Next Gen Agtech for the ‘20s

agtechBy Tim Alexander

With the 2010s in the rearview mirror, startup agtech companies at the University of Illinois Research Park in Champaign have their R&D schedule focused on the 2020s and beyond.

In addition to gener8tor’s Illinois AgTech Accelerator program, which will take five fledgling agtech startups under its wing, others like Aspiring Universe and EarthSense are developing and marketing next generation, field-applicable technology that will benefit soybean farmers.

University of Illinois Research Park Leading the Way Laura Bleill, associate director

The agtech ecosystem at the 20-year-old University of Illinois Research Park is alive and thriving with innovators hard at work on the latest advancements in soybean production technology, according to Laura Bleill, director of communications and external engagement.

“We see startups addressing a variety of ag issues,” she says. “In our earlier years, the agtech sector was a little slow to develop. Growth exploded, really, with the ability to use data for applications in improving performance with seed, inputs, plant health, equipment and more.”

The Research Park engages in what Bleill describes as “enhanced technology commercialization. By providing an incubator for their research, ag-related startups are able to accelerate their university lab research and develop it for the marketplace. University of Illinois students comprise more than 850 of the park’s 2,200 employees. Licensing activity for marketable products is the domain of the park’s tech transfer office.

“The College of ACES is generating a lot of (agtech startups). It’s a growing area, and we consistently see new ideas and faculty and graduate student engagement in agtech,” says Bleill. 

​​​​​​​EarthSense  Chinmay Soman, CEO and co-founder

When EarthSense co-founder Chinmay Soman first marketed his Terra Sentia machine in 2018, it was literally hidden under the soybean canopy. The ground-level drone, which allows farmers and crop breeders to peer between rows and under soybean foliage to scout their fields, has been on the market for three years. Today, Soman and his team of researchers are developing the next generation of Terra Sentia – one that will scout crop fields for pests, diseases and other issues, but also remove plants or spot-apply herbicides, fertilizers and pesticides. 

“Crop breeders plant millions of test field plots around the world every year. Right now, the tools they have to determine which varieties perform well are limited. A few use drones, but by and large they go by end-of-season harvest data, and most literally walk through fields during the season and take notes by hand. This slows down the rate at which you can improve crops,” says Soman. “Our robot collects more data using cameras. Our software converts that data into useful plot traits. For example, we can measure the stem diameter of every single corn plant in a plot. In soybeans, we do pod and node counts and canopy structure measurements.”

Next versions of Terra Sentia that are currently under development will offer expanded ability to treat plants with nutrients and other inputs. Soman is also working on a “simple soil removal” appendage to the vehicle and implements for removing diseased or overcrowded plants.

“Another application is sidedressing, which can be tricky, especially in-season. Doing it with a large machine can become inefficient. Cover crop seeding in standing corn is another application where aerial application doesn’t work that well,” says Soman. “There are a number of applications a smaller machine can do that a larger one cannot do as well, and those are the applications we are going after with our next generation of robots.”

Illinois Ag Tech Accelerator  Dennis Beard, managing partner, Serra Ventures

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed back its launch until this fall, nationally ranked startup accelerator gener8tor and Champaign-based venture capital fund manager Serra Ventures will soon announce the first five agtech startup businesses to participate in their Illinois AgTech Accelerator program at Research Park. The first cohort (group) will use gener8tor’s gBETA seven-week curriculum. Each of the five participating startups in the first cohort will receive a $25,000 investment to help gain early customer traction on their product or idea.

The Illinois AgTech Accelerator plans to offer two gBETA agtech programs per year. In addition, the consortium will operate an annual flagship accelerator program that will bring agtech startups from around the world to Champaign for an intensive, 12-week session, according to Serra Ventures managing partner Dennis Beard.

“Serra does early stage technology investing, including agtech. With our investing partners in the AgTech Accelerator, we will coach companies in the agtech space. The nature of the applicants and investor interests will determine which agtech areas are the focus of each cohort,” he says.

The first five companies will receive assistance with networking and participate in educational seminars and programs. Near the end of the accelerator, they will meet potential investors.

Beard anticipates much of the technology supported in the program will benefit soybean farmers. “Illinois is the number one soybean state. We felt the University of Illinois campus would be the natural host for this program. If you are working in soybean, corn or animal sciences, we think this is the natural place for you. There are no other agtech accelerators in the state,” he adds. 

Applications for the program are presently being accepted at www.gbetaagtech.com.

​​​​​​​Aspiring Universe  Kaiyu Guan, co-founder

Spun off from the University of Illinois College of ACES, Aspiring Universe uses technology transfer and licensing agreements to bring the best science and technology from the university lab to the agricultural industry. Integrating remote sensing technology, artificial intelligence, crop modeling domain knowledge and financial risk modeling, Aspiring Universe would like to monitor and predict the performance of every global acre of cropland. This would, “transform the ag industry from passive observation to actionable insights and eliminate the challenge of collecting information from 600 million farmers,” says Guan.

It is a mission to “de-risk and sustain modern agriculture for all of humanity,” Guan adds. “We combine different sources of data and our proprietary models determine farm-level productivity, water use, soil health and sustainability, and provide actionable insight. This allows farmers to make informed decisions on how to optimize their productivity.”

Guan’s team developed software that has provided daily, field-scale, cloudless satellite imagery since 2000. Combining historical data and real time projections, Aspiring Universe can offer farmland metrics on productivity and resilience, leading to increased soybean yield and quality.

“One of the key goals is to help farmers achieve high yields,” says Guan. “We want to make sure farms are sustainable, improve resource efficiency and reduce the environmental footprint.”

Guan said the company is working to improve its networking capabilities with farmers. He hopes to expand the company’s relationship with state agricultural commodity associations to help increase Aspiring Universe’s profile and develop partnerships.

In addition to soybean farmers, Aspiring Universe technology may assist crop insurers, farmland investors, supply chain and grain elevators, food manufacturers and government agencies.

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