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In the Press: Global AgInvesting Europe 2014 (12.15.2014)

HighQuest Group hosts eight major agriculture conferences a year including those for the Global AgInvesting series, the Oilseed & Grain Trade Summit, the Oilseed Congress Europe/MENA and the Women in Agribusiness Summit, U.S. and Europe.

See below for some of the media pick-ups about the company's Global AgInvesting Europe 2014 event, which took place in London, 1-3 December 2014.


10 December 2014

CropX in USD 7m financing round for US rollout - CEO
by Benaiah Moses, Senior Reporter, Mergermarket

Venture capital-backed New Zealand irrigation software developer, CropX (formerly Varigate), is pursuing a USD 7m (EUR 6m) financing round for completion in 1H15, CEO Isaac Bentwich said. CropX would consider advisory approaches, Bentwich said.

Proceeds will smooth US entry and boost marketing, Bentwich said. Accordingly, CropX foresees selling an undisclosed shareholding to US-based or European financial investors specialised in agricultural or water technology.

CropX’s software service for farm operators is based on “adaptive irrigation.” This technique uses ground sensors to analyse soil structure and climatic conditions, calculating the required water dosage for distribution to different parts of a field. The technology seeks to boost crop output, save water and energy, and reduce farmers’ costs, Bentwich said. Its cloud-based agricultural analytics read data by responding to conditions and modifying distribution on a daily basis, he said.

CropX’s revenue model is based on usage fees from farmers. CropX is owned by management and a group of US, Israeli and New Zealand angel investors. CropX has raised USD 0.9m in early-stage funding through OurCrowd, a hybrid VC-angel investor platform.

Bentwich was bullish on CropX’s prospects. Its agricultural analytics address the expected need to double yields through precision agriculture in coming decades amid a surging world population, Bentwich said.

Adaptive irrigation, he said, takes into account differences in soil structure and composition: “Soil is not homogenous.” Yet other systems “apply water evenly,” giving CropX a head start in cutting water wastage, he said.

Yossi Haran, CropX’s VP, R&D was similarly upbeat, citing the easy-to-use character of its mobile application. Also, by retaining ownership of data, CropX “can optimise and perpetuate” its first-mover advantage, Haran said.

Aaron Ciechanover, a 2004 Nobel laureate in Chemistry, chairs CropX’s scientific advisory board.

NOTE: This news service interviewed Bentwich and Haran on the sidelines of the Global AgInvesting Europe 2014 conference in London.

09 December 2014

VitalFields in financing round
by Benaiah Moses, Senior Reporter, Mergermarket

Venture capital-backed Estonian agricultural software developer, VitalFields, aims to complete a EUR 1.5m financing round by 1Q15, CEO Martin Rand said. Proceeds will help VitalFields enter new European markets while boosting software development.

VitalFields is relying on its existing advisory network to guide the process. Its VC backers include TMT Investments [TMT: LN]; SmartCap, part of state-owned Estonian development fund Arengufondi; and Wiser Financial Investments. Angel investors include Ahti Heinla, one of the technical founders of Microsoft-owned [MSFT: US] Internet telephony company Skype.

With two financial investors -- one existing, one new -- already committed, VitalFields seeks to bring on board a third backer, Rand said. An agriculturally-oriented investor such as an enterprise farm manager, he said, would provide welcome operational know-how. Alternatively, VitalFields would welcome approaches by another financial investor.

Geographically, strategic suitors from Spain, France or the UK would closely match VitalFields’ plans, Rand said. The company plans to enter these large European agricultural economies within one-and-a-half year.

VitalFields has developed tools to help farmers operate their holdings, manage warehouses and forecast weather. It collects data and provides analysis to help farmers grow crops more efficiently, Rand said: “We help them automate their work.” VitalFields operates a subscription-based revenue model, with rates linked to farm size and geography.

VitalFields foresees following up with a larger round by mid-2016 to further step up growth, Rand said.

Rand was bullish on VitalFields’ prospects, citing the versatility of its programmes. VitalFields can translate its software into a new language in under a day, while the functionality of its system can change according to geography. Also, its software works on different platforms, including mobile ones, Rand said: “We’re not tied to any particular hardware or manufacturer.” This adaptability makes it a natural candidate to internationalise and build scale, he said.

VitalFields’ focus on mid-sized farms also gives it a clearly defined market, Rand said. This niche profile distinguishes it from such competitors such as Minneapolis-based Conservis, which services larger farm operators, he said.

VitalFields (formerly WeatherMe) uses a network of distributors to sell into foreign markets, including Germany and Poland. VitalFields’ software is available in Estonian, English, Polish, German, Danish, Russian and Ukrainian.

NOTE: This news service interviewed Rand on the sidelines of the Global AgInvesting Europe 2014 conference in London.


05 December 2014

Analysis: Precision farming aims to transform crop yields through technology
By Dr Alan Bullion, Principal Analyst/Special Reports Publisher, Informa Agra of London

Advanced technology such as robots, drones and lasers will be critical to ensuring increased food security and higher crop yields over coming decades, with scarce resources such as soil and water nearing depletion in some parts of the world where agriculture still predominates.

New and adapted farm equipment which can monitor fields and farmers, and can also considerably reduce post-harvest losses, is being developed using satellite mapping and mobile telephony.

These can also be used in the crop protection, animal health and fertiliser segments, by delivering ‘just-in-time’ smart farming services to improve agricultural output, quality, and yields. It can also attract the ‘tech-savvy’ generation to stay on the farm, helping to resolve the succession issue for ageing landowners.

According to Rabobank analyst Justin Sherrard, the use of ‘big data’ could help lift US crop yields by 20 million tonnes and reduce input use by 1-3% per annum by 2025. “Big data allows farmers to take further steps to optimise farming practices. New production models could also similarly close the yield gap in central and eastern Europe by adopting modern agronomic practices and machinery,” he told the Global AgInvesting conference in London this week.

Wade Barnes, chief executive of Canada-based company Farmers Edge, also told delegates that precision farming in Saskatchewan and other provinces could offer an uplift in returns of between 15% and 40% over time.

Google Farm2050

This explains why Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has got involved with the launch of Farm2050, a collective involving his Innovation Endeavors and Flextronics Lab IX that will support agricultural technology, (which they call AgTech) start-ups with capital, design, manufacturing, and test farms to try out their inventions.

The Farm2050 partnership also includes DuPont, Agco, UTC’s Sensitech, and 3D Robotics, with more to come from California’s Silicon Valley and Bay Area.
Farm2050 said it is open to any ideas that can help boost world food production. Specifically, though, it will be looking for start-ups working on how robotics and data science can advance the ways farmers grow, cultivate, and harvest all kinds of crops.

But questions have arisen as to who actually owns ‘big farm data’. In November, a group of major US industry players - from the National Corn Growers Association to Deere, Dow, DuPont, and Monsanto, which owns The Climate Corporation - established some principles to clarify the issue.

Farmers will own and control the data, they agreed, and tech providers must receive explicit consent to collect, access, and use it. The accord suggests that such data issues have been a sticking point for farmers eyeing an equipment upgrade to date, and so may now open the logjam.

Technological breakthroughs

A host of technology from GPS-equipped tractors to remote-controlled or even automated irrigation systems is turning farming into a higher-tech business.
For example, water sensors placed throughout a field monitor soil moisture in real-time, which can help a farmer decide when and how much to irrigate. Fed to computer-controlled irrigation systems, this information allows precise water applications rather than a single amount across an entire field.

In another example, computer-equipped combines gather data during the harvest to create detailed yield maps, which can be used to better determine the amount of fertilizers and other inputs needed to improve productivity the following year.

Drones are not just used by the military to track terrorists. They can also capture images of entire fields and zoom into individual leaves to determine plant conditions. Researchers are developing drones to go beyond capturing images to fully interact with the environment, taking leaf samples, gathering water samples, measuring crop height, or applying herbicides to individual plants.

Satellites also gather vast amounts of data that are used at global and local scales. For instance, satellites can track atmospheric patterns, precipitation and ocean currents. Combined with weather data, researchers are using satellite data to develop better forecasting and risk-management tools to help farmers make better decisions, and to help governments better plan for droughts and floods.

Satellite data can in turn be used to home in on local areas to more precisely map landscapes, analyse soils or assess crop yields, among many other uses, as UK-based firm Geospatial Insight is now doing.

Geospatial Insight uses satellite data to estimate the limits of flood damage for insurance companies so they can assess their exposure and is also developing methods to advise financial companies on the likely seasonal yields of commodities such as palm oil. Chief Technology Officer Dan Schnurr said new developments in technology meant ideas that would not have been possible to realise only a few years ago had now become viable propositions.

Cloud software

In the US, farmer services were launched five years ago offering cloud-based field mapping by Conservis, a Minneapolis-based software supplier, which connects up disparate farm information for ‘science-based field optimisation’, and is now active in Australia.

“With Conservis, investors can have records of both productivity and inputs used, season after season, to monitor soil health, with the history if needed when the asset is sold,” said CEO Patrick Christie, speaking at the Global AgInvest conference. It is available on an annual renewable contract.

The world’s first wearable building platform, IntelliScout is also rapidly changing the idea of hands-free work in farming. Currently partnering with Google Glass, IntelliScout is a dashboard-based console interface which links together multiple data points in the field, from kernel counts to cotton nodes. It also offers image recognition of crop types and diseases, insects, and genetic defects.

“Closing the time-gap assessing crop performance to evaluate economic risk from pest infestations and disease, IntelliScout enables growers and crop consultants to precisely and accurately locate and tag crop issues, visualise them hands-free and make decisions for site-specific treatments in real time,” said Basecamp Networks chief executive Craig Ganssle.

Scale up and cost may remain barriers for now, as well as the lack of fast broadband access on farms in many parts of the world, even in the UK and North America. But the future of farming could indeed be transformed by the application of such technologies.

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