Many growers hesitate to buy technology or hire services from unproven startups. That’s understandable, but the nascent company trying to commercialize a new tool marks one of the most critical stages in the development of ag technology.

“Startups are a good way to take technology from a university to you,” said George Kantor, a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute. He spoke about emerging technology for the tree fruit industry at the Washington State Tree Fruit Association’s Annual Meeting in December and encouraged growers to support new tools.

George Kantor
George Kantor

“Commercialization has a lot of unseen work,” he said, to take something that performs well in a university trial and make it successful in a commercial system. There’s a lot of risk in that phase, but once a technology attracts customers and proves its merit, larger companies can acquire the technology and scale it up. He cited the example of John Deere recently buying a startup that spent five years developing “See & Spray” technology for automated, targeted herbicide application.

Early customers who take the chance on new technologies help those companies attract investors needed to scale up operations.

“When you become a customer in one of these emerging companies, the value of that $10,000 is that it’s a vote from you,” Kantor said. “You are investing in a capability that might not make it to viability without that investment.”

—by Kate Prengaman

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