In the early fall of 2015, TechCrunch, a technology magazine, announced the winner of its San Francisco Disrupt startup competition. The event sees technology startup companies pitch their project to an audience of venture capitalists, media and potential investors. Ford, UPS, Microsoft and Walmart are all sponsors of the event. The winners receive the Disrupt Cup, $50,000 and the attention of potential investors. Previous champions include Dropbox and Hello Alfred (which raised $12.5 million, with help from the event). This year, more than 1,000 companies entered the battlefield. They were whittled away until only one remained — Agrilyst, which created an intelligence and analytics platform for indoor farms.
The Brooklyn, New York-based company was founded by Allison Kopf and Jason Camp. Kopf now serves as the company’s CEO and Camp as the Chief Technology Officer. Kopf previously worked with BrightFarms, another New York startup that specializes in indoor farming and provided the inspiration for the company.
Agrilyst’s recent victory at the TechCrunch Disrupt event represents the next step in the evolving nexus between technology and the agriculture and horticulture industries.
"There are huge challenges facing the agriculture industry. We have to increase food production 70 percent by 2050 to meet the growing global demand. We also have to do that with diminishing resources," Kopf says. "So, the agriculture industry is going to change fast in order to adapt. It's an exciting place to be as an entrepreneur."
In recent months, well-regarded national publications like Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science and many others have touted the developing relationship between Silicon Valley with the American pastime of farming. Agrilyst represents another step toward that tech evolution.
“We built a platform that helps indoor growers manage their operations on a daily basis,” Kopf says. “It’s essentially farm management software and analytics. We aggregate data from sensors like Priva.”
Kopf says that one of the reasons she was inspired to found Agrilyst and create her software was the industry-wide issue of standardization. “You may have five different growers, each growing the same crop, each using the same growing system, but the things they care about, the data points that interest them, may be different,” she says. “We’re trying to create a standard that says ‘Here are 10 things you should care about because they create the most optimal change for you.’ Whether that’s a savings in cost or improvement in yield, these are the things that will make the most difference to you every day.”
The technology also provides a space for the automation of previously manual tasks, like crop notes. The goal is to bring all of the data together into one system and then run analytics software that will provide recommendations for growers. “The major point of our system is that we want to help growers make their decisions better. The analytics is one piece of the system, but most growers don’t want to be looking at data. The system also makes recommendations and that’s the key, important part,” Kopf says.
Additionally, Agrilyst is hardware agnostic, meaning their product will work with any existing sensors or other equipment you have in the greenhouse. While Agrilyst may, at some point, be interested in producing its own sensors, it’s not an avenue the company is currently pursuing. Instead, Kopf says they’re tentatively exploring expansions into cannabis and ornamentals.
Currently, Agrilyst software is only set up for produce operations. With Kopf’s BrightFarms background, it was a natural starting point. She was already familiar with most of the data points that concerned produce growers. But she also sees the value in expansion.
“The framework for all three markets (produce, ornamental, cannabis) is pretty similar,” Kopf says. “There’s no reason we can’t have an impact in all three. Plants generally grow because of light, temperature, humidity, all of your standard crop inputs. From a broad perspective, those are all similar.”
We have to increase food production 70 percent by 2050 to meet the growing global demand. —Allison Kopf, Agrilyst
At the time of our interview with Kopf (early October), Agrilyst was two months removed from beta testing their software and was already contracted to work with six growers. The team was also in conversation with many more interested parties (some growing ornamental and cannabis crops) following their TechCrunch Disrupt victory.
Kopf says the biggest barrier to making Agrilyst available to the cannabis and ornamental communities is development time. Because the ability to make recommendations is so important to the software, Kopf says they need time to work with growers in those industries to determine what they care about and what data will be most important to them. Once that information is collected, the software will become generally available.
Until then, Agrilyst will be available to agriculture growers. Kopf says that changes with weather, population and land use will increase the importance of indoor agriculture. Urban agriculture, in particular, could see sustained growth over the next several decades.
“We have to build a more efficient and more sustainable food system," Kopf says. "I believe the trend of moving to weather-independent growing systems will continue and we'll see technology that enables growers to increase yields and quality with fewer resources.”