Driving the digital transformation of AgTech, an interview with Prospera CEO Daniel Koppel
Tomer Goldberg: Cisco invested in IoT very early on, mainly to gain market visibility and build the ecosystem. As part of that IoT strategy, we’ve focused on verticals that create strategic value to Cisco, mostly around the IoT business unit. And as such, digital agriculture has always been an emerging category that we thought was very relevant and has value and opportunities for Cisco as a whole. Daniel, it’s great to partner with you on that journey, and we wanted to use this interview as a way to share some exciting news and updates for Prospera. So, thanks for spending some time with us.
Daniel Koppel (DK): Thank you. It’s very exciting to be here.
TG: So, maybe we could talk a little bit about what has changed since the Series B and the progress that you’ve made at Prospera.
DK: I think we’ve gone a long way since Cisco joined us in 2017. We grew our footprint in the greenhouse environment with both existing and new customers. We grew our R&D and Sales teams, and we’ve built out our product capabilities, enabling our machine learning technologies to process more layers of data and provide insights to critical decision points in the growing process.
TG: And I know you spoke about the progress that you’ve made and there’s definitely barriers to entry as you think about technology especially starting with high-value crops, building the technology stack, accumulating a large data set, building the AI engines and the machine learning to augment that. How do you think about that in terms of the future of the company?
DK: For us, it’s always been about showing that with AI and machine learning tools, growers can produce more with less. To do that, we decided to start in the agriculture sector most conducive to applying machine learning: greenhouses. Data acquisition is a challenge in all growing environments, but is more established and structured in a contained environment like a greenhouse, where factors like climate and irrigation are more monitored and controlled.
We envisioned greenhouses at the forefront of AI in the industry. Our successful results and the data we collected, convinced us to expand to other growing environments as well.
When we looked at open field crops, it made a lot of sense for us to start with environments that are more controlled than others. It didn’t take long to appreciate the potential of center pivot irrigation systems and test our thesis in Idaho. We followed by partnering with Valley Irrigation, the global leader in pivot irrigation.
TG: So that’s great news. When you think about the vision and what that partnership with Valley provides, it sounds like you’re building this AI machine that grows crops by itself. How do you think about that vision going forward in terms of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead?
DK: In terms of opportunity, I think the industry has been working for a long time on finding a way to move the needle with data and AI. I also think data acquisition has been one of the biggest challenges in the AgTech industry. The opportunity with this partnership is that we are able to acquire data cost-effectively and at scale, together with a brand that is trusted by growers. We’re using multiple layers of imagery from satellite all the way down to the field level. The images and data coming from IoT devices mounted on pivots are really unique. Valley has millions of acres covered by pivots that can be transformed very easily into smart data-collecting machines without having to change existing infrastructure.
If you look at challenges, the industry in general is still working on getting growers comfortable with digital tools. Growers are rightfully hesitant to take very big risks and at the end of the day, for most of the growers, this is their bread and butter. On the tech side, dealing with these volatile environments and unique data sets is a challenge we plan to overcome.
Prospera’s machine vision technology analyzing nutrient deficiencies (on the left is a visualization of the algorithm’s confidence level – red is high confidence, yellow is low confidence).
TG: That makes sense. Shifting gears a little bit, Prospera recently received a Frost and Sullivan Award. Can you share more about the backstory?
DK: They reached out to us in 2017 and spoke to several of our customers which I think was a big part of their decision. I also think that our approach of being very strategic about what we’re aiming to do with machine learning and how we’re aiming to make a difference caught their attention. We are really happy about the award and grateful to Frost and Sullivan as well.
TG: Okay. Let me ask a different question a little bit about how you see the market. So, you know, AgTech has been there. There’s this promise that has been there for a while, and we’re seeing more traction. Spending a lot of time speaking with customers and partners, how do you see the market evolving and gaining more sophistication as it approaches AI, big data, and such? What do you think is a level of maturity now?
DK: Great question. Part of the challenge is market education, which is a task too big for one company and takes time in such a fragmented market. But it’s probably more about proving results to growers. Given there are many factors that affect yields and profitability, there’s a crucial need to focus on demonstrating how AI solutions return the investment. Something we have gained experience with in the greenhouse market.
I think the industry has come a long way. Most growers today have either tried a digital or AI solution or at least know someone who has. We’ve still got a long way to go though.
TG: Prospera started in Israel, you’ve moved to the States, you’re building a global team. You have a team in Mexico. Managing a global operation is hard, but it’s also harder for a young company. What has worked for you and what has been the challenge?
DK: It’s always about the people. We’ve built a great team around Engineering, Research, Product and Operations. Although we’re a global company, we try to keep a really local culture. Everybody’s very synced and connected, and we all make an extra effort to structure days so teams around the globe can collaborate. And then we also leverage partnerships, as we’re doing with Valley.
TG: With building a global company, how are you going about building the brand equity, go to market, what’s been working for Prospera?
DK: Influencers have been a big area of focus for us. When we enter a new market, we try to understand who are the market leaders? Who are the influencers? In general, agriculture is very distributed and fragmented. So, traditional go-to-market and marketing approaches are a bit more challenging. We’ve found that gaining trust and proving our technology’s value to market leaders works very well.
We also work on our own brand awareness through partnership channels, making sure that we find a balance between the partner’s brand and ours.
TG: Let’s talk about the funding. So, you have some really great investors on your board. Bessemer, obviously, was one of the first investors. How do you think about strategic investors versus VCs and more specifically, I’m curious to see what you think about the value that Cisco Investments brings to Prospera?
DK: When we evaluated investors, we were always looking at long-term investors given that we’re focusing on the agriculture industry and machine learning, both of which are long-term plays. Both Bessemer and Cisco, and also the other strategic investors we took on all have that in common. In terms of strategic value, Cisco brings great relationships with its partners and marketing team and we have found the Cisco team provides value in areas where we seek help.
TG: From the Cisco side, I think we see a lot of value in our partnership with Prospera and I think the culture you’re building has been a key component of your success. Tell us more about that.
DK: We have a few core values that really define both the day-to-day activities and also the culture at the company.
The first is to challenge everything – we don’t take anything for granted. Everyone in the team can challenge anything. There’s no hierarchy: people are used to questioning things and giving their opinion. And that’s actually the first thing we tell people when they come to the company, and I think one of the reasons that we’re able to change things that have never been changed before.
The second value is resourcefulness. Being a small company trying to move such a big industry with projects that are really multidisciplinary means that if everybody only did what their title says, it would be very challenging. We all have to be resourceful and hands-on and look for nontrivial solutions. That really reflects our day-to-day and the way we operate.
And another key value is growth. We care both about the growth of the company, but also about the growth of the individual. It’s very important to understand where every individual wants to go in terms of her career, in terms of her personal objectives, and we put a lot of focus on that. So that, as we grow the company, we also grow the individuals within the company.
TG: That’s awesome. Let’s talk about vision. Where do you see Prospera five years from now?
DK: We started on a quest to understand why different fields produce different yields. I think with the relationships we’re building with growers, the new agri-machine-learning capabilities we’re developing and strong go-to-market partnerships, we’re getting closer to close those gaps and help growers globally achieve higher yields with more profitable businesses. We’re building Prospera to lead the way in that respect. We see our technology solutions being a part of every single field in the industry and we’re now working towards realizing this vision.
TG: Daniel, thank you very much for spending your time with us. Prospera has done really well in the last year, and I think the future is very bright.
DK: Thank you very much, much appreciated.
We were very glad to talk with Daniel about his company’s culture, where he sees the industry going and the role Prospera’s technology plays in AgTech.