Wall Street Journal Blog "Venture Firms Seed Farm-Tech Startups"

December 17, 2015

Venture capital firms toting cash from agricultural heavyweights Monsanto Co., Syngenta and Rabobank Group this week sunk tens of millions of dollars into farm-focused technology startups.

The startups, Blue River Technology and Farmobile LLC, are among a raft of companies that aim to transplant data-crunching techniques and low-cost hardware from Silicon Valley to the Farm Belt, pitching equipment and services that can help farmers raise bigger crops while using less fuel and chemicals.

Stalwart agribusiness giants like Monsanto, DuPont Co., Deere and Co. and Cargill Inc. are developing their own computer-powered farming services for farmers, eyeing a business some executives say could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in sales by the end of the decade. Some of these companies, through venture capital arms, are also investing in startups pursuing similar technology to help spot opportunities and tools the big firms don’t have in-house.

Four-year-old Blue River, based in Sunnyvale, Calif., is developing tractor-towed robots that can examine individual plants and apply fertilizer and chemicals on an as-needed basis, saving farmers time and money on unnecessary spraying. The company estimates its robots are working on 10% of U.S. lettuce fields and it plans to move into other crops, while developing a separate drone service to collect crop data.

Blue River announced Wednesday the company raised $17 million in Series B funding, led by the Pontifax Global Food and Agriculture Technology Fund, and joined by Monsanto Growth Ventures and Syngenta Ventures. Previous backers including Khosla Ventures and Innovation Endeavors, co-founded by Alphabet Inc. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, invested further, according to the company.

The new funding will help Blue River add staff and invest further in “computer vision, machine learning and robotics in agriculture to solve one of the world’s largest problems — sustainable agriculture,” said Blue River’s co-founder and CEO Jorge Heraud.

Farmobile, founded in 2013 and based in a suburb of Kansas City, Mo., sells bright orange transmitters that plug into tractors and combines to develop a digital record of equipment use, crop planting and pesticide applications. The transmitters let farmers track their machinery through fields in real time, helping manage distant operations and determine the best time to spray chemicals to kill bugs or weeds. The company also envisions helping farmers potentially sell their data to agriculture companies and financial traders.

Anterra Capital, a venture firm spun out of farm lending giant Rabobank in 2013, on Thursday announced it had led a $5.5 million dollar Series A investment round in Farmobile, which the company says it will use to staff up and get its transmitters onto more farm fields in the coming spring.

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