If it seems to you advanced ag technology is invading farm fields across America, you should see Silicon Valley. Investors have poured more than $10 billion into agtech inventions since 2014, according to AgFunder, an online marketplace tracking the sector.

One thing that has become increasingly clear to many investors:  farmers are key to the process.

“We’re on the cusp of the next agricultural revolution, and this one is going to be digital as well as biological,” says Louisa Burwood-Taylor, AgFunder’s head of media and research. Just as the first relatively simple cell phones hit the market in the 1990s, touching off a race to innovation and fast adoption just a few years later, the same is happening in agtech, she says. “We’re just at the beginning.”

Of the $3.2 billion invested in 2016, the largest portion, 40%, went toward developing new food-service and e-commerce technologies, such as services that deliver fresh groceries and link consumers to food production, according to AgFunder. FreshDirect is one example. The second-largest chunk of investment, 22%, went toward coming up with new biotechnology tools, such as a new microbial seed coating for cotton. Indigo Agriculture is an example in this category. The third-largest portion of investment, at 11%, went toward farm-management software, according to AgFunder. FarmersEdge is an example in this group.

More than 300 start-up companies and investors gathered in Silicon Valley recently to showcase their inventions and look for opportunities.  Some (but not all!) of the new agtech creating buzz: 

  • FarmDog: An online tool that uses independent data to illustrate your (and your neighbors’) pest and disease management
  • Benson Hill Biosystems: A ‘computational breeding’ platform that promises to breed new seed traits in half the time it typically takes
  • Blue River Technology: Which has a robotic sprayer that recognizes and reacts to the needs of individual plants 

One prominent theme of the conference was farmers. While Silicon Valley has plenty of data scientists, these start-ups are often short on real farmers to ground-truth the new technologies, says Kirk Haney, CEO of a new agtech acceleration fund called Radicle, whose major backers include Bayer CropScienceDuPont Pioneer and the agtech venture fund Finistere. That can be an obstacle when investors are accustomed to high-tech inventions going from drawing board to customer hands – and profitable mass adoption -- in a year or less, he says.

“Investors have two enemies: time and money,” Haney says. “But once you involve venture capital, your enemy is time.”

 

Farmers interested in serving on user groups or otherwise volunteering to test new technologies – or who want to show off their own inventions -- can visit Radicle’s website at http://radicle.vc and click on Contact. After all, says Haney, “You have to have dirt under your fingernails to know farming.”