In 2018, venture capitalists invested more dollars in female founders than ever before — $2.88 billion 2018 vs. $1.9 billion 2017. Yet the percentage of total VC funding going to women is still low. Only 2.2% of venture capital funding went to female founders in 2018 and just 8% of partners at top venture capital firms are […]
Billionaire Tom Steyer Bets on ARABLE (IH2O ’17) to Battle Climate
Give us a brief overview of what Arable Labs is working on.
Arable captures, aggregates and analyzes both historical and real-time data on crop and microclimate to reduce risk throughout the agricultural supply chain. We work with the most innovative growers and producers to resolve challenges around forecasting the quality, timing and yield of crops. Our measurements are collected by the Arable Mark, which sits above the canopy and monitors both crop health and growth, as well as leaf-level weather. Mark transmits data via Cellular, WiFi or Bluetooth to the Arable web-based platform, providing instant access to crop stats. Our hyperlocal, real-time data and analytics empower clients to make more informed decisions around everything from disease and pest management, irrigation, operations and logistics to harvesting and contract procurement.
Where did you get the idea for Arable Labs?
Arable Labs, Inc. was founded out of an effort at Princeton University to build low-cost tools to collect and synthesize site-specific agricultural data. Prior to becoming the CEO of Arable Labs, Dr. Adam Wolf received a PhD in Biology from Stanford and MS in both International Agricultural Development and Agronomy from UC Davis, where he conducted MS research (supported by USAID) among smallholder farmers in Kazakhstan. One of Arable’s Co-Founders, Dr. Kelly Caylor, is a Professor at University of California Santa Barbara at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management and has 20 years of experience in sub-Saharan Africa. Arable Labs has successfully deployed prototypes in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya and the US. The company continues to focus on achieving wide global impact by providing ground truth measurements, analytics, and accurate predictions that agricultural stakeholders need to make decisions and assess risk, from the base of the pyramid to the largest corporations.
What’s the value you provide for your customer?
Immediately, we are solving customer pain points on operational efficiencies: field level insight into precipitation accumulation, growing degree days, leaf wetness index for disease management. With the low-cost of our devices, we offer software that allows growers to sort and prioritize activities on a daily basis, pointing out hot spots and anomalies that require immediate attention. The big value is generated through our predictive analytics around quality, timing and yield for optimized produce contracts. By knowing the quality and quantity of a given product in advance, marketing and sales teams can deliver high quality product to their buyers with minimal waste.
What’s unique about selling into the Ag market?
It’s easy to forget that people have been selling farmers on “magic beans” long before Jack and the Beanstalk, and they are understandably skeptical about wild promises as well as risk averse to changing the business processes or agronomic recipes that have led to their present success. With digital technology, there must be an immediate return on attention for farmers just like any other busy person, so user experience to get someone to value quickly is critical. Precision agriculture has followed a linear (not exponential) adoption curve for the last 40 years in part because of a lack of understanding of how people are entrained into new behaviors with digital technology. Digital technologies start with tiny initial investments in time that are rewarded with tiny pieces of useful information. These small investments gradually escalate as more trust is earned that the reward will be worth the investment in the onboarding process. And it is this last big leap that ultimately generates the big financial ROI that is critical, for both the customer and the company making a product, because it represents the total shared value. Many types of agriculture are also challenging because the seasonal cycle dictates the timing of product introductions and cadence of feature iterations . . . if the product’s efficacy only gets evaluated once per year as in fertilizer prescriptions, then adoption will be slow.
What’s the biggest thing you have learned as a founder?
Embrace personal growth. I started Arable because I wanted to make that thing to solve that problem, but at a certain point, that shifted: I needed to make that company to make that thing to solve that problem. Making that thing is highly technical, requiring A-list engineers to pull off, and really if we’re going to do this we should be ambitious right? But I can’t be that engineer. I need to find and recruit those engineers, find investors to fund this vision, listen to the customers to deeply understand their problem, and speak to the communities that benefit from solving this problem, all of which are people skills. Entrepreneurship is EQ, and more than anything IQ probably gets in the way.
What are your priorities now the Series A is out of the way?
Shipping the first group of 600 devices to our customers, and working with them on indicators of quality. We are working with some incredibly innovative growers, focused on sustainable land management, and more importantly delivering healthy fruit and vegetables around the world. Getting the forecasting right for this initial group is our number one goal, as we want them to be able to do their jobs better, especially in light of an ever-evolving demand to do more with less.
What is your larger vision for Arable Labs?
I have long had faith that humanity can solve resource problems if armed with the right information to weigh tradeoffs and make decisions. If we don’t solve resource problems, we’re doomed: look at Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Venezuela . . . where there is no water, there is no food, and there is no peace. It affects us all, it is not simply something that happens to people over there. The problem is that there is practically no data on natural resources and agriculture, both in the US and globally. You’d think it would be hard to start a company in 2015 selling rain gauges, right? You would think that we would know what the temperature sensitivity of corn grown is, right? But then you might also be surprised that the average production efficiency is 30% less than the maximum, and furthermore 30% of all food that reaches harvest never gets used. I have faith that when we are able to measure our world, we can break through these challenges and get a leg up on water and food security that leads to peace and prosperity.
Finally, sum up your IH2O experience thus far in 3 words.
- In-laws — there is something where before we were on the outside, and now we’re on the inside and have a whole set of extended relatives to get to know and learn from. Maybe the Water Gala really is like a 400 person wedding! Consider starting to have people write vows 🙂
- Fixers — Doug Stampfer (house of cards) gives a bad name for fixers, but I feel like the IH2O team is like having our own fixers who we can present with a problem, and they will try to solve it.
- Hypercompetent — from the people chosen, to the content of their words, to the execution of the week, it was all extremely well pulled off.