Discover more from Startup Pirate by Alex Alexakis
Fighting The Climate Crisis
Climate crisis and sustainable agriculture with Augmenta, Skroutz Point, the journey of Think Silicon, funding rounds, jobs, web3 resources, and more
Happy Friday! Welcome to Hunting Greek Unicorns #42. I’m Alex, a product guy turned VC, and every two weeks I send out a newsletter with everything you need to know about the Greek startup industry.
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🌍 Fighting the climate crisis with sustainable agriculture
This week, we deep dive into a startup that addresses one of the greatest problems of our times. With the power of computer vision and big data, a team of farmers and engineers started in 2018 with a mission to revolutionise agriculture and offer a new sustainable way to farm lands. But before that, let’s first go down the rabbit hole of greenhouse gas emissions, food production and precision agriculture.
The climate crisis is playing out in the here and now, accelerating for years with rising global average temperatures and sea levels. It’s not some distant future event anymore. Ok, that’s mainstream news: decarbonizing the economy, COP26, Tesla worth as much as the 9 largest carmakers, etc. Hell, even Greta Thunberg, the 18-year-old environmental activist, has 5.1 million Twitter followers. People are realising that the crisis is imminent. A national US survey found that the Americans, who believe global warming is happening, outnumbered those who think it’s not, by a ratio of more than 4 to 1 (70% versus 15%). The percentage is much higher among Europeans, with 93% of them considering climate change a serious problem. Is this the next crisis humanity will have to deal with after COVID-19?
Human activities have fundamentally increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4), leading to a warmer planet by blocking heat from escaping.
Which are these activities? Transportation, manufacturing, energy use in residential and commercial buildings, food production, direct industrial processes, and many more. Let’s zoom in on food production for a second. Feeding the global population is currently one of the largest contributors to the climate crisis, responsible for about a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions! Clearly, this is not sustainable, especially if you think that the number of humans on the planet is expected to rise by approximately 2 billion by 2050. We need more food, but less environmental impact.
Crop production amidst a climate crisis
The agricultural activities to produce food for humans and animals rank #2, after livestock and fisheries, in their contribution to the environmental footprint associated with food production. Why? Well, the story goes back to the early 1900s, but long story short, scientists invented fertilizers to supply plants with nitrogen (an essential nutrient for plants to grow), which revolutionised farming as they let farmers grow more food on less land. Nevertheless, this has come at a cost.
Crops only take up, on average, about half of the nitrogen they get from fertilizers. Much of the applied fertilizer runs off into waterways, or gets broken down by microbes in the soil, releasing the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. Although nitrous oxide accounts for only a small fraction of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, pound for pound, nitrous oxide warms the planet 300 times as much as carbon dioxide.
In fact, agriculture accounts for 80% of human-caused nitrous oxide emissions. If we add up poor farming practices, over-harvesting, herbicides/pesticides, then you can easily understand the toll we are paying to meet the growing food demand. Stricter fertilizer regulations are necessary, yet the farmers’ fears that these will lead to loss of crops (and therefore a significant loss of their families’ income) are rising (e.g. Germany, Sri Lanka) and rightfully so.
Here’s the thing; what if there was a way to increase production while preserving the environment at the same time? What if there were modern and efficient ways to apply fertilizers to the farmers’ fields? Other than just applying them in the same volume across the field, which is the default way and leads to overfertilization. Simply put, a way to match plant nitrogen needs with the nitrogen that’s supplied.
Welcome to the era of sustainable farming led by technology 🌱
Precision Agriculture to the rescue
There’s a new buzz phrase in the past years called precision agriculture or precision farming. Perhaps the easiest way to understand it is to think of it as everything that makes the practice of farming more accurate and controlled. It started with the introduction of GPS guidance for tractors in the early 1990s, and it expanded to include drones, satellite imagery, variable application of inputs, etc.
Nevertheless, uptake by farmers has been slow. For instance, drones and satellites are confined to a data collection role, with no real-time application. They take field images, which have to be processed off-site and need human interpretation before the information can be applied (essentially, hand over a map to the farmer with instructions on how to apply agrochemical inputs). Overall, product market fit for the majority of solutions has been non-existent, falling short of farmers’ expectations.
Enter Augmented Farming. Enter Augmenta.
Back in 2016, Dimitri Evangelopoulos and George Varvarelis, two young farmers, were studying engineering, doing research on computer vision and big data. They had experienced the pain themselves, spending lots of money on fertilizers and pesticides, because experts were advising them to opt for the greatest volume of chemicals to ensure maximum possible yield; the prevalent strategy worldwide to date. I reached out to George, Augmenta’s CEO, to learn more about their journey. That’s how they first came up with the idea:
While we were driving through the field, we were carefully observing how different the crop was from one point to another and at the same time looking at our tractor’s monitor where a “blanket” rate of chemicals was applied to the entire field. We simply thought the obvious: A healthy part of the crop does not have the same needs as an unhealthy one, so there’s massive opportunity for optimization.
A couple of years later, Augmenta was born! They started building on an AI solution for farming, with sustainable agriculture in mind. The way it works is the following: a tractor-mounted multispectral-camera hardware is placed on the cabin roof of any ordinary tractor.
The device scans the field as the tractor drives through during normal farming operations (here’s a video demonstrating how Augmenta’s system sees the field). The crop condition of each plant is analysed on the go through machine learning algorithms and Augmenta feeds the data real-time to the tractor (via ISOBUS - think tractor API system), while this is also presented to the farmer by a modern interface. As the tractor drives through the field, it uses this information to automatically apply variable rates of agrochemical inputs (e.g. fertilizer) via the spreaders/sprayers of the tractor. What’s the end result? Farmers apply the exact quantity of inputs needed on every inch of a field. Fewer chemicals, more yield.
I have an Android device inside my tractor, all I have to do is select field monitoring… this morning I’m spraying, so I’m going to enter 120 feet… checkmark… As I go through the field, these colours on the screen will change and that’s all I need to do.
That’s a quote from a US farmer after he has hopped on the tractor to start his day using Augmenta.
What started off in a small field in the region of Thessaly, Greece, has now grown to become a climate tech solution used by 100-hectare family-run farms, 50k-hectare agroholding businesses and the biggest OEMs in agriculture. Augmenta is operating in 6 continents and backed by CNH Industrial, the world's second-largest agricultural equipment maker, as well as VC funds such as Marathon Venture Capital, HCVC and Pymwymic. It’s currently used in crops such as corn, wheat, cotton, rice, canola and sugarbeets, and adding more every year. In addition, chemical reductions observed to date average 9% for nitrogen, 20% for plant growth regulators and 15% for harvest aids compared to traditional practices, with a yield increase of at least 2% (up to 12% in certain fields). Fewer chemicals, more yield.
As George explained, this is just the beginning:
The technology we develop is based on AI and big data. It’s self-learning both at the farm and the region level. In simple words, every year that a farmer uses Augmenta on their farm, they should expect self-calibrating optimizations based not only on the previous year’s results, but also based on the results of fellow farmers in the region. Hence, the percentages of chemical reduction and yield increase are expected to rise further, as we get more farmers using our system and Augmenta operating on more and more hectares. We want to help as many farmers as possible, promoting sustainability and increasing their yields. We want to be able to serve every hectare across the world.
The team is planning to enable even more operations for its customers (e.g. spot spraying on pesticides - known as Green on Brown, applying fungicides, and more), while also increasing the types of crops that its system is relevant for (from vineyards to tomatoes and berries). With eyes on the ground, Augmenta is building a unique agriculture dataset; close-up imagery from the fields, including 4k videos and several GBs of data per hectare, with thousands of hectares scanned per year. This is unlocking more use cases that were previously unthought of, for farmers, food companies, agricultural insurance companies, banks, governments, etc. A full-blown big data company for agriculture.
Where other precision agriculture technologies fall short, Augmenta promises a solution by farmers to farmers: increase your crop production, don’t change your working habits, reduce your environmental footprint. In the face of rising population and ecological degradation, it’s now more important than ever to understand the crucial role of farmers and provide them with the right tools to navigate the next decades, producing more food on less land. Within these clashing rocks, farmers walk the thinnest of tightropes: feed the world, while saving the planet! As the ancient Indian Vedas recognised more than 4,000 years ago:
Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Care for it and it will grow our food, our fuel, our shelter, and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.
The climate crisis is emerging as one of the biggest threats, as well as one of the biggest opportunities for humanity in the coming decades. In fact, this could be humanity's finest hour: humans fighting against an existential crisis that affects everyone. We either all succeed or fail.
🦄 Startup Jobs
Looking for your next opportunity? Check out job postings from Greek startups in Greece, abroad, and remotely. Company information is also available.
Axelar raised funding from the investment arm of Crypto[dot]com and other investors to help users, assets, and dApps connect across multiple blockchain ecosystems, unlocking cross-chain communication.
The "buy now, pay later" startup Finloup raised a €1m pre-seed round from Velocity Partners, TECS Capital, Everypay and angel investors.
Skroutz launched Skroutz Point, smart lockers that customers can use as pickup points for their orders, starting from Athens.
More details on the upcoming spin-off legislation for Greek research centres, here.
Booking acquired Etraveli Group, the company formed after the merger between Etraveli and the Greek travel startup E-travel (Pamediakopes) in 2017, for $1.83b.
🤓 Interesting Reads
A list of resources that takes people down the web3 rabbit hole by Alex Letsas, MBA Candidate at MIT.
Panayotis Vryonis launched a newsletter in Greek on web3 trends. First issue was a deep dive on Axie Infinity, an NFT-based online video game, here.
A post on the metaverse and the digital world becoming increasingly present and ubiquitous by Vassilis Tziokas, Global Industry GTM Lead, Data & AI at Microsoft.
A post by Jimmy Guerrero, VP of Marketing at Arrikto, discussing machine learning on Kubernetes.
The assessment for a Product Manager Growth position by Konstantinos Giamalis, Chief Product Officer of efood.
Thanos Karagiannis, Senior Software Engineer at Simpler, examines different approaches and practices regarding the folder structure of an application, here.
The journey of Think Silicon that led to the acquisition by Applied Materials with George Sidiropoulos and Iakovos Stamoulis, founders of Think Silicon, here.
A podcast with Maria Chatzou Dunford, founder & CEO of Lifebit, on launching Lifebit, genomics research, and women in tech entrepreneurship.
A podcast with Panos Siozos, founder & CEO of LearnWorlds, on his journey helping creators to monetize e-learning courses.
Nikolas Bompos, Marketplace Operations at Skroutz, and Stefanos Katsimpas, co-founder & Business Director of Skroutz Last Mile, on Skroutz marketplace, the rise of Greek e-commerce, and the company’s last mile efforts, here.
Future Talks with Christos Ellinas, co-founder & CTO of Nodes & Links, on scaling Nodes & Links and tackling the complex challenges in large-scale infrastructure projects, here.
A podcast with Dimitris Psaltoulis, VP of People at Blueground, discussing work-from-anywhere initiatives from an employer perspective, challenges and how to address them.
“19o Open Coffee Heraklion” by Open Coffee Heraklion on November 27
“Optimizing Laravel Performance” by Athens Laravel Meetup on November 30
“Greek Startups meet U.S. Incubators” by Consulate General of Greece in San Francisco on December 2
“Munich Greeks in Tech” by Marathon Venture Capital on December 8
“UX maturity in organizations” by Athens UX Community on December 8
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Thanks for reading and see you in two weeks,
Greek Startup Pirate 👋