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You may not know this about Los Angeles, but our sprawling county of homes and highways was once, for a good 40 years, the top farming county in the U.S.
Of course, it’s been a long time since L.A. County could boast that title—it lost its top ranking in 1949, and hasn’t looked back since. The rows of citrus, avocado and almond trees that used to live here have since migrated to areas like the Central Valley, which now lead the way in making California the nation’s largest agricultural economy.
But that doesn’t mean that L.A. doesn’t still have something to say as far as agriculture is concerned—specifically as it relates to agricultural technology, also known as agtech. Earlier this week, L.A.-based Moleaer announced a $40 million Series C funding round led by private equity giant Apollo Global Management, which takes the startup’s total funding to $61 million. Moleaer is part of the growing ranks of agtech startups basking in what’s become a golden age for the sector: Agtech venture funding hit a record $3.2 billion in the third quarter of 2021, spurred by climate change and the pandemic’s impact on supply chain logistics.
Moleaer’s “nanobubble” technology essentially supercharges liquid with oxygen molecules, which destroys pathogens and algae blooms, leading to healthier roots and longer-living plants. The technology allows farmers to reduce their reliance on water and chemical oxidants—a major, looming problem as climate change threatens worsening droughts during peak growing months.
Moleaer is far from the only local startup offering technologically innovative solutions to these issues. Last year, L.A.-based Proterra Ag launched HYPERroots, an eco-substrate made of gel that protects the plant roots from soil and weather inconsistencies, as well as parasites and bacteria—boosting the likelihood that a crop will survive well into the harvest season. L.A. is also home to vertical farming startup Plenty, which raised a $400 million in Series E funding in January to further develop its resource-saving farming technology.
What’s clear, from these startups, is that we can no longer ignore climate change’s impact on our food supply. What comes next will depend on whether farmers can leverage these new technologies—as well as advancements in biotech, cloud computing, artificial intelligence and data analytics—to better and more sustainably feed the world. — Keerthi Vedantam
Techstars Los Angeles hosted its annual Demo Day, featuring a cohort of 12 startups from across the world that are working in health care, space, ecommerce and more. The event capped a three-month accelerator program that all of the companies attended in person in Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles Lakers legend is investing in Beverly Hills-based SimWin Sports, a digital sports league where virtual teams and athletes backed by non-fungible tokens (NFTs) compete in simulated games.
An internal investigation revealed “no evidence” that senior executives ignored or attempted to conceal reports of sexual harassment at Activision Blizzard, despite a bombshell report and several lawsuits that allege the contrary.
On this episode of Behind Her Empire, Suneera Madhani, discusses how she dealt with feelings of self-doubt and drew on her family’s small business experience to launch one of the few female-led fintech companies.
Join 500-plus entrepreneurs, executives and investors June 23 at the Hilton Los Angeles Culver City for the Recurring Revenue Conference hosted by Sutton Capital Partners. Hear from experts who are successfully growing their industry-leading companies, as well as from the investors backing them. Can’t make the in-person event? This year's conference is open to virtual attendance.
What We’re Reading Elsewhere...
- Applications open for Black Girl Ventures' fall 2022 pitch program.
- Forbes profiles L.A.-based fashion startup DressX and its Ukrainian founders.
- Pasadena-based Miso Robotics takes its fast-food robot to the Middle East.
- In Hawthorne, former SpaceX engineers create a pizza-making robot.
- L.A.-based blockchain gaming startup Mythical Games partners with South Korean game studio Kakao Games.
- Serve Robotics and Uber partner to deliver meals by robot in Hollywood and West Hollywood.
- Future Acres Signs Deal to Bring Robots to More Farms - dot.LA ›
- Will Apple-Picking Robots Save Agriculture—Or Ruin Farm Workers? ›
- CropSafe, Agtech Startup, Helps Farmers Monitor Their Fields - dot.LA ›
This January, John McElhone moved to Santa Monica from, as he described it, “a tiny farm in the absolute middle of nowhere” in his native Northern Ireland, with the goal of growing the crop-monitoring tech startup he founded.
It looks like McElhone’s big move is beginning to pay off: His company, CropSafe, announced a $3 million seed funding round on Tuesday that will help it develop and scale its remote crop-monitoring capabilities for farmers. Venture firm Elefund led the round and was joined by investors Foundation Capital, Global Founders Capital, V1.VC and Great Oaks Capital, as well as angel investors Cory Levy, Josh Browder and Charlie Songhurst. The capital will go toward growing CropSafe’s six-person engineering team and building up its new U.S. headquarters in Santa Monica.
The nascent agtech company began in 2019 as a project between McElhone and his co-founder and high school classmate, Micheál McLaughlin. Growing up in the Northern Irish countryside, the pair developed an interest in technology, which led to ideas about how such technology could aid the agricultural communities they were raised around.
“We noticed that there was a lot of really new, cool technology coming into the farming market at the time,” McElhone told dot.LA. “But every single farmer in our area hadn't a clue how to get started with all this new fancy technology, because they would have to go to training sessions or learn how satellite imagery from NASA works. And farmers—their job is to farm, not to interpret data.”
The first version of CropSafe’s software aimed to bridge that gap. At its core, the platform is an interpretation engine that scrapes and parses through troves of weather data and satellite imagery to find the information that farmers need to grow and harvest more effectively. “CropSafe did that work for you and spots useful nuggets like, ‘Hey, there's blight in field no. 14; here's the exact location and what you need to do next,’” McElhone explained.
But the project, which began simply as a tool for friends and family in Northern Ireland, started drawing attention from users around the world; to the founders’ surprise, people began offering to pay for the service. “That was kind of a turning point—realizing it wasn't just our 200 people that wanted to use it,” McElhone said. So he packed his bags and moved to Southern California at the start of this year to try to build out the software in one of agtech’s hottest markets.
McElhone and McLaughlin now believe there’s a better way forward that would position CropSafe as more akin to a fintech platform for farmers: Because the software collects so much data on farms, it can offer insights into removing bottlenecks that farmers could leverage to secure crucial financing for equipment and other needs.
“If a farm is leasing three combines this year, with the data we have on that farm [and its] crops, we might be able to say: ‘Hey, if you lease an additional combine this year, we know that you will produce so-and-so additional yield and produce $25,000,’” according to McElhone. In an ideal scenario, CropSafe could allow the financing for that combine to be approved instantly on the strength of the data on its platform; the farmer clicks a button on the app, and the combine gets delivered the next day.
So far, McElhone is tight-lipped about partnerships in this area of its business, but said announcements should be coming this summer. The company is also considering offering farmers insights into the best times and places to sell crops, with CropSafe taking a small cut of revenues for the service. (The idea is that farmers would only pay when they see increased sales from using CropSafe’s insights, McElhone said.)
But the move to Santa Monica has already proven fertile for the company, which is planning to announce partnerships with other agtech companies that would allow CropSafe to act more as an operating system—one connecting autonomous tractors, weathers sensors, and other “internet of things” technologies to ensure better, more sustainable crops. With local startups like Future Acres and Abundant Robotics already operating in the space, CropSafe seems poised to benefit from Southern California’s position as a hub for agtech in the U.S.
- Molear, Proterra and Plenty Are Bringing Agtech Back to LA - dot.LA ›
- Moleaer, Proterra and Plenty Are Bringing Agtech Back to LA - dot.LA ›
Even after last month's record-breaking storm, scientists are skeptical California will be lifted out of its drought any time soon. Lake Oroville, for example, is still 16% below its historic average, and the state's long-term forecast still features drier-than-usual conditions.
With 45% of the state still in exceptional drought, the solution to California's water crisis may lie in emerging technology that could help to better reuse and conserve water.
Here are six of the most promising new water conservation technologies for residents and agriculture.
California farmland uses three to four times more water than its residents. Much of this water comes from aquifers, and before 2014 farmers could take as much water as they wanted from these natural underground basins. Over time this free-for-all approach caused the underground water table to sink, and led to depleted aquifers. The state imposed restrictions, but found it difficult to enforce usage.
Recently, a team of researchers at California Polytechnic University realized regulators could use images from NASA satellites to estimate the amount of water being used on crops, and use that information to figure out if farmers were exceeding the allowed amount. The Sacramento-based remote sensing company Land IQ refined the technique by combining satellite imagery with stations on the ground to collect data and monitor usage.
2. Strips Drip
The IoT (internet of things)—physical objects equipped with sensors or software that connect and exchange data over the internet—has bestowed digital intelligence onto ordinary devices like lightbulbs and thermostats. Now IoT technology is playing an important role in water conservation. In addition to connecting systems in the water supply chain, IoT technology can also help consumers save water. Swedish company Sensative's Strips Drip product, for example, addresses the problem of broken and leaky pipes that can go undetected for days. When placed in hard-to-reach places, like under a sink or a washing machine, the strip can alert the user of leaks, freezing pipes, or extreme temperatures.
Cloud seeding, the practice of adding chemicals like silver iodide to clouds to induce rain or snow, has been around for decades. Eight states in the western U.S. are currently using cloud seeding, but the approach comes with drawbacks, namely that the chemicals added to the clouds fall on people, crops, and drinking water. In response, the United Arab Emirates—a country that also struggles with punishing heat and little rainfall—is trying a new technology: They're using drones to zap clouds with electrical charges. This causes smaller water droplets to combine into larger droplets, which triggers rainfall—without chemicals. Cloud seeding can potentially increase rainfall by 35%, which would go a long way toward alleviating drought and water scarcity.
Not all important innovations are complex—sometimes the answer to a problem is a beautifully simple solution. The former chairman of Israel's water authority, Uri Shani, realized one way to alleviate water scarcity is through drip irrigation. Drip irrigation, which delivers water directly to the plant's roots, is the most efficient watering system for growing crops. The problem with existing drip irrigation, however, is the cost required to power the pumps that push water through hundreds of feet of pipe.
Shani came up with a solution that plays off existing drip irrigation technology. He realized he could add a new kind of emitter that offers less resistance to water pressure and use gravity to power the water through the pipes. His N-Drip Gravity Micro Irrigation System lets farmers take advantage of the efficiency and water conservation provided by micro-drip irrigation without the cost of electric or diesel-fueled pumps.
Hydroponic growing—when the roots of plants are in water, not soil—cuts water usage by about 80%. The water is recirculated, and there's no runoff or evaporation, so it's a great option for low-water agriculture.
Vertical hydroponic farms take the hydroponic concept inside. Along with the water conservation benefits of hydroponic farming, indoor vertical crops save space and require almost no chemicals. They are also less likely to be contaminated with salmonella and E. coli. However, most indoor farms are powered by artificial light, which uses energy.
U.K.-based Shockingly Fresh have solved that problem by creating an indoor vertical hydroponic farm that uses only natural light to grow and heat the crops. Their first commercial site in Offenham, England can produce four times the typical yield of a traditional farm while using much less energy and water. The three-acre farm is already producing lettuce and bok choy for supermarkets, and the company is planning a 32-acre farm in Scotland, between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The Carlsbad Desalination Plant in San Diego County provides 50 million gallons of drinking water to 400,000 San Diego County residents every day. While the Carlsbad plant uses a solar-powered generation system and energy efficient motors, many desalination plants use fossil fuels or nuclear energy—which partly explains environmentalists' hesitation around the tech.Resolute Marine Energy, a Boston-based startup, has developed a way to turn saltwater into drinking water by using the power of ocean waves. The company developed a technology called Wave2O that can completely power a desalination plant with a Wave Energy Converter attached to the bottom of the sea. The converter moves back and forth with the waves and generates enough power to send the seawater onshore and power a reverse osmosis unit. Their current system can provide water to about 40,000 people a day. The company plans to bring the technology to Cape Verde, an archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Africa, that currently gets 85% of its water from diesel-powered desalination systems.