Thu, 12 Jul 2018
The AgTech Series: An Interview with Colin Hurd of Smart Ag
Smart Ag’s vision is to enable perfect operations on the farm to feed more people and help farms grow profits sustainably. They are making tractors driverless and safer using cutting-edge technology, edge computing and machine learning.
What was your background before Smart Ag?
Prior to Smart Ag, I started an Ag company called Agriculture Concepts out of college. In that company, I was solving compaction issues, inventing a product that farmers could mount on a row crop planter and get the yield back that they were losing. I licensed that product and exited the company in 2015.
Can you tell us more about Smart Ag and what motivated you to create the company?
I started Smart Ag in 2016. A big part of my motivation was based on my previous experience working on getting rid of compaction. What I realised from the research I was doing was that we were able to get back 80% of the yield lost, but to get back 100% of the potential, we had to prevent compaction from happening the first place by using smaller equipment. This really highlighted the labour scarcity challenge that we have. Farmers can’t use smaller equipment because they don’t have the labour so they end up using large heavy equipment to get everything done on time. So a lot of what we’re doing today is compromising other efficiencies to gain efficiency in labour.
What makes your company different from competitors?
There are a few things. We are based in Iowa in the Midwest, which means that we have very close proximity to the mainstream modern farmer. They represent the biggest market size and biggest opportunity for us, and for most AgTech companies. A lot of companies in this space struggle I think to connect and put their boots on the farm but we don’t have that problem. We invented and started prototyping code during harvest, and the very first lines of this system were actually written from the cab of a combine – so we actually started developing this system on the farm in a real harvest environment under real-world constraints. Nothing we’ve done was in a lab and that’s one of the things that I think makes us unique. There’s a fine line between our reality and our customer’s reality. We may struggle raising capital in the Midwest and it’s harder to find talent, but I think for now some of those tradeoffs are worth it to get the product right.
In terms of product why we’re different is that it’s an aftermarket solution so major OEMS or companies that have an interest in automation typically will not follow suit. Their goal is to sell new tractors, but we allow farmers to improve their existing equipment and automate it, rather than go spending more money on new products.
Where do you see the AgTech industry going in the next few years?
I think it’s going to continue to grow. I do think there is going to be a ‘come-to-reality’ moment for the industry as a whole. I mentioned earlier how important it is to be grounded to the farmer. If you look at the number of AgTech companies and how they’ve grown over the last 5-10 years, it’s incredible as there are so many new ideas and innovation. But I do think there are some redundancies in technology right now and that has to be consolidated. We may see more exits, but we may see some winding up of more companies as well.
In general, technology is a huge solution to a lot of the problems and I would say the companies that find the problem and apply the technology correctly to a problem are going to be successful if that problem represents a big enough need. Companies that are taking technology, whether it is out of a university or a lab somewhere, and trying to find a problem for it in agriculture – I think those companies are going to struggle a lot more, as agriculture is very demanding and specific on a lot of things. It takes a lot of work just to get technology to function.
What have Smart Ag’s biggest challenges and achievements been to date?
Our biggest challenges continue to be good hardware that is suitable in the environment we’re in. Ag is an extreme environment. We’re dealing with massive temperature variations and equipment that is housed all winter in sub-zero temperatures. We have to deal with a lot of vibration, dirt, dust, and all those fun things! We need to develop new hardware that doesn’t exist in some cases. The other thing is finding talent. It’s an on-going challenge but we’ve done a really good job so far with an excellent team. As we continue to grow, we need to put more time into that because of the complexity of what we’re doing and search through more resumes to get to those people that are actually qualified to work on this project.
I think our biggest achievement is simply the fact that we have a product that is going on the market within about a year. There is not another company in our immediate market that can say that. We are the only company that has a product that can fully automate your current tractor – and that’s kind of cool! So we’re proud of that fact! We’re actually shipping a couple systems this week as an early release and we’ll do a larger release this Fall so around August timeframe.
Can you discuss what you have learned about running your own business? What advice would you give to tech start-ups?
Yes, there’s a tonne of things especially since this is the second time around. I knew some of the pitfalls to avoid, but every time you learn something new. I would say one of the biggest things, especially in Ag, is that farmers are very unforgiving. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but they only have one opportunity a year to get it right and if your technology doesn’t work for them out of the gate, you probably are not going to get a second chance. In the States, farmers are very in tune with each other so they spend a lot of time talking – it’s a small world in agriculture and word of mouth spreads fast. If something doesn’t work, everyone else in that area is going to know about it. My advice – don’t hesitate to take the time to get the product right before going to market because you really only get one chance and one first impression on the farm and you have to make it work well before you get out there. It’s really difficult to address issues after it has launched.
Do you have any exciting projects coming up?
The most exciting thing is this release we’ll be doing. So we’ll have a couple of farms using it – one in Arizona and one in Texas. It should be a pretty exciting summer – we’ve spent a lot of time working on this particular release and I think it’s going to be a very high-quality version of the product. We’re just excited to see it work and learn what we don’t know yet about it.
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