The Israeli Startup That Sees a Big Future in Little Drips

N-Drip says its technology will make drip irrigation financially viable for many more of the world’s farmers

N-Drip founders Eran Pollak and Prof. Uri Shani at Kibbutz Nir Eliyahu, June 25, 2019.
Meged Gozani

Drip irrigation, a farming technology that saves water and nutrients by enabling water to drip slowly to the roots of plants, is one of the biggest success stories in the history of Israeli high-tech. But 60 years after the system was first tested by Simcha and Yeshayahu Blass, the great majority of the world’s growers don’t use it because it’s too expensive.

Now, Israeli entrepreneurs Prof. Uri Shani and Eran Pollak say they have solved the problem and their startup N-Drip is ready to water the world’s crops.

Their innovation is to use gravity to deliver the water to where it is needed. Conventional drip irrigation systems, like the ones made by the Israeli industry pioneers Netafim, need pumps to create sufficient pressure to force water through a network of PVC pipes to reach every plant.

The pressure also keeps the narrow pipes from becoming clogged by dirt and other particles. But pumps need electricity, which is expensive and in many developing countries not readily available. As a result, only about 4% of all the world’s agricultural lands use drip irrigation.

Instead, 85% of irrigated land globally uses the traditional system of flooding the fields, a practice that is hugely wasteful and depletes the soil of nutrients.

The N-Drip system requires neither electricity nor pumps, nor does it require the water coursing through its system to be perfectly clean.

“In other systems, the water moves along a single route. In ours, the water flowing through the drip system has more than one possible route. If dirt blocks its way, the water bypasses it and eventually it’s swept away,” says Pollak. “The secret is in the optional routes.”

The core technology is a cylinder inside the pipe, around which the water flows, keeping it close to the wall of the pipe and helping to maintain a relatively high level of pressure that keeps the drip openings unclogged.

N-Drip is similar to the approximately 70% of other drip irrigation systems in use now in that its pipes normally have to be replaced every year or after every harvest. However, the cost of replacing the N-Drip network after the initial investment and installation is relatively low, at around $500 per 2.5 acres.

N-Drip’s technology couldn’t come at a better time. Climate change, growing populations and rising standards of living are putting pressure on the world’s farmers. Access to water is growing harder amid demand for ever-bigger yields.

Shani and Pollak say N-Drip’s technology can be used by growers who now rely on flooding to irrigate their fields. That could add up to a global market of $90 billion.

The company, which recorded its first sales last year, is aiming for sales of $400 million within four years and to expand its production capacity from a single factory in Israel to three locations around the world, with an annual production capacity of 1.5 billion meters of piping.

The drip irrigation industry has been trying to devise a solution along the lines of N-Drip‘s for some time. Rivals say the company’s claims are premature and that its system hasn’t been fully tested.

“Finding a low-cost solution for precise irrigation in flood areas is definitely an important mission, and Netafim and other irrigation companies have been working on it for more than 10 years,” says Ran Maidan, Netafim’s CEO. “Anyone who comes up with a good solution for irrigation without filters and energy will have made a breakthrough.”

As to N-Drip, Maidan said he didn’t see any breakthrough, adding that his company and others have better solutions.

Whether that’s true or not, N-Drip’s technology received an important vote of confidence last month when it won the Transformational Business Awards of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and The Financial Times.

“The winner has developed a solution that significantly increases the efficient use of water and energy in agriculture,” the judges said after awarding it the top prize for Excellence in Disruptive Technologies among 270 contestants.

Shani and Pollak, the chairman and chief technology officer and the CEO, respectively, of the company, are not your typical startup entrepreneurs. They had long careers in the public sector before setting up N-Drip, whose headquarters are in the farming cooperative of Moshav Bnei Atarot.

It conducts trials at Kibbutz Nir Eliahu and has a factory in the Jordan Valley town of Beit She’an.

The two met 13 years ago when Pollak was in charge of water issues at the Finance Ministry’s budget division and Shani was water commissioner.

Shani left public service in 2011, did stints in academia and as a vice president for technology at the Israeli agrochemicals company Adama before setting up the precursor company to N-Drip.

Pollak, meanwhile, left the government in 2012 and in the following years served as a director representing Israel at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The two kept up their ties with Pollak inviting Shani to give lectures to EBRD clients in developing countries. Shani used the platform to highlight Israeli water technology.

They began developing the system that became N-Drip in 2015. Chief Operating Officer Tamar Shor came on as a third top executive, also after a career as a regulator in the public sector.

“We started with what the world needs with the goal of solving a defined problem,” recalls Shani. “The challenge that we identified was to bring an efficient system of drip irrigation to large parts of the world that now use flooding at a cost whose payback is quickly.”

Right now, he said, the payback on an irrigation system for a commodity crop such as corn, soybeans or cotton is five to eight years. “That was the taking-off point for N-Drip,” said Pollak.

N-Drip got its initial $1 million in funding from the private capital of Ariel Halperin and Ran Ben-Or, the founding partners of the Tene private equity fund. Another $1 million came from the Israel Innovation Authority.

All told N-Drip has raised $10 million to date from investors like the Bridges Israel fund and RDC, a joint venture between the Israeli arms maker Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and the holding company Elron. Another backer is Seth M. Siegel, a U.S. businessman and author of the book “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World,” which touts Israeli water technology.