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Archive for the ‘Agriculture 2.0’ Category

In The New York Times on Monday, I write about WeatherBill, a San Francisco startup that announced a $42 million round of financing from Google Ventures and Khosla Ventures:

Google Ventures and Khosla Ventures have led a $42 million financing round in WeatherBill, a San Francisco start-up that insures farmers against extreme weather that can cripple crop production.

Founded by Google alumni, the four-year-old company runs computer simulations to predict the likelihood of extreme weather in any given location at any given time and charges farmers accordingly.

“We provide protection to farmers of unexpected weather primarily caused by extremes of rainfall or temperature, something we’re seeing more of because of climate change,” said David Friedberg, WeatherBill’s chief executive, citing the recent floods in Australia and drought in China.

“By getting a guarantee on what one might make on an acre of farming, farmers can feel more comfortable about making investments in their operations,” Mr. Friedberg, who was a founding member of Google’s corporate development team, said on a conference call with reporters on Monday.

He said WeatherBill has now raised just under $60 million from investors that also include NEA, Index Ventures, Allen & Company, First Round Capital, Atomico and Code Advisors.

The investment marks a growing interest by Silicon Valley venture capital firms in the nascent sustainable agricultural market, also called Ag 2.0, which is loosely defined as environmentally beneficial farming,

“Recently we’ve been very, very interested in the impact of technology on agriculture,” said Vinod Khosla, a leading green tech investor and founder of Khosla Ventures. “I realize that agriculture is an unusual area for venture capital but I would submit that agricultural technology has the same potential in agriculture as biotechnology had in pharmaceuticals or chip technology had in telecommunications.”

Bill Maris, managing director of Google’s investment arm, however, made clear that his firm was not about to trade in the company Prius for a pickup truck, taking pains to describe WeatherBill as a cloud computing startup not an agriculture or insurance play.

“This is a technology company working on something that is going to have a real-world impact on a foundational global industry, which is agriculture,” Mr. Maris said. “Helping famers protect their financial futures and protect the global food supply is something I think we all can be passionate about.”

Mr. Friedberg said WeatherBill’s computer scientists and climatologists crunch weather data and feed it into computer models run on hundreds of servers and are updated several times a day.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: EcoVeggies

In The New York Times on Monday, I write about how Newark is becoming a hotbed of sustainable agriculture, or Ag 2.0:

On the rooftop garden at St. Philip’s Academy, a private school in Newark, students tend plots of everything from broccoli and beets to sweet corn and spaghetti squash.

But since August they’ve also been helping to farm arugula, chervil, fun jen, and komatsuna in a machine installed in a fourth-floor science classroom that grows crops without soil or sunshine.

Made by an Ithaca, N.Y., company called AeroFarms, the aeroponic growing system is owned by EcoVeggies, a startup formed by former three Wall Street technology workers who aim to transform Newark’s abandoned and vacant buildings into so-called vertical farms.

“The produce will sold and used in the areas immediately surrounding Newark to start with and then we expect to be able to service the immediate tri-state area,” Richard Charles, one of EcoVeggies founders, wrote in an e-mail message.

At St. Philip’s Academy, leafy greens are planted in a cloth bed and irrigated with a nutrient-infused mist. Light is provided by LED lamps, which are more energy-efficient than conventional lighting and can be placed closer to the beds. The LED lamps also provide pest control, according to AeroFarms’ chief executive, Ed Harwood, because they can be set to emit certain wavelengths that disrupt insects’ breeding.

AeroFarms is leasing the machine, which stands 7 feet tall by 10 feet long, to EcoVeggies for use in the pilot project at St. Philip’s. It can produce about 20 pounds of produce per harvest, Mr. Charles said.

EcoVeggies and AeroFarms are part of the sustainable agriculture movement, sometimes called Agriculture 2.0, which seeks to combine technology and organic farming to grow crops in urban areas that often lack access to fresh food.

You can read the rest of the story here:

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I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

When Bloom Energy unveiled its long-awaited fuel cell earlier this year to much media attention and announced it had installed the 100-kilowatt devices at Google, eBay, and other Fortune 500 companies, there was sniping in some quarters about greenwashing as the Bloom Energy Servers ran on natural gas.

But generators can also use biogas and on Tuesday a Bloom competitor, FuelCell Energy, announced the sale of a 1.4-megawatt chicken poo-powered fuel cell to an egg farm in California’s Central Valley.

Olivera Egg Ranch will install an anaerobic digester that will strip methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from untold pounds of poultry poo that usually are stored in a waste lagoon. Instead of escaping into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming, the methane will power the fuel cell, which will generate enough electricity to supply the ranch’s entire operations.

In a double play for the environment and the ranch owner’s pocketbook, the heat that is a byproduct of the fuel cell’s operation will be used by the anaerobic digester, forgoing the need for a combustion-based boiler. In other words, Olivera’s eggs — it packs 14 million cartoons annually — will be produced with virtually greenhouse-gas free electricity.

Most California farming operations that have recently deployed anaerobic digesters — usually to process cow manure — connect them to pipes that ship the methane gas to a distant utility power plant where it is used as fuel.

Fuel cells take distributed energy to the countryside, generating electricity onsite and thus avoiding the need for transmission infrastructure as well as the greenhouse gas emissions of a central natural gas-fired power plant.

“My waste disposal costs will decrease as will my power bill as the poultry operation will continually generate the fuel needed to create electricity, reducing the amount of electricity needed from the electrical grid,” ranch owner Ed Olivera, said in a statement.

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In The New York Times’ Business of Green special section on Thursday, I write about Janine Yorio, a 33-year-old former Wall Street investment banker who is connecting sustainable agriculture startups and venture capitalists:

SILICON VALLEY’S apricot and cherry orchards disappeared decades ago, replaced by semiconductor plants and office parks populated by technologists. Now some of the Valley’s most prominent venture capitalists are looking to the region’s roots for what could be the next new thing in an old business: agriculture.

“Sustainable agriculture is a space that looks as big or bigger than clean tech,” said Paul Matteucci, a venture capitalist with U.S. Venture Partners in Menlo Park, Calif. “Historically, we have not seen a ton of entrepreneurial activity in agriculture, but we are beginning to see it now, and the opportunities are huge.”

A catch-all phrase for environmentally beneficial farming, sustainable agriculture has long been the province of organic enthusiasts. But venture capitalists say a growing awareness of conventional agriculture’s contribution to climate change and concerns over its consumption of water and energy are creating markets for technological innovation to minimize those effects.

The Johnny Appleseed of what is being called Agriculture 2.0 is a 33-year-old former Wall Street investment banker named Janine Yorio. Her New York firm, NewSeed Advisors, brings together sustainable agriculture entrepreneurs and investors.

At the Four Seasons hotel in East Palo Alto, Calif., last month, NewSeed Advisors attracted a crowd of well-dressed investors from some of Silicon Valley’s top venture capital firms. They packed a ballroom to hear entrepreneurs pitch start-ups developing everything from nontoxic pesticides and analytical tools for soil analysis to indoor urban farming systems.

“If you’re interested in investing in energy and water, you become interested in investing in agriculture,” said Amol Deshpande, a venture partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, who attended the conference. “A lot of ag opportunities are going to be driven by water, it’s availability and cleanliness.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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