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FarmSense uses sensors and machine learning to bug-proof crops

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Gnawing, burrowing, infecting: The damages caused to agriculture by insect pests like the Japanese beetle (pictured above) exceed $100 billion every year, according to the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA. And along with plant diseases, which the exoskeleton buggers can also transmit, arthropods account for the annual 40% loss of agricultural production worldwide.

Enter FarmSense, a Riverside, California-based agtech startup attempting to solve the insect pest problem. The company creates optical sensors and novel classification systems based on machine learning algorithms to identify and track insects in real time. The key here: real-time information.

They claim real-time information provided by their sensors allows for early detection and thus the timely deployment of pest-management tools, such as insecticide or biocontrols. The current mechanical traps used for monitoring may only yield important intel 10 to 14 days after the bugs’ arrival.

“Some of these bugs only live as adults for like five days, so by the time you know you have a problem, the problem has already taken root and is now a bigger problem,” said Eamonn Keogh, a co-founder of FarmSense. “Had you known about it in real time, you could have localized the intervention to just one location and had a much better outcome, saving pesticide, saving labor and saving the crop from being damaged.”

How they can provide the information critical for achieving those better outcomes is a bit complicated.

FarmSense’s new optical sensor — dubbed the FlightSensor — seen out in the field. The sensor promises to provide real-time data, as well as management strategies to help farmers mitigate damage from harmful insects. Image Credits: FarmSense

Currently being tested and researched in almond orchards in Southern California thanks to a Small Business Innovation Research grant, their newest sensor, termed the FlightSensor, is best understood when considering where Keogh got the idea for it: James Bond and Cold War espionage.

Keogh explained how Russian spies would use lasers, poised on glass window panes, to pick up on vibrations caused by people’s voices. Then a sensor would translate that information, providing rough intel on what was going on in the room.

“With the same kind of trick in mind, I imagined what would happen if a bug flew past a laser… you would hear just the bug and nothing else.”

However, instead of reading vibrations, the FlightSensor uses light curtains and shadows within a small tunnel that the insects are drawn into by attractants. On one side of the sensor is a light source and on the other the optical sensor. The sensor measures how much light is occluded, or rather how much makes it across, when an insect flies inside. That data is turned into audio and analyzed by machine learning algorithms in the cloud.

According to FarmSense, the sensor, which is designed to look like old analog devices for ease-of-use by growers, does not pick up on ambient noises, such as wind or rainfall.

“The quality of the signal is so beautifully clear and it’s so deaf to the ambient sounds normally heard in the field,” Keogh said. “It’s essentially a different modality to hear the insect, but when you put on headphones and listen to the audio clip from the sensor, it sounds just like a mosquito or a bee flying around.”

Keogh, a professor of computer science and engineering at UC Riverside, specializes in data mining and works on the novel machine learning algorithms that FarmSense employs for identification purposes. Assisting on the development and deployment are entomologists and field specialists, including co-founder Leslie Hickle.

Shailendra Singh — the company’s CEO who has developed systems for wireless and cellular networks as well as security — works on the hardware side. He provided a working price point for each sensor, which will be billed by the season, at $300.

The impact of this technology is clear. For farmers tending to fields large and small, real-time information on insects would not only be important for their financial security, but would also allow them to potentially conserve and protect critical resources, such as soil health.

But FarmSense claims it wants to empower rural farmers who they say are disproportionately impacted by the damages caused by insects.

Yet $300 per sensor per season is stiff, posing a potential risk to adoption and, thus, to the tech’s ability to even solve the issue of insect damage in the first place.

One of the most difficult things for small scale-farmers is managing risk, said Michael Carter, the director of the USDA-funded Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Markets, Risk, and Resilience and distinguished professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis.

“Risk can keep people poor. It disincentives investment in technologies that would raise income on average, because the future is unknown,” Carter said. “People with low wealth obviously don’t have a lot of savings, but they can’t risk the savings to invest in something that might improve their income that also might cause their family to starve.”

However, he was optimistic that technology like the FlightSensor could alleviate investment dread for small-scale farmers, particularly if the tech were paired with insurance to further protect them.

Shailendra Singh, left, and Eamonn Keogh are the co-founders of FarmSense, a Riverside, California agtech startup seeking to revolutionize insect surveillance. Image Credits: FarmSense

The technology also raises this question: Is real-time identification really the best option for pest management? Speaking to research entomologist Andrew Lieb of the USDA Forest Service, it might not be. He explained that the primary drivers of invasive insects — typically the most destructive to both agriculture and forests — are travel and trade.

He expressed optimism for technology as a way to control insect establishment, but ultimately thinks that the optimal strategy is to attack the problem even earlier. We should address current import and export laws, how products are treated to remove pests and perhaps even pass travel prohibitions.

Despite these concerns, it is beyond doubt that FarmSense’s technology is poised for impact. Even thinking beyond addressing financial insecurity for farmers and threats to our global food chains, it might prove useful in tracking and spreading critical information about disease-vectoring insects, like mosquitoes.

And with the continual disruption caused by COVID-19, it’s difficult to imagine a world that isn’t keenly aware of how biosecurity’s successes — or failures — ripple throughout our myriad systems.

Looking at how non-native insect invasions are expected to increase by 36% by 2050 and how growing population numbers are going to put greater pressure on food production, innovative tech like the FlightSensor that advances our capacity to understand and thoughtfully respond to threats is more than welcome.

As Carter said about all of the possible ways in which agtech still stands to benefit agriculture, “we need to be creative at those margins.”

Source: Tech

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Dashworks is a search engine for your company’s sprawling internal knowledge

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As a company grows, the amount of important information employees need to keep track of inevitably grows right along with it. And, as your tech stack gets more complicated, that information ends up split up across more places — buried in Slack threads, tucked into Jira tickets, pushed as files on Dropbox, etc.

Dashworks is a startup aiming to be the go-to place for all of that internal knowledge. Part landing page and part search engine, it hooks into dozens of different enterprise services and gives you one hub to find what you need.

On the landing page front, Dashworks is built to be your work laptop’s homepage. It’s got support for broadcasting company wide announcements, building out FAQs, and sharing bookmarks for the things you often need and can never find — your handbooks, your OKRs, your org charts, etc.

More impressive, though, is its cross-tool search. With backgrounds in natural language processing at companies like Facebook and Cresta, co-founders Prasad Kawthekar and Praty Sharma are building a tool that allow you to ask Dashworks questions and have them answered from the knowledge it’s gathered across all of those aforementioned Slack threads, or Jira tickets, or Dropbox files. It’ll give you a search results page of relevant files across the services you’ve hooked in — but if it thinks it knows the answer to your question, it’ll just bubble that answer right to the top of the page, Google Snippets style.

Image Credits: Dashworks

Right now Dashworks can hook into over 30 different popular services, including Airtable, Asana, Confluence, Dropbox, Gmail, Google Drive, Intercom, Jira, Notion, Slack, Salesforce, Trello, and a whole bunch more — with more on the way, prioritized by demand.

Giving another company access to all of those services and the knowledge within might be unsettling — something the Dashworks team seems quite aware of. Kawthekar tells me that their product is SOC-2 certified, that all respective data is wiped from their servers if you choose to disconnect a service, and that, for teams that are equipped to host the tool themselves, they offer a fully on-prem version.

This week Dashworks is announcing that it raised a $4M round led by Point72 ventures, backed by South Park Commons, Combine Fund, Garuda Ventures, GOAT Capital, Unpopular Ventures, and Starling Ventures. Also backing the round is a number of angels, including Twitch co-founder Emmett Shear and Gusto co-founders Josh Reeves and Tomer London. The company was also a part of Y Combinator’s W20 class.

Image Credits: Dashworks

Source: Tech

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Daily Crunch: Google will offer G Suite legacy edition users a ‘no-cost option’

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To get a roundup of TechCrunch’s biggest and most important stories delivered to your inbox every day at 3 p.m. PST, subscribe here.

Hello and welcome to Daily Crunch for January 28, 2022! It’s nearly blizzard o’clock where I am, so please enjoy the following newsletter as my final missive before hunkering down. In happier and better news, TechCrunch Early Stage is coming up in just a few months and not only am I hype about it, I’ll hopefully be there IRL. See you soon! – Alex

The TechCrunch Top 3

  • Google invests up to $1B in Airtel: With a $700 million investment and $300 million in “multi-year commercial agreements” with Airtel, and Indian telco, Google has made its second major bet on Indian infra. Recall that Google also put money into Jio, another Indian telco. The deal underscores the importance of the country in the future of technology revenues.
  • What’s ahead for Europe: On the heels of news that European startups had an outsized 2021 when it came to fundraising, TechCrunch explored what’s ahead for the continent. Some expect a slowdown from peak activity, while others anticipate further acceleration. Regardless of which perspective you favor, European venture investment is expected to remain elevated for some time to come.
  • Zapp raises $200M: And speaking of European startups, Zapp, the U.K.-based quick-convenience delivery startup, just raised a massive Series B. The company previously raised $100 million, meaning that this round was big in absolute and comparative terms. As we see some consolidation in the fast-delivery space, this deal caught our eye.

Startups/VC

  • Are charter cities the future for African tech growth? TechCrunch’s Tage Kene-Okafor has a great piece up on the site noting that “African cities have the fastest global urban growth rate,” which is leading to overcrowding. Some folks think that “charter cities offer a solution.” Special economic zones of all types have been tried before – will they offer African tech a faster route forward?
  • Personalized learning is hot: Our in-house edtech expert Natasah Mascarenhas has a great piece out today on personalized learning startups – Learnfully, Wayfinder, Empowerly, and others – that are taking the lessons of remote schooling to heart and working to make products that work better for our kids. It’s an encouraging, fascinating story.
  • Rise wants to remake team calendaring: There is no shortage of apps in the market to help individuals and teams work together. But we might not need as many as we have. That’s why Rise is making me think. The team calendaring app just raised a few million, and could replace a few tools that myself and friends use. I wonder if the solution to the Tool Overload of 2022 is tools that do less, intentionally.
  • Canvas wants non-tech folks to be able to squeeze answers from data: Developers are in short supply, so no-code tools that allow folks who don’t sling code to do their own building are blowing up. Similarly, a general dearth of data science talent in the market is creating space for tools like Canvas, which “is going all in with a spreadsheet-like interface for non-technical teams to access the information they need without bothering data teams,” TechCrunch reports.
  • Zigbang buys Samsung IoT business: The IoT promises of yesteryear are coming true, and not. Samsara recently went public on the back of its IoT business. That was a win for the category. That Zigbang, a South Korean proptech startup, is buying Samsung’s IoT unit feels slightly less bullish.
  • Series F-tw? Once upon a time I would have mocked a Series F as indication that the company in question had failed to go public. But that was then. Today Series Fs are not that rare. Indian B2B marketplace Moglix just raised one, which doubled its valuation to $2.6 billion. Tiger co-led the $250 million round.

And if you are looking down the barrel of a blizzard, TechCrunch’s Equity podcast has your downtime covered. Enjoy!

European, North American edtech startups see funding triple in 2021

Image Credits: Bet_Noire (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Pre-pandemic, VCs were notoriously reluctant to invest in education-related companies. Today, edtech startups are seeing higher average deal sizes, more seed and pre-seed funding from non-VC investors, and an influx of generalists.

According to Rhys Spence, head of research at Brighteye Ventures, funding for edtech startups based in Europe and North America trebled over the last year.

“Exciting companies are spawning across geographies and verticals, and even generalist investors are building conviction that the sector is capable of producing the same kind of outsized returns generated in fintech, healthtech and other sectors,” writes Spence.

(TechCrunch+ is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Big Tech Inc.

  • Northern Light Venture Capital’s He Huang says the Chinese robotics market is overheated: Per the investor, robotics in China is “riddled with speculation and overvalued companies,” calling the situation a bubble. It’s worth noting that China’s central government is working to retool where its tech investment dollars flow.
  • Robinhood goes down, back up: This morning, in the wake of the company’s lackluster earnings report, TechCrunch dug through why Robinhood’s stock sold off in after-hours, pre-market, and early trading sessions yesterday and today. And then Robinhood turned around and gained ample ground during the rest of the day. It’s a weird market moment, but good news for the U.S. fintech all the same.
  • Google to allow legacy G Suite users to move to free accounts: After angering techies still using the “G Suite legacy free edition” by announcing that it was ending the program and requiring payment, the search giant has decided to ”offer more options to existing users,” TechCrunch reports. Somewhere inside of Google, a business decision just met the market and was flipped on its head. Makes you wonder who is calling the shots over there, and if they previously worked for McKinsey.

TechCrunch Experts

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3 experiments for early-stage founders seeking product-market fit

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At Human Ventures, we have a fund for pre-seed and seed-stage investments, a venture studio and an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) program.

Through this work, we’ve discovered a lot about how different founders fulfill their journey of customer discovery and product-market fit. One of the largest challenges for pre-seed and seed stage founders is determining where to start: There are a million things to do. What should you do at each stage?

We interviewed three founders from our portfolio, all of whom ran discovery experiments to find their product-market fit at different stages of their company’s development.

Here’s what they had to share:

Pre-MVP/customer discovery phase: Tiny Organics

Tiny Organics is a plant-based baby and toddler food company on a mission to shape childrens’ palates so they’ll choose and love vegetables from their earliest days. The company raised $11 million in their Series A in 2021 and is growing at over 500% annually.

Founders Sofia Laurell and Betsy Fore joined our venture studio as EIRs and went through a six-week discovery sprint. As Sofia explains, they knew they wanted to build something to make parents’ lives easier and threw a lot of initial ideas at the wall from the Finnish baby box 2.0 (Sofia is Finnish) to an easier way to create Instagrammable baby pictures.

They went through multiple exercises to test the viability of new parents’ most pressing and urgent needs:

  • Conduct a “Start with Why” exercise
  • Define the “Jobs to be Done”
  • Create a lean canvas for each (viable) concept
  • Define the user journeys
  • Conduct user surveys using platforms like pollfish.com and 1Q (instant survey tool)
  • Identify and define their customer personas
  • Conduct customer interviews and synthesize them
  • Construct concept prototypes

They also met prospective customers, conducting a focus group of 10-15 moms. When the founders asked them to text them what they were feeding their children along with pictures for a week, they realized the lack of healthy finger foods in the market, thus sparking the idea for Tiny Organics.

Source: Tech

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