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Disruption in the House

Disruption in the House

By Ed Cohen

View full image. Allison Kopf ’11, CEO of Agrilyst. Photography by Joanne Lee
Making the Google Analytics of greenhouses

Once upon a time—we’re talking prehistory—farmers controlled almost nothing. The smartest hunter-gatherers of their day pushed seeds under dirt, but it was up to capricious Mother Nature to provide sun and warmth and water at optimal times and in optimal amounts.

In agriculture, the vagaries of the elements still hold some sway to this day. But if Allison Kopf ’11 and her partners in a venture called Agrilyst are right, crop-control perfection may soon be attainable. 

And they may soon be very wealthy. 

It was little more than six years ago that Kopf stood onstage in Washington, D.C., accepting accolades at the Energy Department’s Solar Decathlon. The junior physics major had spent a year leading construction of SCU’s California-cool solar-powered house, which took third place out of 20 international student teams. 

Fast-forward to last September, when she presented at TechCrunch Disrupt’s Startup Battlefield competition for technology startups, the signature event at an annual conference in San Francisco. TechCrunch is a leading website for technology news. 

Kopf and co-founder Jason Camp were there to pitch Agrilyst, which makes software to track and optimize production variables in greenhouses and other kinds of indoor farms. They had launched the company only five months before. 

And they won.

Think and grow: Demographers predict that food production will need to increase by 70 percent between now and 2050 to meet global demand.

This was a big deal, and not only because first prize was $50,000. Past winners have included the personal finance website Mint.com and cloud-storage source Dropbox, which was recently valued at $10 billion. 

Overnight, Agrilyst went from unknown to hot commodity.

“I had about 10,000 emails in my inbox the next day,” says Kopf, company CEO. 

One of the Disrupt judges, Roelof Botha of Silicon Valley venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, told CNBC: “If you think about the need to feed people with hydroponics, [building] greenhouses is going to be an increasing trend. It’s already a large market, and they [Agrilyst] have very nice tailwinds.”

Kopf says demographers predict that food production will need to increase by 70 percent between now and 2050 to meet global demand. “Which is insane. That’s not a hundred years from now,” says the 26-year-old. “It’s something in our lifetime.”

Getting her hands dirty

Kopf grew up just north of New York City—not exactly farm country. The idea for Agrilyst stemmed from her first job out of college, with a New York City startup called BrightFarms. The company aims to build greenhouses in urban areas and create a more local, sustainable food system.

Working at the very first BrightFarms greenhouse, near Philadelphia, she discovered that growing conditions like temperature, humidity, and lighting were already being tightly controlled compared with outdoor fields. But records were still being kept by hand, so every time a problem happened it meant digging through notebooks.

“Growers were making suboptimal decisions and leaving revenue on the table,” she says. “This just seemed like a broken system to me.”

Enter Agrilyst. Together with co-founder Camp, the company’s chief technical officer, she wants to show growers that better use of technology will improve yields, quality, and profits. As of last fall they were working with six growers scattered across the country. Agrilyst is currently based out of a business incubator in Brooklyn and plans to hire about 10 employees in the next year, she says.

The headline on TechCrunch prior to the Disrupt finals declared, “Agrilyst Wants to be the Google Analytics for Greenhouses.” 

Its CEO says, “Our moon-shot mission is to change the way agriculture thinks.”

 

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