By Sharon Fisher | June 9, 2022
It’s hard not to make jokes about “seed rounds” and “growth companies” when talking about agricultural technology such as one Idaho startup’s Internet of Things entry.
The device is a sensor that can detect factors critical to crops, such as temperature, humidity, and moisture. Moreover, it’s not only planted in the field, but is harvested with the crop to continue sensing those factors, which can affect storage and processing.
“Farmers grow on the edge,” said Ehsan Soltan, founder of Soiltech Wireless Inc. “The difference between making money and losing everything per season is a very fine line.”
Germinating an idea
Soltan, who worked in manufacturing in Taiwan for eight years, got into agriculture through his wife, who grew up in Idaho and whose family works in the agriculture and food processing industries. In 2017, he attended an event at Fort Hall with his mother-in-law where farmers got together at the end of the year to do a post-mortem on the season.
“Farmers would still rely on the hand-feel method to determine the status of the soil,” Soltan said. “They would feel the ground to make a determination.”
But hand-feel doesn’t scale. First of all, it’s hard to teach. “Two guys have different hands,” Soltan explained. Second, it was laborious, because farmers would have to drive from field to field to feel the soil in each one.
That gave Soltan the idea for Soiltech, and he moved to American Falls so he could start working with farmers on developing the product. “I’m not a farmer,” he said. “I know how to develop technology, but it had to be built by growers.”
About the sensor
It was important to Soltan for the device to be easy to use. “Growers are not tech-agnostic,” said Soltan. “They’re tech-impatient. They’re so busy and they have so many things going on in their day that it needs to just work.” So making the data clean, clear, and easy to access was paramount. “They log in, spend two minutes max, and log out, and get what they need for the day.”
Similarly, as much as possible, Soltan tries to have the device ready to use out of the box before shipping it to his customers. The product is made in Taiwan and shipped to the United States, where Soiltech uploads the firmware, calibrates it, creates an account, assigns the device to the account, and even charges the battery, which is good for an entire year. “Reducing the barriers to entry for adoption of technology in agriculture can make an incremental effect on the bottom line,” he said. “We want to help eke out every single thing we can.”
Also, Soiltech’s product doesn’t require a technical support person to install it but is installed by farmers themselves. “Growers like taking charge,” Soltan said. “They don’t want to have to wait for someone.”
Ease of use is also why Soltan wanted a sensor that could not only be planted with the crop, but harvested with it as well, because agriculture doesn’t end once the crop is out of the ground.
“Farmers get reduced payouts if they have a higher percentage of damaged crop,” Soltan said, which can happen during mechanized harvest. “We’re helping farmers not only reduce crop loss but increase revenues.”
Each sensor can be planted from two to as much as eight feet deep, with an external antenna. Farmers plant one every 20 acres or so in a row crop, or one every five acres for a high-value crop such as strawberries.
Once in the ground, the sensor measures moisture, temperature, humidity, and of course its Global Positioning System location. While the sensor can’t monitor for disease itself, it can monitor conditions that promote disease, such as high humidity for more than six hours per day. “There are known models for predicting when diseases are at risk for emerging,” Soltan said.
It was also important for the sensor to be cost-effective enough for mass deployment. While similar crop sensors already exist, they are too expensive — $8,000 compared with Soiltech’s $400 — to deploy very many of them. “Having one data point in a field is more troublesome than having none,” Soltan said.
Soltan started development in 2018, and did field trials from 2018 to 2019, launching the product in a controlled rollout in 2020. “The first year, we focused on making sure it worked well and ironing out the bugs,” he said. In 2021, he began expanding the crop reach from the initial potatoes, sugar beets, and onions into crops such as soybeans, strawberries, and almonds, and into geographic areas such as Canada, Mexico, Europe, and Australia.
Currently, Soiltech has about 150 customers, not all in Idaho, but one notable Idaho customer is Simplot. “We just started working with them this year,” Soltan said. “We want to deliver value to growers and help them in their daily operations.” And the same value propositions that make the sensor useful to farmers are also useful to processors and agronomists, he said. “We’re finding customers across the agricultural supply chain.”
Soltan bootstrapped the company for a couple of years, and after that was funded to the tune of $1.6 million by some farmers. “They saw the potential in it and the value it brought to their own farms,” he said.
While Soltan couldn’t name them, he said they were big – 10,000 or more acres – and grew crops such as potatoes, corn, sugar beets, and alfalfa. “Them using the product and taking value from it gives other customers faith in the product,” he said. “That’s the great thing about agriculture – it’s a huge industry, but it’s also very small.”
Now, Soiltech is completing a seed round – as it were – of between $2.5 and $2.875 million, with some local investors but also a number of investors from the Midwest. (One local investor is Vynyl, which contributes to funding this blog.)
Thus far, Soiltech has added three employees this year, and Soltan would like to add another four or five in functions such as sales, marketing, and engineering. “We’re taking a very measured approach to growth,” he said. “We’re not going to get bloated and overhire and die in a year.”
Soiltech is based in Rupert although Soltan himself has moved to Eagle. “All of my engineers are here,” he explained, though there are also employees in Taiwan, California, Nebraska, and North Dakota. “We’re very remote-friendly,” and staff can work at home if they like, he said.
That said, Soiltech makes a physical product, and the company has to get it ready and be able to ship it out. Consequently, Soltan said he’s planning to open up some sort of office between Eagle and downtown Boise in the future, though he said he isn’t sure where yet.
Soltan said he doesn’t have an exit strategy for Soiltech. “I didn’t found the company with the goal of being acquired,” he said. “I just want to build a company that’s providing value to growers and grow ourselves. I want to be the leader in data collection and presentation and want to collaborate with as many other complementary products in the industry as we can.”
In fact, Soiltech is already working with other firms such as imagery companies and is looking at other forms of integration and automation, such as using the sensor to automate irrigation. “The pivots are already remotely controlled,” Soltan said. “It can act as a trigger point. The technology is there.” Indeed, the barrier is not technical but political and emotional, he said, because there is some concern about letting technology make too many of the decisions. “We have to come together to figure out a way to make it a reality.”
In 2022, Soiltech’s focus is going to be less on the hardware and more on expanding the value the company is offering to growers, such as adding disease models, field management, weather forecasting, and more collaboration, Soltan said.
Over the longer term, Soltan said he’d like to get involved in Boise’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, particularly in the area of agricultural technology. “We have the industry here, big companies and growers,” he said. “We not only have the resources, but a receptive final end user who can benefit from the technology. Building out the ag tech ecosystem would really benefit the region.”
Fisher is a digital nomad who writes about entrepreneurship.