Biting into an apple fuelled by data analytics and IoT: how digital disruption is transforming agriculture

By 8 October 2019 No Comments

A Fireside Chat with James Watson, Director of Sales & Marketing at Semios.

Technology is no longer something that can be expressly anchored or contained in the tech sector. Instead, we are in an era where technologies like 5G are paving the way for autonomous vehicles; VR is rapidly offering the possibility for remote surgeries; and light-weight 3D-printed materials are making air travel faster and more efficient. All of these developments are creating new opportunities and challenging existing business models in traditional sectors like transportation, healthcare, manufacturing, or aerospace. The story is no different when it comes to agriculture. In this sector, digitization and the use of technology is already offering immense opportunities, by improving efficiency and productivity – this is something that can fundamentally alter our food production cycle.

So, what does this actually look like for ag? What are the possibilities, and what kind of talent is key to scaling them? With ICTC’s research highlighting agri-foods & food-tech as one of Canada’s top innovation areas, Alexandra Cutean (Senior Director of Research & Policy), sat down with Semios’ James Watson (Director of Sales & Marketing) to understand how one of Canada’s top ag-tech darlings is changing the agriculture sector. In this interview, James highlights the opportunities available for agriculture businesses by leveraging technology for better decision-making and productivity; and underlines the essential talent and skills needed to support this growth. Through this lens, James sheds light on how Semios is navigating previously uncharted waters via the use of data, analytics, AI and IoT.

1. Before we begin, can you please provide a brief overview of Semios – what would you describe as the company’s main aim or value proposition?

I think it will help to frame what we do in the global context of food production. Forecasts suggest that by 2050, we’ll need to feed 2 billion more people on this planet with no extra land available to commit to agriculture, while simultaneously dealing with the challenge of climate change. This means that we’re going to have to get a lot more efficient at producing our food while minimizing its environmental impact.

At this point, Semios works predominantly with growers of tree fruit, tree nuts and grapes. Our mission is to help farmers maximize crop yield in a more sustainable fashion by lowering the demand for precious resources like water, and helping them moderate their dependency on things like pesticides.

2. What I find really compelling about Semios is the intersection of technology or digitization with a traditional sector like agriculture. In a way, this combination parallels what our research shows for employment: that is, the emerging digital twist to many occupations across the economy. Is this also something that attracted you to Semios?

The short answer to your question is yes. I’m definitely attracted to any opportunity to change behaviour with the application of technology; even in my personal life. A quick look at the prescience of Elon Musk helps paint a broader picture of this intersection of technology across various domains. He’s driving innovation in four key sectors ripe for disruption or, in other words, desperate for a new way to solve a current problem.

SpaceX: NASA needs to keep exploring but can’t afford its own rockets so they want contractors – like Musk’s SpaceX – to do it for less.

Tesla: climate change requires that we alter our driving habits, so Musk combined luxury with electrification to create an electric car that could generate consumer demand.

Boring Company: as urban populations continue to rise, our cities are increasingly stymied by traffic jams and loss of productivity. By literally boring underground pathways, Musk is thinking out of the box about how to address this.

Solar City: solar energy can help charge the batteries used in electric cars and homes while reducing climate impact. Musk took this idea to the mainstream by offering affordable and accessible residential and commercial solar panels.

I was attracted to Semios because I understood the target sector [agriculture] and the opportunity for disruption. We are now at a point where technology can finally be applied to address the challenges that farmers have struggled with for decades; particularly since these challenges are also exacerbated by downward pressure on production costs caused by globalization.

3. Whether we [ICTC] look at it using a national or regional lens, the business development manager is one of the roles that always seems to come up as very “in-demand”. Can you tell me a bit about what this role looks like from a tech perspective?

First, it’s important to make the distinction between business development and true sales as I hear many people use them interchangeably. Where sales professionals focus on booking revenue, biz dev is what I would call the tip of the spear and it does require a very specific set of skills. Domain knowledge is very important but, more specifically, it must be paired with the ability to identify opportunities where that knowledge can be applied and leveraged. Often times, in technology and especially in the start-up realm, we think we have created the ideal solution to someone’s problem and just need to get selling. It’s frequently not that straightforward. A good biz dev person can see the path to the desired outcome, which is often achieved by collaboration with influential players like industry associations, other stakeholders, or early adopters that can influence market perceptions. This person clearly must have the high technical aptitude but must also possess exceptional relationship-building and networking skills.

4. Can you elaborate a bit more about the need for collaboration with relevant stakeholders?

Collaboration with influential stakeholders can be critical in the early days, since a pull strategy in market development can potentially be more strategically significant than a push approach (i.e. we have a product, find someone to buy it).

Identifying key influencers in any market helps to drive greater adoption. For example, many countries are now demanding better tracking and reporting of how their imported food was produced. This kind of transparency is offered through systems such as Global Gap. Insufficient support data or poorly recorded pest management practices can mean that a grower’s crop can get picked, shipped halfway around the world and then get turned back at the recipient’s port – a crushing loss for the producer. A good biz dev person understands these broader market implications and can leverage the insights and influence of the producer associations, for example, to encourage the grower to adopt technology that can support their collective needs.

5. I believe I’ve heard both Michael (CEO) and yourself describe Semios on a few occasions as a data company first, and an ag company second. How do you think the advent of big data, analytics, or even AI is turning the agriculture sector on its head?

I don’t think big data has turned agriculture on its head, yet. Do I think that the insights we provide enabled by the data we capture will have a dramatic impact on grower practices? Yes, absolutely and, in many ways, it already does. However, agriculture is a terribly risk-averse sector for a very good reason. It’s been said that Silicon Valley will never “get” agriculture and I think there’s some merit to that statement. The reason is that, in most tech-based industries, when new software is introduced and doesn’t work properly or there are bugs, you can iterate many times in the course of a year to fix the problem. In agriculture, a farmer gets only one chance a season – not even a year – to get it right. If he or she adopts a technology that isn’t sufficiently refined and makes the wrong decision as a result, it could mean a dramatic loss of income due to lower yield or, worse, crop loss.

The opportunity in agriculture for big data, analytics and AI, which Semios uses in concert, is to identify those small things that are possibly taken for granted, or simply not noticed by the farmer. Human brains are poorly suited for noticing subtle changes over time, so our technology does the heavy lifting by tracking and monitoring these changes. This eventually allows the grower to observe these nuances and make an appropriate decision in response, which will improve crop performance.

6. Are you able to provide an example of this ‘heavy lifting’?

Sure. Logistics is actually one of the biggest challenges for farmers. If I manage several thousand acres of almond trees and the crop is undergoing a hull split, which is the highest point of crop vulnerability to pest damage, I need to spray a pest control material. It can take me days or even weeks to cover that much acreage, so how do I know where and when to start? At Semios, we monitor and predict crop development and tell the grower well in advance which areas of that acreage are the first and last to enter that phase of vulnerability. This provides them plenty of time to order and receive delivery of the necessary material while planning the most efficient use of their labour and equipment. This can mean they potentially use less material over time and reduce the environmental impact of applying it.

Another example is how we are measuring all the potential stressors of fruit trees, such as available water in the soil and soil temperature, which directly impact yield. We do this to understand how the plants actually respond to [the stressors], which then enables us to optimize or mitigate these situations. We also track insect pest population trends over large geographical areas for both ancillary industry players, and for individual farmers. This information helps the individual grower get a sense of the pressure that others in their area are experiencing, and it helps the industry at large determine what overall crop quality might be. Without networked IoT technology, offering either of these interventions at scale would have been impossible just a few short years ago.

7. While you have an extensive background in biz dev as well as sales, I believe this is your first time working for a company in the agricultural space. Tell me a bit about your journey here. For example, did you find it challenging to “sell” a tech solution to customers in a more “traditional” sector like agriculture? What did you have to do differently here vs. in previous roles?

I feel incredibly lucky to have found my way to Semios. You could call it my dream job in the sense that I get to apply a long history of sales and business development in high technology, to a sector that I have a lot of personal passion for. My first job as a teen was in agriculture and I’ve always been very interested in food production and the impact of quality food on health and wellbeing.

I think the greatest advantage that I personally had from the outset was a deep empathy and appreciation for the life of a farmer – I understand how busy they are during their growing season and how risky any decision they make can be to their desired outcome. Understanding your client, their needs, and providing solutions based on those needs is essential if you’re going to be successful in sales. Because of my insights into the life of a grower, I believe I have been able to effectively advocate on their behalf, helping us [Semios] optimize our approach to product development or business processes.

8. What kind of roles do you think are necessary to support and nurture business development for a company like Semios? I know data scientists are a hot commodity for many tech-based businesses, but I recall you mentioning one of your team members in California being an entomologist by training. How does this role support current customers? How does it help attract new ones?

Yes, in addition to the data engineers, data scientists and data visualization specialists, we also have a number of entomologists. All the work that is done on the back end often needs a little interpretive help at the customer end. I think most people that have never been exposed to it would grossly underestimate how sophisticated agriculture is, and how much information a farmer has to process in a day to make countless decisions. In the case of the entomologists, they lead a lot of our research and for my department, they assist our sales team to help the grower understand and interpret the data we provide them. Understanding this data means that growers can make the best decisions when it comes to necessary changes and crop management practices.

9. Are there other roles like this, which are essential to business development, but people do not immediately think of?

Sure. We have other specialists, such as agronomists, who make plant production decisions. All of these roles help the grower simplify the information that he or she must ingest to make the decisions that will allow them to produce a better crop. As in many markets, farmers are under enormous pressure to consolidate or merge operations for greater economies of scale. Our technology helps smaller growers offset labour costs or larger growers who run operations over very substantial geographical regions – even international boundaries – get granular insights on a consolidated platform.

10. It’s frequently referenced that scale-up is something that Canadian businesses struggle with. We [as a country] have no problem when it comes to creating start-ups, but commercialization and market expansion is another story. I’ve been watching Semios’ trajectory over the past few years and you guys are quickly becoming a household name. In fact, I believe the Cleantech Group named Semios among the top 100 cleantech start-ups globally – a shortlist shared with only a handful of other Canadian companies. What were the key ingredients that you think helped get you to this stage?

I think Canadian tech firms can sometimes suffer from what I like to call, the Canadian identity conundrum. On a number of occasions throughout my career, I’ve personally experienced – and been frustrated by – the fact that many great Canadian tech stories often start by building their momentum in international markets before they can successfully sell their product in their own back yard.

Luckily, this wasn’t entirely the case for Semios. We cut our teeth in agriculture here in British Columbia but were serendipitously introduced to a large apple grower from Washington state who found our solution transformative. Washington was close enough to home that we could expand internationally into what was a big market for us, without too much risk of loss of focus, or stretching ourselves too thin. We had expanded into Europe through partnerships at one point but withdrew to ensure we executed properly close to home first, which I think was a prudent move. This enabled us to ensure the high product performance and good customer experience that we could then leverage for rapid growth.

11. So, to close, what’s next for Semios? And if you had to offer a piece of advice to an aspiring BD professional looking for a new opportunity, what would it be?

We believe we’re on the cusp of being able to dramatically change how much information growers get about the state of their crop, that they can leverage to improve management practices. My first words in our interview were about how we’re going to have to be much more efficient in food production. We’re already helping growers produce a higher quality crop through reductions in pest damage and, in some cases, reduced applications of pesticides – but this is just the beginning. We accumulate more crop data from more on-the-ground sensors than any other company in agriculture today. We’ll soon have insights that would have been unimaginable a few short years ago and the possibilities for their positive impact are exhilarating.

Finally, if I were a biz dev professional looking for new opportunities, I would be assessing industries similar to agriculture that will be altered by disruption – in areas like this, a new application of technology can fundamentally shift how the business is conducted, and this is something that can create immense opportunity for a number of occupations, especially business development.

James Watson is the Director of Sales & Marketing at Semios. With a career spanning over twenty years in sales, business development and marketing for high technology companies, he has been particularly inspired by market development opportunities involving organic expansion, or the development and leveraging of partnerships and alliances to access new areas of business. James believes that successful growth strategies are underpinned by an intimate understanding of the target customer and the ecosystem in which they must compete.

Alexandra Cutean is the Senior Director of Research & Policy at the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC). ICTC is a national centre of expertise, with over 25 years of experience delivering evidence-based research, practical policy advice, and innovative capacity building solutions for the Canadian digital economy. Part of an ongoing study into the increasing permeation of technology across traditional industries in Canada, ICTC will release the newest update to its flagship report, Outlook 2023, this October. This report forecasts the demand for talent in the Canadian digital economy and key growth areas like Agri-food & Food-tech, while also outlining the jobs and skills that will shape this demand, propel opportunities, and safeguard Canada’s competitive advantage in a global economy.