What do an autonomous de-weeder, soil health tests and a robotic harvester all have in common?  They were among the innovative technologies “pitched” during Innovation Arena II at Western Growers 91st Annual Meeting in Kaua‘i.

Six start-up companies—all developing innovative solutions to agriculture’s most pressing challenges—brought their “A” game to the second annual Innovation Arena, where they competed for a complimentary one-year membership with Western Growers, a customized arrangement for expanded exposure through the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology and a feature story about their technologies in the WG&S magazine.

The Competition

Nearly 50 startup companies applied to compete in this year’s Innovation Arena, more than doubling last year’s total of 20 applicants.  After being carefully reviewed by WG’s Food Safety/Science & Technology Subcommittee, the following six were selected to travel to Hawaii to pitch their technologies to a panel of judges: Agralogics, California Safe Soil, CropX, DeepLook, Harvest CROO Robotics and Trace Genomics.

During the competition, a representative from each startup was given 10 minutes to make their pitch, detailing the benefits of their solution to the fresh produce industry.  Sammy Duda, chairman of the Food Safety/Science & Technology Committee and incoming chairman of the Board of Directors, moderated the session, facilitating the eight minutes of Q&A from the judges and the audience.

The competitors were then scored on several different criteria including the utility and uniqueness of the product, the expertise of the firm’s leadership team, the viability of its market strategy and its competitive position in the marketplace.  When the pitches were completed and votes were tallied, Trace Genomics was selected as the Audience’s Choice winner and Agralogics was chosen as the Judge’s Choice winner.

“Agriculture today is going through a transformation where there’s a massive amount of data being generated…Our technology helps makes sense of that data,” said Sumer Johal, CEO and founder of Agralogics. “From irrigation to harvest to food safety management, our goal is to help Western Growers members make better use of the data so they can be more productive and efficient, ultimately allowing them to grow more food for the world we need to sustain.”

Agralogics and Trace Genomics—both of whom are already residents in the WG Center for Innovation & Technology—will receive benefits including prominent networking opportunities with leading fresh produce companies; ample exposure to agricultural-related organizations throughout California, Arizona and Colorado; training and mentorship from industry professionals, including legal, HR, insurance, financial and communications experts; and more.

“We are really hoping to get the word out there and invite partners and early adopters to come join us in our initiative,” said Diane Wu, co-founder of Trace Genomics, which creates soil health tests for soil microbes.  “We believe it has to be a community effort to fight diseases like Fusarium, Phytophthora and Verticillium.  By winning this innovation arena, we hope people will be motivated to come work with us to try to solve these disease problems in the future.”

Looking Into the Future

With the second Innovation Arena now in the books, Western Growers looks to host additional events that further connect budding agtech companies with the resources they need to help bring their product to market.

Western Growers Senior Vice President, Strategic Planning, Science & Technology Hank Giclas said that as a leader in the agtech realm, one of the association’s goals is to facilitate conversations between startups and WG members, ensuring that farmers understand the innovations and support the agtech movement, and, conversely, that agtech startups understand the needs of the industry to better inform the development of their technologies.

“Western Growers is the hub of agtech innovation for the specialty crop sector,” said Giclas.

“We have a network of industry members and a network of startups working on innovative solutions for agriculture.  Our goal is to combine those two groups and the Innovation Arena is one avenue where we can do that.”

Giclas noted that in the upcoming year, Western Growers and its Center for Innovation & Technology plan to host short sessions that highlight specific technologies that solve targeted industry needs.  This includes solutions to issues surrounding water quantity and quality, as well as technologies that focus on mechanization to provide relief to labor challenges.

“We plan to take a more solutions-orientated role.  During this first year, the Center has grown organically and going forward we are going to zero in and seek out technologies that solve the industry’s most immediate needs”

Here’s a look at all 6 competitors of Innovation Arena II:

Agralogics: Agralogics offers a collaboration management platform that allows growers to easily access and share information about the food they grow.  Through SaaS-based applications and services, Agralogics provides farmers with detailed analytics about their crops—information about everything from weather, thermal energy, soil quality, pollination and more.

Trace Genomics: Trace Genomics has launched a genetic test for soil microbes to give growers an unprecedented look into the biology of their soil.  Trace Genomics makes it easy for any grower to send in a soil sample and, within just a few weeks, receive an actionable report on both beneficial and harmful microbes that are found in the sample.  The information provided by the Trace Genomics test provides the foundational knowledge that enables growers to evaluate their soils for disease pressures, microbial diversity indices that are associated with soil health and resilience, and efficacy of various cultural practices and soil amendment products.

California Safe Soil: California Safe Soil recycles food from supermarkets that can no longer be sold or donated, converting it into Harvest-to-Harvest fertilizer (H2H), for use in commercial and organic fertilizer and feed and retail lawn and garden markets.  New technology—using heat, mechanical action and enzymes—converts a heterogenous food feedstock into a homogenous, high-nutrient liquid fertilizer that stimulates the growth of soil organisms, increasing soil organic matter.

CropX: CropX provides an integrated hardware and software solution for soil moisture monitoring. CropX integrates proven reliable soil moisture measuring hardware with a robust cellular communication system and state of the art mobile applications to create a soil moisture measurement system that is simple, affordable and actionable.  CropX offers volumetric soil water sensors that seamlessly connect to the internet, are easy to relocate from field to field and which transmit data to the cloud and onto any connected device providing near real time measurement of soil conditions.

DeepLook: DeepLook builds weeding robots that can go through the field autonomously, distinguish weed from the crop and mechanically remove weeds.  DeepLook uses no chemicals and almost zero labor time, thus giving back both time and money to farmers.  Vegetable farms who used to rely on manual weeding now have an organic, affordable and scalable alternative.  One of the robots can weed up to 4 acres a day and cost only around $50k, which makes it a very competitive alternative for current weeding processes in U.S. vegetable farms.

Harvest CROO Robotics: Harvest CROO Robotics is developing a fully autonomous robotic harvester for fresh strawberries.  Strawberry growers will benefit from having a reliable cost effective way to harvest their crops.  An automated strawberry harvester would also benefit growers of other crops that are suffering from this shortage by freeing up available labor.  The business model is to lease machines to growers on a per-box basis to emulate how they do business now, which is to pay humans a piece-rate.