« From blue tooth to farm hand

We were having a debate in the nio office yesterday. The thesis was pretty simple…does wearing a Bluetooth earpiece automatically make you a jackass? Although mostly used in the privacy of my own home, I was once known to proudly sport the ol’ Jawbone on a daily basis throughout my previous career. I tried my best to defend its convenience and functionality, but was unanimously shut down by the rest of my less-than-compassionate coworkers. I was indeed a jackass. Regardless, this got me thinking…a lot has changed in the past year and a half.

Does wearing a Bluetooth earpiece automatically make you a jackass?

When I started with nio last January, I was the 13th employee in our mostly empty 10,000 sq. ft. Colorado office. The twelve before me had been grinding hard for the past two years. They had built an impressive software platform and were poised to enter into an agreement with our first enterprise industrial customer. With a background in software sales and a “Business Development” title, I came in with big ambitions— thinking that I’d be able to hit the street and start closin’ deals. It didn’t quite work out like that. We had bigger plans.

“Societal Innovation” happens to be the name of nio’s holding company as it was always the intention to use our software to solve large, significant problems that would benefit more than just the bottom line. Due to the power and flexibility of the nio, we could have tackled this mission in countless different ways. To begin, we chose agriculture. The world is running out of fresh water, the population is increasing, and fewer people are farming on a shrinking subset of available land. Bottom line: society better figure out how to create more with less or there’s going to be a large, hungry population in our future. In only my second month at nio, as I was still finding my bearings, I was asked to set the Bluetooth down and lead nio’s entry into this brand new industry. Gulp…

It was March. We had a 5-person team, a 20-acre vineyard, and nio. Ready. Set. GO digitize agriculture. Next thing I knew, I had boots on my feet, blisters on my hands, and was surrounded by tumbleweeds in the middle of Willcox, Arizona at Deep Sky Vineyard. So much for “business development.” As an early stage start-up, it made sense to take on everything ourselves as a way to build our expertise in this new industry. We designed the solution, sourced the best sensors, built the nodes, cut the PVC, set up the network, and augured countless holes beneath the 100 degrees Arizona sun. This was real work. When you find yourself sweating through your Levi’s while hallucinating in between endless rows of Petite Syrah, you start to ask yourself what the hell we were actually doing with this “software” platform?

Within the next few weeks, it became very clear exactly what we were doing. As the vineyard became connected and nio brought it to life, it was easy to see that we were creating the prototype for the future of agriculture.

Farmers are really good at what they do, but the amount of data and the constantly changing variables are so complex that it’s nearly impossible to optimally manage. Since humans first began farming, this complexity has resulted in lost yield, excess resource use, or both. I never used to think about these things while wandering through the produce aisle, but these are huge problems across all of agriculture. With these issues in mind, we set out to build a solution that eliminates much of the variability and allows the farmers’ generational knowledge to be supplemented by an always-on artificial intelligence. By giving everything on the farm a real-time voice—the well, the pumps, the valves, the soil, the vines, the fruit, and even mother nature herself – we built a completely interoperable nervous system that doesn’t just report the individual needs of the plants and farm, but continuously learns the optimal action to take…and then <em>does it.</em>

We worked very closely with the vineyard owners and other farmers to build a solution that would offer real value. Like many farmers, their entire previous experience in agriculture had been based on assumptions, their best guess, and what they could naturally sense with their hands, eyes, fingers, and mouth. With nio, they now had direct access to hundreds of thousands of precise data points every day, displayed to them in an intuitive way or intelligently acted upon through their own teaching.

Although we built in some advanced features that allow the vines to autonomously water themselves, for example, we under-appreciated just how much value the “little” things that we did would add. Instead of a broken valve flooding the vineyard for two days or a dirty filter limiting flow for two years, nio was giving immediate feedback for corrective action. In fact, because nio could now track real-time flow through the valves, the farmers successfully changed their irrigation strategy to a very precise gallons-per-vine based model. They were able to decrease water usage by up to 50% because of the visibility they now had the real-time impact on the soil and roots. It turns out that’s pretty important when you’re trying to grow grapes in the desert.

As I’ve traveled to various Agtech conferences in the past several months, I continue to hear technology types throw out impressive buzzwords like “Artificial Intelligence” and “Machine learning.” To be honest, I have been just as guilty. We talk about the digital age that we seem to think is pervasive and assume that the average farmer is already taking advantage of it. While there is immense opportunity for these technologies in the future of agriculture, there are plenty of problems that can be solved for farmers before we even get to that point. They want to know that what is supposed to be happening is actually happening, that they can trust their infrastructure and labor, that they have a single log for all actions and notes in the field rather than the current industry standard…a pencil and paper. It became very clear throughout this first season that nio is that single platform capable of immediately delivering those “small” wins, while progressively integrating more advanced technology as it earns the farmer’s confidence.

I was unsure of myself when this whole thing started early last year. I knew very little about the inner workings of our technology and even less about agriculture. I did know, however, that I had the confidence from our leadership, some really talented coworkers, and a software platform capable of seamless transformation. I had seen it done with my own eyes in our industrial application and knew that we could do the same in agriculture.

In a few short months, we transformed a completely manual, subjective operation into a highly sensorized and autonomous example of precision agriculture. We showed the world what we had built in a public webcast last September (you can check it out here). The feedback from this prototype was beyond what we expected. As a result of several awards and magazine articles, we have had farmers from all over the world, with various crops reaching out to validate that there is a significant need for what we had built. Naturally, they now want to know when they can use it on their own farms.

We are working to answer that question right now. There’s still a tremendous amount of work ahead of us to scale the solution for global agriculture and we know that we can’t, nor do you want to do it alone. As we actively take on new demand, this year will test our ability to partner with other technology companies, hardware providers, distribution/integration partners, experts within academia, and others to bring a truly transformational platform to the most important industry in world. If this seems like an opportunity you or your company would like to be a part of, I’d encourage you to reach out. I’ll have the Bluetooth ready…