Bringing the IoT Behind the Lettuce Curtain

An investment and advisory firm is creating a marriage between the agribusiness community in the Salinas Valley with the Internet of Things community in Silicon Valley.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
May 15, 2015

In John Steinbeck's epic novel East of Eden, the verdant Salinas Valley is just beginning to emerge as the major agricultural center that is it today. In fact, the region is often referred to as the "Salad Bowl of the World." Major producers, including Taylor Farms, Dole and Chiquita (which makes Fresh Express packaged salads) have operations here. And while the Salinas Valley is geographically very close to the tony Monterey Peninsula, and an hour's drive south of the technology epicenter of Silicon Valley, it has long existed in its own world. In fact, locals often refer to the "lettuce curtain" that culturally divides the Salinas Valley from the rest of the region.

John Hartness speaking at Thrive launch event.
But the agricultural sector is under major pressure right now, from labor shortages to water shortages and other climate-related problems, and it needs innovation. The Steinbeck Innovation Foundation, established in 2012 as a nonprofit organization in Salinas, is working to bring technology tools—including IoT technologies — to the agricultural businesses in the region. Heading that effort is John Hartnett, who not only plays a leading role at the Steinbeck Innovation Foundation but is also founder and CEO of SVG Partners, an investment and advisory firm based in Santa Clara, Calif.

"You're not going to solve water and [other agriculture-related] production challenges by doing the same thing we've done for the last 100 years," Hartnett told attendees of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Sustainable Food Institute on Wednesday.

Hartnett said that the Foundation's business model, which he calls the Steinbeck Innovation Cluster, is built on four pillars: building a culture of innovation, through technology education programs for Salinas residents; supporting and giving development resources to startups; building a venture capital fund; and partnering with corporations to seek seed money for technology development. The overarching goal is to develop technologies that help farmers increase yield while reducing water and energy consumption (a practice often referred to a precision farming), while also reducing all types of waste across the agricultural supply chain.

A Thrive accelerator event.
In partnership with the Western Growers Association, Forbes magazine and Verizon, the Foundation launched a startup accelerator program last year focused on fostering innovative farming technology. Called Thrive, the program was unveiled at the first annual Forbes AgTech Summit in Monterey, where the initiative was launched.

"The biggest trend that will effect [agriculture] is the Internet of Things [used for applications such as] connecting tractors and monitoring soils, this whole IoT revolution," Hartnett said.

This is why Hartnett feels Verizon is a very important partner to have in the accelerator program, he added. "Verizon has done a lot of work to develop smart cities; we want to take that focus and put it on smart farms," he said.

Despite his bullishness for Iot, however, not all of the inaugural Thrive finalists rely on IoT technology. Two that do are Pittsburgh-based Inteligistics and Harvest Automation, based in Billerica, Mass.

Inteligistics uses temperature, humidity and light sensors that transmit data via ZigBee and Bluetooth transceivers to help logistics companies monitor the condition of fruits and vegetables in transit, in order to keep them in optimal conditions and extend shelf life.

Harvest Automation builds mobile, autonomous material-handling robots that plant nurseries are already enlisting to transport potted plants, for labor savings. The robots use an integrated lidar sensor (a system that measures distance via pulses of laser light) to detect obstacles (and people) and, for navigation, they use a different type of light-based sensor that reads a yellow strip placed along the boundary of a work area.

"Some of the major fruit growers in the Salinas Valley are looking at using more containers to grow their product, as part of larger efforts to improve efficiencies" by allocating land in new ways, says Harvest Automation’s CEO, John Kawola. In some cases this could mean the plants are started indoors and then moved outside. Robots could be used to transport the plants and, because they could space them more precisely, they can get 15 to 20 percent more containers on a field than humans could, he says.

At the second annual AgTech Summit, scheduled for July 8 and 9, the top Thrive competitors will be named, and they will then compete for funding and the chance to deploy their technology with one of the major agricultural companies in the Salinas Valley.

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