Put yourself in the shoes of a farmer with a strawberry crop that’s being harvested tomorrow. You have the option of selling it to a grocer for a high price, or selling to a juicer for a lower price. If you send the strawberries to a grocer but they turn out to be of low quality, they will be rejected and you will lose a lot of money. But playing it safe and sending high quality berries to a juicer leaves a crop of cash on the table.
So how do you predict if your berries will make the premium cut? Knowing the exact weather conditions in your strawberry field in the days leading up to the harvest would help you make the correct decision. For example, if it was too warm and wet over the last week, the crop is at risk for having skins that are too soft and prone to rot, and not likely to be accepted as premium quality.
“If it’s good quality, we can sell it at a premium price, or if it’s bad quality, we should juice it. There is a cost to not knowing that about your potential harvest,” says Adam Wolf, a Princeton University professor turned businessman. “There is a huge amount of stuff that gets shipped and then rejected and it didn’t get used for anything. It may as well be used to make smoothies. There is about a 50 percent loss in specialty crops and fresh produce from when it was harvestable to the fridge.”
It’s a high stakes call, and one that must be made based on very little information and often the intuition of the farmer. Wolf, founder of Tulane Street-based startup Arable Labs, wants to replace hunches with hard data. His company aims to bring predictive analytics, used in other industries to make such decisions, to farmers of all sizes around the world.
The device at the heart of this new business is the Arable Mark, which is a sleek, dinner plate-sized disc covered in solar panels that looks sort of like a UFO prop from an old sci-fi movie. This $650 bit of electronics is a product of the “Internet of Things” age. It is powered by solar panels, stuffed with every possible kind of sensor, and can communicate back to the farmer via wifi, cell phone, or bluetooth. A microphone measures rainfall by the sound of the raindrops, a spectrometer looks at plants to see how tall and green they are, and other sensors measure air temperature, air pressure, and humidity. It is meant to replace weather stations that cost $2,000 or more and perform fewer functions, Wolf says.
Arable was founded in 2012 but only recently began selling its product. So far Arable has sold 400 units out of its first production run of 600 at a sales pace of about $100,000 a month. “That may not sound like nothing, but for a startup it is awesome,” Wolf says.
The business has also attracted the attention of venture capitalists and recently raised more than $4 million in financing.
Early adopters of the Arable Mark are scattered all over the world: Valley Irrigation, a pivot sprinkler manufacturer; Yara International, a Norwegian fertilizer maker; the Francis Ford Coppola Winery Treasury Wine Estates; Driscoll’s berry growers; and Blue Marble Microinsurance are all on board.
Arable is planning a second production run of 1,400 followed by 3,000 next spring. The next version of the devices will be on the Verizon cell phone network, which has better service in rural areas than other providers.
With the information provided by the sensors and analysis provided by Arable’s platform, Wolf hopes farmers will be able to eliminate much of the food waste. Wolf cites figures that say globally about $3.7 trillion worth of food is grown and then thrown away before even reaching a fridge. “What if half of all the circuit boards that got made were thrown away? Somebody would be fired,” Wolf says.
The inefficiency of crop use is a worldwide problem, he says. “From Africa all the way to the most sophisticated operation here in America, we have a supply chain that is from the 19th century.”
Wolf is familiar with the problems of agriculture in the developing world.
Wolf, a former ecology and evolutionary biology professor, got the idea for his company on a research trip to Africa, where he was studying droughts and attempting to predict corn growth. The work was made complicated by the difficulty of measuring conditions on farms throughout Kenya, Namibia, and other countries, where few farmers had the complex and expensive weather stations that allow farmers to precisely record rainfall, temperature, and other key data.
“I am sick of there being no weather stations in Africa,” Wolf said.
After earning his master’s degree Wolf took a trip to Kazakhstan, where he helped its government on a project to mitigate extreme weather changes. Shortly after returning, he used $4 million in grants from the National Science Foundation to build the first prototype.
Wolf’s background made him uniquely qualified to recognize the problem and create a technological solution for it.
Wolf grew up in California, where his heroes were the craft brewers, like Sierra Nevada, which were overturning the beer industry at the time. As a student at UC Davis, Wolf worked at Chez Panisse, the famous Berkeley restaurant, and his mother, a chef, encouraged his interest in food. His obsession with the beer brewing process led him to study first fermentation science, then the growing of hops and wheat. Everything he learned led him to an expanding array of subject areas. “Food is where politics and economics and law and sociology meet the physics of land, air, power, water, oil, and plant genetics,” Wolf says.
His interest in cuisine continues to this day. He goes out to restaurants once a month with his father, a tax attorney, and his wife, Michelle Fuerst, is a private chef who did recipe testing for Agricola Restaurant.
Wolf earned a master’s degree in agronomy at UC Davis and later worked as an advisor at the cooperative extension, helping farmers improve their operations. He went to Stanford for his doctorate, earning his PhD in 2010, and then became a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton.
At Stanford Wolf studied biology and worked on a project with a professor who was finding ways monitor crops from satellites.
This work involved a lot of computerized number crunching. “I was mostly doing computer models,” he says. But aerial photos only provided limited data to work with. Wolf wanted to know more about the conditions on the ground. He was coming up against the limitations of using such blunt tools as satellite photos to try to infer how things worked.
The history of science leads Wolf to believe that better measuring devices will lead to new insights into agriculture. “If we can measure something, we can learn something about it,” he says. “The ability to measure things often preceded major new insights into the natural world,” he says.
So despite having never been an engineer, Wolf set about learning how to design circuit boards. He designed devices to collect data and then learned how to transmit the information over the Internet and organize it in databases. He began to build his own instruments for this task.
Wolf created the first prototypes of what would become the Arable Mark while working as a Princeton University researcher, deploying the first models in Africa with the help of a grant. Wolf’s early model sensors were boxy and metallic, covered in knobs and wires, much like the weather stations they are meant to surpass. “We realized pretty early on that making these things was a huge pain,” he says. “They were hard to assemble and hard to maintain.”
Wolf also realized that the devices he was making for scientific purposes would have great potential in the commercial world if the design were refined. Not only would farmers find the data helpful, but insurers would also have an incentive to deploy Arable’s sensors, which could help them assess the risk of a farm suffering a drought or losing a crop, much like car companies use on-board sensors on cars to determine the driving habits, and crash risk, of their clients.
Another potential use for the Arable Mark is to verify certifications. For example, if a grower wanted to advertise its crops as being made with efficient water use, data from the Arable Mark could provide a way for the farmer to prove that minimal irrigation was used, and groups that issue certifications would have a way to hold growers accountable to standards.
The first commercial version of the Arable Mark was called the PulsePod, named after its early connection to Princeton University’s PULSe engineering lab, where Wolf worked to develop it. The device has outgrown the name since Arable doesn’t have any formal connection to the university, and it turned out there were several other devices, including a vape, that were also called “Pulsepod.”
The invention went from clunky contraption to sleek market-ready device with the help of designer Fred Bould, who is an investor in Arable. Bould also designed such consumer electronics as the Roku TV streaming device, the Nest thermostat, the GoPro camera, and the FitBit fitness tracker. His version of the device includes a plug-in port for an optional soil moisture sensor, and a mounting bracket so the Arable can be set up horizontally atop a pole, or sideways on an existing weather station or pole. Either way, it’s situated above the crops, where it can collect sunlight, where its spectrometer can look down and measure how green and how tall the plants below are, and where it will not be stepped on or run over by tractors.
The smallness and simplicity of the device is an advantage over conventional weather stations. It has no complicated setup, no wires to plug in, and no vulnerable parts for rats to chew up.
Arable was well received from its founding in 2012. An early investor was Chase Field LLC, a small venture capital firm on Hulfish Street. Nick Travers, a partner in the firm said he has invested about $1 million in Arable because he was impressed by how it planned to use data gathering technology to add value to the supply chain. “The data the sensors can gather makes better decision making possible at every step of the way, for the grower, the processor, the shipper, and the buyer,” he says.
Wolf says that a trial customer, Driscoll’s, a California berry-growing giant, was able to save $18,000 per field per week by having more accurate yield forecasts.
Arable is one of the larger investments of Chase Field, which has also given money to Hamilton-based Bai Brands (which was recently bought by Dr. Pepper for $1 billion) and the Bank of Princeton.
Chase Field discovered Arable when it was based in the Tigerlabs incubator on Nassau Street, after Travers saw the company pop up in a Google alert he had set for Princeton startups. This spring Arable moved out of Tigerlabs to its own office in a converted home on Tulane Street. Wolf says Princeton has turned out to be an ideal location for the high-tech company, since there is a wealth of talent available to hire. For example, Warren Baelen, the vice president of software engineering, was snatched up by Arable after being laid off from IBM, which recently closed a Princeton location in 2016 (the former Softech location on Campus Drive, U.S. 1, June 15, 2016.)
In March Arable received $4.25 million in financing from a slew of investors led by Middleland Capital, based in Washington, D.C. Arable has also gotten off the ground with the help of a federal SBIR grant for high-tech small businesses, which it got with the help of the NJ Economic Development Authority.
Wolf wants Arable to become known as more than a device maker. “We frame ourselves as a data and analytics company,” he says. After all, the clients — currently farmers, and in the future, insurance companies — are actually interested in the information provided by the device and the insights it can offer into crucial decisions. Subscriptions to the analytics platform cost $250 a year. Wolf says the platform allows farmers to see historical data all in one place, rather than having to compile it from many different sources, or rely on half-remembered information from previous years.
Arable gives farmers the tools to measure variables like sunlight, temperature, rainfall, amount of irrigation, and other factors, and then correlate them with outcome of plant growth. He says the company will stop short of offering recommendations to the farmer about what to do with this information.
Wolf says the company is currently focused on customer satisfaction, and it has been hiring employees to help clients use the Arable Mark to full effect. Arable is also using data from its current clients to further develop its major selling point: the ability to predict crop growth based on what the Arable Mark measures. “It’s been an exciting 12 months,” Wolf says.
Arable, 40 North Tulane Street, Princeton 08540. Adam Wolf, founder. www.arable.com.
Chase Field LLC, 47 Hulfish Street, Suite 330, Princeton 08542. 609-430-9526. Peter J. Travers, managing partner.