Solum: One Foot in Silicon Valley, the Other in the Field

By Andrew James , written on June 28, 2012

From The News Desk

While the rest of the Valley toils to develop the best new way to stalk your friends, Solum, an agritech startup, is using big data to change the world. Solum has developed a platform for testing soil moisture and nitrogen levels to produce more accurate data to guide when to add fertilizer – as well as how much. They’ve cultivated some big backers as well, in the form of Khosla Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz, who codenamed the funding project “Software Eats Dirt," a play on the title of the now famous Wall Street Journal article "Software Eats the World" by Marc Andreessen.

Khosla Ventures initially funded Solum's seed round for $2 million in 2010. Andreessen Horowitz lead Solum's most recent round of funding for $17 million with Khosla Ventures also participating. Andreessen Horowitz's General Partner John O’Farrell also joined the Solum board.

With 40 percent of the world’s population employed in agriculture, it’s astoundingly underrepresented in the startup tech community. Although farming is only behind space travel in terms of its edge on technology -- most large scale tractors are outfitted with tablets, GPS tracking, and plant seeds following mapped out historical data of land growth patterns -- the mounds of data behind farming is rarely put to use beyond the year-on-year planting.

Solum wants to change that. By analyzing nitrogen levels, soil composition, weather, and fertilizer habits and applying it to large scale data sets, it can determine what’s required to increase crop yields while cutting down on fertilizer consumption.

Andreessen Horowitz’s John O’Farrell cites the case of China, where population growth and the great famine raised concern that the world would plummet into chaos – that never happened thanks in part to China’s increase in fertilizer use and better farming tactics. Unfortunately it came at a price. Between the 1980s and the present, the PRC increased its farming yields 40 percent, while fertilizer applications jumped 225 percent in the same period. That means both a waste of the commodity and a significant amount of run-off polluting the environment.

Even more recent measures place China’s fertilizer use at 50 percent more than what the vegetation requires. It’s a relatively common habit around the world – over-fertilize to increase yield. It’s difficult for local farmers to determine whether they’re applying too much or too little fertilizer to their fields, says Solum’s CEO, Nick Koshnick.

Improving fertilizer usage alone would do wonders for managing agriculture and reducing pollution. Internationally, there is significant room for growth, Koshnick continues, “Everyone says that the US no longer produces anything, but the United States manufactures food better than anyone else in the world.”

This is specifically what Solum is setting out to champion. By monitoring soil quality and comparing it against existing data, they’re able to project the ideal use of fertilizer to maximize output, while minimizing runoff and pollution.

Soil sampling isn’t a new technology. It’s already conducted by local agronomists around the world, except on a smaller scale, where agronomists take soil samples to a lab for analysis. Even China has a five year plan to start testing soil across the country, which will require the style of data knowledge that Solum can bring to the field. What Solum aims to do is apply large data sets from relevant granular information that can be fed back to agronomists dealing with their local farms.

Solum is current running tests in the Corn and Soybean Belt in Iowa, an area known for hi-tech farming and one of the first land grant universities in the US, issued under the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 in response to the decrease in agricultural knowledge during the industrial revolution. “This is a really impactful place,” says Koshnick, where data engineers can see the potential for their work actually improving the environment and living conditions.

As for plotting a cleaner way forward for agriculture that leverages off  the piles of agricultural data available, O’Farrell says, “History is ahead of us.”

[Both Marc Andreessen and Jeff Jordan are independent investors in PandoDaily, and both are also partners at Andreessen Horowitz.]