When Nick Koshnick announced to his friends at Stanford that he planned to go into farming, they were befuddled. Why would a guy about to graduate from one of the world’s top engineering programs, who had studied how to measure the performance of semiconductors and all kinds of precise electronics, ever get involved in the seemingly low-tech world of agriculture?
“At first it didn’t resonate with everyone. Some people say, ‘How could you possibly think of agriculture?’” Koshnick says.
But then a few things happen. First, Koshnick explains how most pieces of farm equipment in the United States contains a GPS system that is generating mountains of data, most of which currently goes unused. He talks about a mutual friend, a berry farmer who can’t tell whether he’s wasting precious money feeing too much fertilizer to his crops.
Finally, Koshnick mentions the $17 million in Series B financing his company, Solum, Inc., received this summer.
“Yeah, and then we got funding and everyone said, ‘Oh my god how did you think of this great idea,’” says Koshnick.
At this point, Koshnick usually stops talking. That last round of funding came six months ago, a lifetime in the world of Silicon Valley startups. Bu Koshnick’s silence, it’s pretty clear that Solum has something big planned. A new soil testing system? Some new application to make better of all the data the company is collecting?
Here’s all Koshnick will say: “We have some news we’ll come out with soon.”
Solum’s big idea is to bring Big Data to the farm. It started as a classic Silicon Valley startup by making use of TechShop, a common space in San Francisco where, for a low monthly rent payment, startup companies can access high-tech tools and plenty of building space. From there, Solum received $2 million in seed funding from Khosla Ventures, a venture capital firm founded by Vinod Khosla that invests in companies focused on IT and sustainability.
Khosla also participated in Solum’s latest financing round, led by venture firm Andreesen Horowitz, in which John O’Farrell, general partner of Andreesen Horowitz, joined Solum’s board.
That technical and financial assistance enabled Solum to put in place the testing, software and hardware systems it needs in just three years. The process begins with a faster testing system that allows the company to examine wet soil, rather than the traditional – and slow – process of chemically drying soil before testing. The tests can happen either in the field using Solum’s proprietary “No-Wait Nitrate” machine, or in high-throughput lab the company opened this summer in Ames, Iowa.
Using either method, farmers and agronomists can pinpoint important facts about the soil, including its chemical makeup and capacity to hold water. From there, Solum’s data goes into a digital file, which farmers plug into their spraying machines fine-tuning exactly how much water and ferilizer spray, down to the square yard.
While some areas may require additional chemical inputs, chances are that the average amount sprayed across the entire field will go down.
“It’s a classic multi-variable problem,” Koshnick says. “I think there’s a big data opportunity.”
That will help farmers and Solum to reduce environmental damage caused by toxic farm runoff. It also should help both sides boost profits.
“We know you can combine all these information layers to create smarter practices, a better environment and a more profitable by saving money where you don’t need to put it,” Koshnick says.
For the time being, mastering its soil analysis will consume Solum’s development and fundraising plains.
“Soil is the base layer for farming. That’s where we focus right now,” he says.
But data, and growth prospects, don’t stop there. The modern farm generates more data than a college campus full of Tweeting Facebook users. Only a tiny fraction of that data is currently being tapped.
That will change soon, Koshnick predicts.
“If you include weather and satellite imagery and meter-by-meter yield data, there’s a huge amount of data available, and there’s a huge opportunity,” he says. “That is in our space, but we’re focused on that soil information to start with.”
Rapid growth, serious investors and big, mysterious plans for the future have not entirely bridged the gap between Silicon Valley’s software-obsessed culture and Solum’s tangible roots in the soil. But they help.
“I think we’re still a little bit of the oddball,” says Koshnick, “but it’s natural to take on new challenges for Silicon Valley.”