Welcome to the world of agriculture. Or, better said, to the IoT in agriculture. Here, two worlds merge that previously didn’t have much in common. And yet the result has been very positive. Let me explain why and tell you about my experience in a corporate start-up in the agricultural domain. I have to admit, in my twelve years of professional experience, this was the first time I did anything with a start-up or with agriculture.
Because agriculture affects everyone’s life, at least it was easy for me to identify with the start-up’s vision: feed 9.1 billion people with sustainably produced healthy food by 2050. But how are we to go about achieving that? Which path should we take? And what’s all this about a corporate start-up?
Bosch is the perfect match for an IoT start-up
At Deepfield Robotics, we investigate promising ideas that could possibly contribute to our vision, e.g. automated field testing, robotics, and weeding. I ended up with the IoT topic, and after two weeks, I was astonished at how well the Bosch mothership could meet our technological needs. Not only could we choose from multiple Bosch divisions to provide us with a connectivity solution, but we could also use an in-house IoT platform. Thanks to all this support, we were able to run our first prototypes after three weeks of planning and internal negotiations and only three weeks of implementation. I have never seen a prototype put into action that fast before.
Getting to know the (asparagus) farmer
However, this shouldn’t overshadow the fact that this is when the hard work for our start-up actually begins. We had to learn how to best serve the farmers and their market. Yet this task is made easier when you have a minimal viable product, i.e. an initial prototype, already at hand.
We decided to jump right in by providing an IoT service for the asparagus farmer. I assume you’re not reading this blog to become an asparagus expert, so I’ll give you a brief introduction to our first IoT application. The quality of asparagus depends heavily on the temperature of the ground in which it’s grown. To control the temperature, farmers use a two-sided sheet of foil: the black side draws in sunlight to increase the heat of the asparagus bed, and the white side reflects light to cool the bed down. In order to make the right “black or white” decision, the farmer needs to measure the temperature of every field at least once each evening. That’s where we come in. Our IoT system frequently measures the temperatures of the bed at different levels and stores the data in the cloud. Then we provide this information plus additional analysis in a front-end interface, accessible anywhere, anytime.
The IoT is quite new to most of the farmers. And we know how they feel; this new customer group, “farmers,” is totally new to us, too. Therefore, we focused heavily on customer understanding and customer development in our first phase. Sure, you first have to have a basic idea of the problem you’re trying to solve. But once you have the right hardware and sensors in place at the customer’s side, the IoT magic comes into your business. Solutions in the IoT domain allow you to quickly improve your product in cooperation with the customer after delivering the hardware.
So that’s what we did. At the beginning of April, we installed ten prototypes in fields for seven farmers with the help of an asparagus advisor. These prototypes provided just the basic functionality of storing temperatures in the cloud. Using this as a starting point, we worked closely with the farmers to develop our solution further, based on many interviews with these pilot customers, four app updates and continuous back-end improvement. The result: twelve weeks later at the end of asparagus season, we had not only supervised the growth of 225,000 kg of asparagus, but also had gained some deep insights into our new customers.
With a little help from some agile friends
As I already mentioned, we built our prototype based on a robust connectivity solution and an easily scalable IoT platform from two Bosch divisions. But if you go with a big company like this, the support doesn’t need to end there. For example, we also received state-of-the-art expertise in user experience, insightful market studies, purchasing support, and much more – usually with just a single call. Along the way, we learned plenty about agility in a multibillion company.
But can so many different experts of a big company coordinated by a small start-up still do a great job? Yes! At least, that’s what the agricultural experts think: they presented us with a silver medal from the DLG innovations commission.
Setting the stage for many more agricultural IoT applications
Is asparagus worth all this effort? Well, from a gourmet perspective, certainly! From a business perspective, we have our sights set on much more than just asparagus; we aim to become a comprehensive supplier of IoT services in agriculture. We have already applied our market and customer knowledge to our platform, which is now ready for many other crops and services. As you might expect from a parent company that employs 360,000 people in 94 locations and that is the world’s largest MEMS sensor supplier with a clear IoT strategy, there is bound to be at least a couple of people who are thinking about IoT solutions for agricultural applications. So hopefully we can give back and speed such activities up by providing our platform and domain knowledge.