Farm-monitoring startup hitting new heights with fundraising

Farm-monitoring startup hitting new heights with fundraising

CHAMPAIGN — The University of Illinois was recently named by startup-tracking website Crunchbase as one of the top universities with the most funded alum-founded startups, and one of those startups just raised $9.7 million.

Agrible, which sells a farm-monitoring service, raised the funds as part of a $15.7 million Series B round led by Maumee Ventures, the venture capital arm of The Andersons.

That means Agrible still has $6 million to raise in this round.

"When you do a venture fundraising round, there are different timelines within that that are set by the lead investor," said Cynthia Bruno, chief strategy officer for Agrible. "So the first close, which is what that $9.7 million was worth, is those were the partners ready to move at that time. And then we've got the next group of partners who will close out that round."

This is the third round of funding for Agrible, which was founded in 2012 at the UI's EnterpriseWorks incubator and now has more than 60 employees.

In 2014, it raised about $350,000 in seed funding.

"That helps you bring your idea to life," Bruno said of the seed funding. "At that point, we were organizing the team, making sure we had the right team in place to take this idea and turn it into technology to start delivering."

This was followed by a $4.1 million Series A round in 2015.

"That is more about bring that product to the market and getting it into the hands of the people who are going to be your users," Bruno said.

That year, Agrible launched its Morning Farm Report, which sends an email to farmers every morning with details on each field's condition and rainfall. Online, Morning Farm Report will project yield, predict nutrient levels and suggest when to spray chemicals.

With the Series B funding, Agrible plans to "build" this technology out.

"Where are you going to build the company from there? For us, that's focused on continuing to do sustainability projects with growers and food brands and others," Bruno said. "We've also got some international expansion plans in the works."

Venture capital funding is a popular funding model for companies focused on growth, such as Agrible, whose Morning Farm Report now has about 12,000 users covering 7 million acres.

"You have a different business plan that most businesses have," Bruno said. "You're going as fast as you can as quick as you can, bringing the best product to market that you can, and you're not necessarily trying to make money.

"Many venture capitalists funded companies operate at a loss on purpose because they're trying to grow in their marketplace," she added. "And for a lot of people growing and defining a new marketplace like we were talking with, with the drones and the crop insurance industry, that's a new marketplace."

Last week, Bruno and sales account manager Todd Weitekamp showed off the company's recently launched Pocket Drone Control app, which hooks up with a farmer's or crop insurance agent's drone to take pictures from above a farm on a predetermined path.

"It was designed primarily for the crop insurance business, for damage assessment," Weitekamp said. "If they had a storm go through, did they have hail? Did they have some kind of issue go on? To be able to throw a drone up and fly 80 acres in 25 minutes instead of walking. ... It's a total game changer."

Three crop insurance agencies already use it to monitor just under 100,000 acres.

Venture funding is often used to fund companies that are new to the market and a riskier bet.

"They're bringing something new to the marketplace that maybe hasn't been tried before or been tested," Bruno said. "And a lot of times those businesses that have the ideas like that, banks won't lend them money and so venture capitalists funding is the way is the way to go."

In exchange for the funding, the venture capitalists receive some equity in the company.

"This is certainly going to be oversimplifying it, but it's kind of like baking a pie," Bruno said. "They're helping give you the ingredients to make the best pie possible. And as part of the payoff for helping give you the ingredients, they get a little slice of the pie."

With the latest round of funding, Bruno feels a sense of validation.

"Everyone always hears about startups that don't make it, and there is a high failure rate for startups," she said. "It's very exciting when you get those investors who say, 'Hey, we believe in what you're doing, we're excited about where this is going. Let's be a part of it and all work together.'"