno State?
Jerphagnon: Helle Petersen, who is General Manager of the WET Center, was at the Cleantech Open award ceremony when PowWow won. She simply invited me to visit. So I drove there and that was the beginning of a long story. That’s where our second office is and we’ve been working very closely with them.
The VINE Team: Since you had a background in technology and you were also spending time in Central Valley, were you able to make these connections more easily?
Jerphagnon: I guess so but things take time. It takes experience but it also takes hard work. For instance, I met people from UC Davis in Fresno and we took the time to follow-up and visit the team of Dr. Tom Tomich at UC Davis. He is the Director of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute. That is when we started to work with UC ANR. There was no VINE network back then. We developed a grant to the California Energy Commission (CEC) after visiting Russell Ranch operated by UC Davis. The proposal was done collaboration with UC Davis and UCSB. The project was ranked first by the CEC who was looking for innovation in the agricultural sector. Working with the UC and higher education system has been a good collaboration. We worked directly with half a dozen farms and extension specialists to demonstrate our platform. We continue to nurture our network of leading farms and food processors to develop new software features.
The VINE Team: How were your able to bridge the cultural differences among San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Fresno and Davis?
Jerphagnon: It is all about people and taking the time to meet them and listen to what they have to say so they can take the time to listen to what you have to say too. The drought was not even official until 2014 but people were starting to talk about the risk of another dry year. The technology side, the environmental side, and the farming side were not working together. It took three years to build bridges and build a complete irrigation optimization platform. It was the genesis of our CropMonitorTM product that we recently released. The value of our platform is proven through trials with ‘control’ and ‘treatment’ evaluated with independent scientists. Out platform consistently helps improve water use efficiency by 9% (ratio of yield divided by water applied). Good business sense and water conservation are not necessarily at odds by managing variability across a field and applying the right amount of water at the right time using proven crop models from UC ANR and machine learning to make data-driven decisions in the field. The CEC recently published the report of the project and highlighted its results in its annual report to the California Public Utility Commission.
The VINE Team: What role did UC ANR help with?
Jerphagnon: We learned a lot from the public servants working at UC ANR during our CEC project from 2015 to 2017. They have a very long-standing relationship with farmers. They understand farmers’ needs. A farmer only gets to make forty decision in his lifetime, that is in forty seasons. It’s not like a semiconductor chip where you can just do another run in six weeks.
There is a need for change though as there is a decrease in public funding across the UC system. We partnered with UC ANR on our second grant from CEC. PowWow in collaboration with West Hills College Coalinga (WHCC) and the University of California received last year $3M o build a mobile application that integrates irrigation and fertigation using automated pump and valve control. Innovation is needed to help disadvantaged communities integrate technology and create better local jobs before automation replaces vulnerable jobs. Coalinga is at the epicenter and WHCC is upgrading their precision agriculture curriculum.
Glenda Humiston is supportive and recently joined the Technical Advisory Committee of our project that run from 2018 to 2020. She was very interested in how we included interns from different educational backgrounds in our research and our trials. She is passionate of the 4H program. One message of hope is that the younger generation doesn’t have the same cultural gap that the previous generation. That is their strength.
The VINE Team: Where do you see Powwow in ten years?
Jerphagnon: My first thought is whether ten years is the right time frame. On one end, our growers think about the next 20-25 years out. On the other end, I have to make decisions on a 3-5 year horizon to remain competitive. That is where public private partnerships are important. If I take these two things into consideration, I believe impact and scale is our focus. We help manage 100,000 acres right now and we would like to be deployed over 1,000,000 acres and expand out of California. My vision in 10 years? Every grower has a mobile phone that assists in daily decision making to provide food to 10 billion people with the same resources that we have now. And there is PowWow running inside with technology co-developed with public research institutions so there are safeguards. Agriculture does not want another ‘Facebook’ to control data related to food for 2 billion people. PowWow wants to have a positive impact on farming communities and there are so many factors. It is important to collaborate.
The VINE Team: So one last question. there’s more interest now in AgTech There are more young entrepreneurs coming out of school, wanting to get into this space. What’s one piece of advice that you would give them?
Jerphagnon: Finish school and keep good contacts with a nurturing network, whether you’re from Fresno State, Cal Poly, West Hills Community College, or a UC campus. Your personal background and your educational network is your ‘community’. People will take the time to listen to your ideas and give you advice frankly. You never want to let that go.
The story of PowWow highlights the connection between the energy sector, the agriculture sector, and the technology sector. Olivier Jerphagnon led the development of the data mining platform with co-founders Jim Klingshirn and Stan Knutson who also come from a rural community: “We had to create new ways of thinking about water that traditionally divides farmers, environmentalists, and technologists living in urban area without a clear understanding how food is produced in rural farming communities”.
PowWow has an office now at the Water Energy Technology (WET) center at Fresno State, which is at the heart of Central Valley and is part of The VINE network. While these collaborations were once uncommon because of cultural and physical distance, bringing them together makes complete sense today to create a sustainable food system. PowWow has been a pioneer and has been recognized by multiple patents and awards.
Not many startups, have been able to connect these dots as well as PowWow has, although it wasn’t easy. Jerphagnon, Knutson, and Klingshirn had some advantages based on their multidisciplinary backgrounds. Their story struck a chord with us since these kinds of connections are just what The VINE hopes to foster. Innovator Spotlights features 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 email@example.com
About the authors:
Deema Tamimi is a marketing and communications leader with a deep interest in sustainable food and agriculture. Deema is currently the Head of Marketing for The VINE.