Engineering News Winter 2016
Sowing the Seeds for Ag 3.0
As co-founder and CEO of Agrilyst, a company deemed the "Google Analytics for Greenhouses," Allison Kopf ’11 hopes to alleviate pain points for farmers by introducing them to software that helps make sense of mounds of data. The indomitable New Yorker knows something about overcoming her own pain points—last fall when she took the stage as a finalist vying for a $50,000 grand prize in the prestigious TechCrunch Disrupt’s Startup Battlefield, she was battling the flu and a 102-degree fever.
"No way did we think the ag tech company would win," she said, referring also to co-founder and CTO Jason Camp. But after making the cut from a thousand hopefuls down to 25 finalists and presenting in front of what she termed "the pantheon of the tech world," Kopf was in her element—explaining the product, sharing her passion, and handling Q&A like a pro. "I love pitching because I love talking about what we do. Getting in front of every person we’ve ever dreamed of was an incomparable opportunity to show what tech can do for agriculture. By the year 2050 food production will need to increase by 70 percent to meet world demand, and we’ll need to do it in the face of waning resources and climate change; so indoor, weather-independent production will become essential. Up until now, technology—which has revolutionized other fields like communication and transportation, has lagged in this sector."
Enter Agrilyst (think "agriculture" and "analyst"), software that analyzes all the variables that go into successful growing—pH, nutrients, light, temperature, and so on—and comes up with "recipes" tailored to specific crops. The company is working in its beta phase with U.S. growers specializing in lettuces, herbs, cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers. "We manage everything in the operations stack, from crop management to labor forecasting," Kopf said. "Our growers also wanted automated food safety tracking. Most use an antiquated and labor-intensive system with binders and checklists. Our workflow scheduling system automates the process with tracking and reports that can be handed off to certifiers. We eliminate time spent on data collection and analytics, shifting the work to a tool and away from a job. This is Ag 3.0. Introducing data management software enables growers to improve the bottom line and be empowered by data rather than burdened by it, which will become ever more important as the world seeks sustainable growing solutions," she said.
Kopf discovered her passion for technology and sustainability here as a first-year computer engineering student on SCU's Solar Decathlon team, where she led the interdisciplinary undergraduate crew to its Third Place victory in the international competition.
"Solar Decathlon was definitely the most challenging two years of our lives up to that point academically," she said. "We had to learn a lot, really quickly; it is really similar to building a startup. The idea that you're building—literally and physically—it felt significant."
It was a stroke of luck for SCU that she made her way to Santa Clara at all. "I wanted to go to Stanford," Kopf admitted. "When I visited Stanford, it just didn't feel right and that devastated me. I remember telling my mother that I wasn't going to college, but she suggested we look at this small school she'd heard about that was nearby. When we stepped on campus, I loved it immediately. We pulled out a map and were trying to get our bearings when a student skateboarded over and offered to show us around. I wanted a small, niche community. Someplace close-knit. SCU felt right to me. I applied to only two schools, UPenn for international business programs with an Italian language focus, and SCU for engineering."
Interesting that business, engineering, and a global perspective were all forefront in her mind even then, as they would come into play with her new venture years later.
"Santa Clara rocks," she continued. "I owe a lot to Santa Clara. The way you foster and apply your education, the opportunity as a freshman to lead and apply something from the classroom to real life, the Jesuit education that teaches you to think about others in the way you do business … it's unique, and it's helped me get where I am today."
Which is here, right now: nourishing the world. "We have huge challenges facing agriculture," Kopf explained. "We have to increase food production, with fewer resources, in an aging industry (the average age of farmers in the U.S. is 58; it’s 68 in Japan). But ag is hot again. Young people want to get into high-tech farming. Fundamentally, at Agrilyst, we want to tackle these challenges and help growers feed the world. For now, though, we’re just focused on succeeding each day."
That shouldn't be too much of a problem. The day after winning TechCrunch Disrupt, Kopf had around 10,000 emails waiting for her. "From farmers who wanted to use the software, investors, and folks who wanted to join the team," she explained, noting that, in true Bronco style, she answered every single message personally. Fundraising and building a bigger team are the next growth stages, but the seeds have been sown for a successful venture.