January 3, 2017
Although agriculture is an ancient endeavor requiring little more than seeds, sunlight, and water, new technologies are helping commercial growers to be more efficient and prolific than ever. Spensa Technologies, a Purdue University spinout startup, is aiming to change the way pests are managed with an automated, connected device called Z-Trap 1.
Commercially available for the first time, the Z-Trap hardware is designed to integrate with Spensa AP, the company’s agronomic platform, to allow growers and agronomists to record pest data and track larvae life from a smartphone or browser. The technology also uses data visualization to monitor pest populations geographically over time. The company said all of Spensa’s products are intended to save farmers time, money, and labor.
Spensa CEO Johnny Park, formerly a computer engineering professor, says before he began the research that eventually led to the formation of Spensa in 2009, that the closest he had come to farming was “driving down the highway next to a corn field.”
His journey into the world of agtech began in 2008, when he applied for a grant from the USDA for a project that sought to incorporate robotics and computer vision into farming. He ended up scoring $6.4 million, and he used the money to study the various challenges faced by the industry.
“I was fascinated by the opportunities agriculture presented,” Park says. “I felt it was an area where I could really make a positive impact. I got to work with industry experts who offered a vast amount of expertise.”
Back then, Park notes, it didn’t seem like there were many tech startups attempting to innovate in agriculture. Things changed dramatically, he says, after Monsanto paid $930 million to acquire Climate Corporation in 2013.
Climate Corp. underwrote weather insurance for farmers, and Forbes reported that the deal signaled Monsanto’s desire to sell data and related services to farmers who were already buying its seeds and chemicals—and the fact that the multinational paid almost a billion dollars for a startup seemed to indicate that Monsanto expected technological advances in agriculture to be big business. The deal also seemed to be an acknowledgement that pests were building a tolerance to Monsanto’s genetically modified (GMO) seeds meant to control insects.
“That woke everybody up,” Park recalls.
As part of the research he did under the 2008 USDA grant, Park hit on the notion of automating insect monitoring. Today, he says, growers hang sticky strips of tape from trees (think old-fashioned fly traps) and then send people out into the field to count the insects and record the number—and then repeat the process for hundreds of traps. And why would farmers devote so much time to such a tedious process? Because it’s hugely important, Park says.
“It tells growers where and when to apply pesticide,” he explains. “There’s a significant economic impact. Even though it’s labor-intensive, monitoring is critical.”
So Park decided to build a company around the automation of that process. Last year, Spensa released its OpenScout app, which allows farmers to take photos and organize
and visualize their pest data; that data can then be used to create a report.
The Z-Trap works a little differently. A box with sensors replaces the sticky tape of yesterday; it’s hung on trees and emits pheromones to attract pests. Once the insects make contact with the Z-Trap, they get zapped. The Z-Trap’s computer processes the signal and confirms that the bug zapped was a targeted pest. It streams that tracking data to the cloud, where it can be viewed in almost real time via OpenScout or the company’s website, Park says.
According to Park, Spensa’s technology appeals to the agricultural industry because it’s much easier than doing it manually. Spensa’s products also allow growers to make adjustments on the fly and do more with less, he adds.
“Our products collect and report data on a daily basis,” Park says. “We can inform growers about the number of pests and larva, giving them the optimal time window of when to apply insecticide based on our data modeling.”
Spensa, which has about 45 employees working out of its headquarters in West Lafayette, IN, raised $2.5 million in a Series A round last year; investors include Elevate Ventures, Village Capital, and the Purdue Foundry. Park says the company will raise its next round of financing later this year.
As for other plans in 2017, Park says Spensa is planning to deploy more than 200 Z-Traps across the Midwest in a National Science Foundation project monitoring the migration of row crop pests. Spensa has been field-testing the Z-Trap in the United States, Brazil, Australia, and New Zealand since 2010 and expects to fully release it to the public by spring.
“I want to be the best at data-driven pest control,” Park says of the company’s long-term goals. “Thirty percent of crops are lost to pests, and I believe we can do much better. It’s a problem worth devoting your entire career to.”