Who will be the Next AgTech Unicorn?

Israel has long been famous for making the desert bloom and inventing cherry tomatoes. Its current agricultural achievements are no less impressive, and dozens of innovative AgTech and FoodTech start-ups are vying to become the country’s next global success stories

Dr. Gal Yarden
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BumbleBee's mechanized systems pollinate fruit crops and improve both their quality and yield
BumbleBee's mechanized systems pollinate fruit crops and improve both their quality and yieldCredit: BumbleBee
Dr. Gal Yarden
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In recent years, quite a few Israeli start-up companies in the field of AgTech have been founded by former members of the Mossad, as though an invisible hand has renamed the organization “The Institute for Intelligence and Special Plant Protection Operations.” These former secret agents are redirecting their passion for using drones and satellites to detect missiles and nuclear power plants towards a new mission: locating aphids, tobacco whiteflies or moth larvae. Using digital tools and algorithms, they are developing predictive abilities to identify crop diseases and plant pathogens – performing effective pest control and preventative treatment with a low ecological footprint.

Indeed, many Israeli start-ups are focusing on early detection of pests and drastic reductions of pesticide use in order to mitigate environmental damage. Taranis, one such start-up, focuses on row crops, mainly corn and soy, that account for more than half of the cultivated area in the world. It has developed aerial image processing technology enabling high resolution and extensive analyzing capabilities to detect and identify pest damage and crop diseases.

SeeTree, another start-up, uses military-grade drones to scan and analyze millions of fruit trees, such as citrus and almonds, to provide comprehensive and dependable information on each tree. Yet another, Prospera, focuses on digital crop inspection in greenhouses, while Agro-Scout concentrates on vegetable crops such as potatoes and tomatoes. All of these companies use Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence tools to improve the farm management interface.

Another promising Israeli AgTech start-up, GreenEye, utilizes Artificial Intelligence and deep learning technology to revolutionize the pest control process, enabling farmers to switch from the current practice of wasteful spraying of pesticides to precise spraying in real-time, which is more environmentally friendly.

These start-ups have a real chance of capturing global markets and becoming Israeli “unicorns” – start-ups valued at over $1 billion – by adapting advanced image processing technologies and big data analysis for the benefit of the world’s major agricultural markets.

The next level of image processing

The need to improve the efficiency of food production, increase agricultural output and reduce costs has become a global existential necessity. A growing world population, together with climate change, causes complicated environmental challenges. On the one hand, water, land and energy resources are shrinking; on the other hand, pests, viruses and other spreaders of disease are proliferating. Moreover, demographic changes such as urbanization, fewer and aging farmers, a shortage of seasonal workers, changes in taste (more vegetarianism in the West, higher demand for animal-based protein in the East), public objection to improving crops genetically, and increasingly complicated regulations regarding possible technological solutions all create an escalating global food challenge and crisis. These changes have a detrimental effect on food prices and social stability.

Forrest Innovations is helping eliminate epidemic-carrying mosquitoes in BrazilCredit: Forrest Innovations

Image processing technologies that integrate AI can help alleviate the food crisis. These technologies include mechanization, robotics and cloud based solutions that enable precision agriculture and improved crops throughout the food supply chain.

SeedX is an Israeli start-up that took image processing to the next level, using machine learning and AI to identify and sort seeds. Their new robotic sorting system sets a new standard for the seed industry when it comes to determining the percentage of germination and eliminating disease-carrying seeds. The system also aids the food industry by sorting grains such as coffee beans according to genetic purity by using an inexpensive and non-hazardous imaging process, as opposed to PCR tests. In a similar manner, ClariFruit uses imaging sensors to ensure the quality of fruit and vegetables throughout the supply chain according to a consistent standard.

In Israel, as in the rest of the world, there is a shortage of seasonal workers for such tasks as picking and harvesting fruit. Applications of algorithms based on real-time imaging and robotics make it possible to pick fruit mechanically using a fleet of drones, like those developed by Tevel. The labor shortage is not only due to physical hardships; sorting insects using a microscope, for example, is very challenging but is necessary for dispersing sterile mosquitoes in urban areas in order to reduce the use of chemicals.

Robots developed by Senecio Robotics can identify and sort male mosquitoes and pack them alive in special packaging without crushing them, while they are released from airplanes. Forrest Innovations’ unique natural approach controls mosquitoes by producing 100% sterile male mosquitoes that compete with the wild male population. Their solution is currently being used on a large scale to eliminate epidemic-carrying mosquitoes in Brazil.

Traditional yet cutting-edge

In 1950, one dunam (1/4 acre) of agricultural land produced food for 1.7 people on average. By 2000, each dunam fed 4.2 people, and it is estimated that in 2050 each dunam will have to feed seven people.

As a global innovation hub, Israel uses novel technologies to lead the AgTech-FoodTech industry towards a more efficient and sustainable future; it serves as a global laboratory for producing more food using fewer resources. Israeli start-ups are improving traditional agriculture by introducing new, groundbreaking technologies in the field such as irrigation and fertilization, breeding seeds and reproductive material such as tissue culture, plant protection, and animal health.

Taranis’ high-resolution aerial image processing detects pest damage and crop diseases

For example, the Israeli company Growin is part of a global race to develop indoor vertical growing capabilities for producing fresh vegetables in populated areas, using new technologies for reducing waste, crop loss and food wastage by shortening the supply chain and reducing the use of non-environmentally friendly packaging. Likewise, Vertical Field produces vertical growing kits inside recycled freight containers, and TIPA-Corp developed biodegradable packaging made from plant polymers.

Tropic Biosciences, another company, uses scientific breakthroughs in gene editing and RNAi to improve tropical crops such as bananas, rice and coffee. This technology makes it possible to adapt attributes, including increasing yield and improving resistance to lethal diseases. This company, which is growing at an impressive rate, is based in the U.K. and is led by an Israeli entrepreneur and a team of Israeli scientists.

The urgent need for alternative environmentally friendly pesticides exposes more new promising opportunities led by Israeli plant protection companies that are in effect overhauling the traditional plant protection industry. AgreMatch is a platform start-up that uses algorithms, high computing and bio-chemistry capabilities to detect the connection between molecules and vital systems in plants. It renders obsolete the trial and error approach for finding new substances that can be efficient and environmentally friendly pesticides.

FortePhest, another young company, is developing environmentally friendly herbicides which may be the next generation of herbicides, as an alternative to existing materials to which weeds have developed a resistance.

Many promising technologies

Israel produces most of the fresh food, both plant and animal-based, that it consumes, including fruit, vegetables, eggs, poultry and dairy products. The leading Israeli agricultural exports today are avocados, dates, peppers and, mainly, innovative technologies such as those used in smart cowsheds (monitoring the cows’ health, nutrition and milk output), irrigation, desalinization and water management. 

Many promising Israeli companies are contributing to the expected quantum leap from traditional agriculture to advanced agriculture all over the world. For example, Avenews is developing and applying Fintech tools in Africa while building a cellular phone based infrastructure for the two largest pan-African banks to finance agriculture. CropTech offers farm planning tools for optimizing and managing its land uses by analyzing multi-layered soil infrastructure for farms and entire regions. Another interesting start-up, BumbleBee, developed mechanized systems for pollinating fruit crops such as avocados and blueberries, while also significantly improving the crops’ quality and yield.

Increasing crop quality and yield is in fact the main global challenge and the main hope for ensuring human existence without hunger. So which of these modern-day pioneers with exciting and promising technologies will help the world attain food security, and in the process become Israel’s next unicorns? There are many candidates and only time will tell…

Dr. Gal Yarden is the co-founder of the AgChimedes Group, a new Israeli cluster of companies focusing on reinforcing global food security and nurturing Israeli AgTech and FoodTech unicorns. Dr. Yarden is an entrepreneur, scientist-inventor, consultant and pre-seed investor. He has existing interests or relationships with some of the above-mentioned companies.