Thursday, December 2, 2010

Venture Capital Down on the Farm

"Yup, I used to raise corn for ethanol. But then the topsoil blew away and I couldn't even get enough juice to run my tractor or get drunk on Saturday. Then this stranger came to town. Ordered something called a 'la-tay' and called himself a 'vee-cee.' Said he'd give me $20 million to come to Californee and herd algae. So we packed up our furniture in his little toy car and came west. Now I've got a regular bonanza of the slimy critters and the kids got shoes. Hain't looked over my shoulder back east since."
-from our post "Algaen Gothic"
american gothic parody

Sincere apologies to the Grant Wood Estate
Here's a roundup from Greentech:

For the Modern Farmer, A Carbon Nanotube Probe

Carbon nanotubes are stronger than steel, conduct electricity better than metals and can fleece water of impurities better than many conventional systems.

And now they might show up on the farm.
CleanGrow, based in Ireland, has developed a carbon nanotube-based sensor for monitoring the level of nutrients in crops. Changing the mix of nutrients can allow farmers to alter the color or maturity rate of fruit, flowers or vegetables. With interesting in vertical farming and resource-efficient agriculture on the rise, it’s the kind of tool that could find a ready audience.
“They’ve never been able to manage nutrients on a real-time basis,” said CEO Ciaran Long. “Everyone sends out their data to a lab.”

Sending data to a lab, of course, takes time. Many of the labs are in the Netherlands and the round trip can take close to a week. Lettuce only takes about 28 days to grow, so a week is 1/4th of its life. The main concerns of farmers, he added, is yield, yield, yield, and increased yield.

So how does it work? Conventional nutrient probes are analog devices and capture a composite picture of the current environmental conditions in miniature. In CleanGrow’s device, a nanotube sensor tuned to a specific ion—nitrate, sodium etc .—sits on one side of a membrane. As water passes through, the sensor detects the presence and quantity of the target ion.

Up to 18 different sensors tuned to different ions can be placed on a probe head.
“It’s solid state so it never wears out,” he said. “You can bash it about…The carbon nanotubes allow you to go solid state.

While venture capitalists will often talk about the growing importance of the food and water markets, agriculture hasn’t been showered with the whopping loads of money that have gone into biofuels, solar and energy efficiency. Nonetheless, interest seems to be growing. Many of these start-ups will sell straight to agribusiness, not government agencies, which makes them more attractive to investors.  Some (like CleanGrow) are really mostly taking IT tools to farms, similar to the way efficiency companies have brought networking to air conditioning and lights. That’s an easier sell to investors.
Others to keep an eye out for:

Kaiima: The Israeli outfit has come up with a way to genetically enhance food crops in a manner that gets around regulations surrounding GMOs. (Company execs can also explain what’s behind those freakishly large strawberries.)

AeroFarm Systems: Calling themselves "The Future of Urban Agriculture," AeroFarm is developing aeroponic technology for growers of "leafy greens" in the $4 billion bag salad market.  The design of their farming systems uses no soil, a minimum of fertilizers and water, and can be stacked to maximize space.   The company envisions using buildings in NYC to grow salad greens with enormous yields using LED-based lighting.  Grow lights could be an early application for LEDs.

Inka Biospheric Systems: Vertical food growing systems and "micro-farms" that support hydroponics -- suitable for urban gardens.

Local Dirt: An early-stage firm that matches producers of locally grown food with buyers.

Marrone Bio Innovations: Environmentally responsible products for weed, plant disease and invasive pest management.  Marrone uses naturally occurring microorganisms for Integrated Pest Management -- insecticides, herbicides and products for controlling invasive mussels in waterways.  Founder Pam Marrone also founded AgraQuest, another biopesticide company.

Open Blue Sea Farms: Open ocean, caged "free-range" fish farmers.  Open Blue’s initial species is Cobia, a sashimi-grade, marine white fish, targeted for the gourmet seafood market, the upper 20% of the seafood industry in the U.S....MORE