Do you know what Uber, Snapchat, Dropbox, Pinterest and Climate Corporation all have in common? They’re all known as “unicorns” – start-up companies that are valued at more than $1 billion.
Technically, Climate Corporation was purchased by Monsanto in 2013 for $930 million and therefore falls short of the exact definition, but Arama Kukutai, partner with Finistere Ventures, says it’s close enough to count as the first so-called “ag unicorn.” He says that move has helped usher in a “gold rush” of new digital ag startups hoping to make their own fortunes.
“A plethora of startups are now attempting to persuade farmers they can deliver more value per acre,” Kukutai says. “In doing so, these early innovators hope to convince investors that they can get the attention of the other ‘Big 6’ players and rapidly grow onto millions of acres with software-like margins.”
Investors have flocked ag tech in recent years, Kukutai says. AgFunder says funding reached an all-time high of $4.6 billion in 2015 – nearly double from a year prior. The money went toward diverse projects, from alternative protein companies to biological inputs, drones and robotics.
Is this momentum sustainable? Kukutai argues that these startups could have an uphill battle ahead of them.
“Farmers demand a step change in value,” he says. “The jury is out on whether this wave of innovation will lead to strong market adoption. Only startups delivering on a clear value promise will be able to scale and drive profitability.”
On the upside, farmers can access more data more cheaply than ever, Kukutai says.
“[This is] changing the farmer’s ability to both digest information and to automate via internet-connected farm equipment, devices and infrastructure,” he says. “Of course, with more data comes the challenge of making sense of it and acting upon it in a timely manner.”
The first wave of digital ag companies has focused largely on better data collection and visualization, Kukutai says. He says the next wave has to demonstrate economic utility, improved functionality or ease of use to gain traction. On average, farmers expect a $3 gain for every $1 invested in technology, he says.
“The challenge is clear for the precision ag startup,” Kukutai says. “[They must] not just capture acres, but show farmers there is significant value embedded in the data they can unlock.”
Will the ag industry see another startup unicorn again soon? Time will tell, but keep your eyes peeled – ag tech startups and funding continue to race forward.