Agricultural imaging and analytics firm Taranis has raised $30 million in a Series C round co-led by Vertex Growth — an affiliate of Singapore sovereign fund Temasek — and Orion Fund, a subsidiary of Malaysian conglomerate, the Kuok Group.
New backers joining the round included affiliates of two of the world’s largest semiconductor companies — US-based Micron’s VC arm, Micron Ventures, and UMC Capital, an investment unit of Taiwanese foundry UMC.
Other first-time investors were the French private investment club La Maison, along with two Japanese giants: the hardware manufacturing conglomerate Hitachi via its venture arm Hitachi Ventures; and Mitsubishi UFJ Capital, a scion of one of the world’s largest banks.
Existing investors Vertex Ventures Israel, Viola, Finistere and OurCrowd also took part in the round, bringing Taranis’ total raised to $60 million to date.
A dogged drone survivor
The round’s large post-Covid closure further cements Taranis’ reputation as a dogged drone survivor in an area of agtech that has been largely under scrutiny over the last five years. According to AgFunder research, aerial observation tech via agri-drones reached its funding peak five years ago, when investors committed $326 million to startups promising an agricultural future where skies were filled with super-agronomist drones, capable of mapping or spraying fields with unprecedented efficiency and precision.
The years since, however, saw a litany of problems centering round high price points, lacking value-add, tough regulations, technical glitches and disillusioned, wary farmers. In many cases, these obstacles sent the hyped-up visions of 2015 into a tailspin long before the global outbreak of Covid-19 forced investors to broadly reassess expectations across categories and sectors.
Yet while those reassessments have mostly spelled pandemic pullbacks or pause buttons for investors in almost any sector, the new normal of Covid-19 is bringing hints of revived interest in agri-drones; they are, after all, suitable for strict social distancing in the workplace, and they can enhance supply chain traceability amid major disruptions in the movement of global goods.
Then again, Vertex Growth managing director Hock Chuan Tam was reluctant to declare drones back in vogue, describing how his investment team was “looking less at Taranis in terms of drone technologies.”
“Yes, they have something there; but ultimately what Taranis is about is capturing good data. How the picture is captured is secondary.” As a longstanding startup now reaching a solid growth stage, he noted, Taranis had “a head start” with “a very powerful and accurate algorithm.”
That said, other early agri-drone fundraising survivors are, like Taranis, figuring out pathways to scalability with their own head starts. PrecisionHawk has a $75 million Series D under its belt to build AI-powered aerial data analytics, and DroneDeploy raised a $35 million Series D backed by Bessemer VP, albeit to expand into new industries, according to AgFunder’s 2019 investment report.
Centralised approaches like these aren’t the only way to go, with newer companies like Israel’s AgroScout opting to take on the older startups with what its founder Simcha Shore describes as the “uberization” of aerial data capture.
For Taranis, its core service to farmers centers around pest control. Its AI2 SmartScout Solutions leverages a database of more than 1 million threat species to create prescription plans to customize treatments and application rates. With its combined images from drones and planes at speeds of 100 acres in six minutes, the company says it is now capable of capturing 0.3mm/pixel resolution images of fields.
With this technology, the team says it can generate precise, leaf-level diagnosis twenty times faster than the manual alternative of a human scout walking a section of a field, and with 20 times more data points scouted. It combines these findings with constant supporting images from satellite constellations when the drones are docked or deployed elsewhere.
Farmers can decide whether they want to operate their own machinery, or leave it to Taranis contractors. So far, though, 80% of clients opt for the latter, avoiding the day-to-day hassle of flying drones to and fro in remote locations with connectivity bottlenecks. On the to do list, Taranis wants to diversify its ability to identify new pests or weed varieties for a widening range of crops, while cranking up its percentage accuracy on those it can already identify. This is where much of the funding will go, along with geographic expansion across the Americas.
Taranis’ Asian investors have also been working to open doors to new clients in the Asia Pacific region, said CEO Ofir Schlam in a WhatsApp call with AFN. For now, that involves potential inroads with Asian farmers of soy, wheat or sugar. A dominant staple like rice will come later down the road, Schlam explained, as it is often more complicated for imagery solutions — particularly satellites — due to reflections of water. Besides, the smaller size of farms with this crop, in general, makes the promise of speed and scale less meaningful or affordable for rice farmers.
Work to do
Ominously, Taranis is named after the Celtic God of Thunder. To keep its new investors thunderstruck with awe, rather than anger, the team still has work to do on affordability, diagnostic accuracy and comprehensiveness, as well as rolling out more meaningful and approachable data crunching. Here, in the months to come, the need to offer ever greater prescriptions for farmers to act on the data will become crucial, and the same goes for linking this with any machinery a farmer wishes to use. Schlam does not see his company heading into the world of spraying on its own; that is a piece of the puzzle for other companies. Instead, the likelihood is it will work to integrate its data findings with partners like those it already has with retail, ag equipment and crop protection companies like John Deere, Syngenta, Nutrien, Climate Corp and BASF.
Programs in our pipeline, assures Schlam, “will completely change the reactive risk mitigation model of today, to an outcome-based approach informed by predictive threat thresholds and yield expectations.”
Other examples of potential competitors to Taranis include Hummingbird Tech out of the UK and Sentera out of the US, both of which use drones as well as other aerial imagery and data capture tools to provide farmers with actionable insights. (Disclosure: Sentera is an AgFunder portfolio company.)