TeleSense raises $10.2 million to monitor crops with AI and sensors

TeleSense, a startup developing AI-powered software and sensors for predicting the quality of crops in storage and transit, has raised $10.2 million. The company says the proceeds will be put toward R&D and expanding the size of TeleSense’s 48-person workforce.

It’s estimated that over 80 billion pounds of food — equating to more than $161 billion — is thrown away in the U.S. each year, in part as the result of spoilage. One report found that as much as 50% to 60% of cereal grains can be lost during storage due to a lack of technical efficiency and know-how.

TeleSense’s platform aims to prevent this with sensors that gather crop temperature, moisture, and location metrics to feed to AI algorithms that analyze the data and predict quality. The sensors work anywhere with a cellular data connection, and they monitor stationary storage units as well as storage units in transit like barges, railcars, ground piles, grain bags, bunkers, bins, warehouses, and crates. An app analyzes the incoming information and identifies problems related to mold, insects, moisture, and other compromised storage conditions, notifying stakeholders of any issues as they’re detected.

“We are a data company at heart. We develop hardware to meet our customers’ needs as no other vendor delivered a super easy to deploy, robust, wireless method of collecting the data — so we had to develop it,” CEO Naeem Zafar told VentureBeat via email. “However, we see our real value in providing insights and advice to be able to maintain the grain in ideal conditions. Our focus is twofold: help our customers reduce costs by reducing spoilage, reducing energy consumption and shrinkage; and increase merchandizing profits by providing information to optimize merchandizing timing.”

TeleSense’s sensors are tailored for specific use cases. For example, the turkey baster-shaped CellularSpear, Gateway SensorSpear, and Waterproof SensorSpear are designed to be inserted into outdoor storage units without clear fixture points or loose ground soil. (The Gateway SensorSpear leverages the LoRa communication protocol to reach longer distances than conventional Wi-Fi.) The SensorBall, meanwhile, is equipped with mesh networking capabilities that enable it to communicate with other SensorBalls using a gateway. As for the BuffaloBox, it enhances existing cable systems by making them wireless.

In some ways, TeleSense’s solution is akin to (albeit less holistic than) FarmBeats, Microsoft’s multi-year effort to bring robust data analytics to agricultural sectors. Available in preview as of November 2019, FarmBeats aims to promote data-driven farming techniques with a network of sensors, drones, low-cost computers, and AI and machine learning algorithms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering rolling out FarmBeats to the 200-plus farms in its research network.

TeleSense also competes with Arable Labs, a startup that raised $4.25 million in March 2017 to bring data-driven analysis and predictions to farming using the internet of things sensors. Another rival in the space — Taranis —  nabbed $20 million last November for its image-based AI-driven crop insights platform. Other well-funded competitors include Enko Chem, iFarm, and Prospera.

For TeleSense’s part, it claims it’s already helping over 400 unnamed “major grain players” to mitigate the spoilage of corn, wheat, soybeans, hay, alfalfa, seeds, woodchips, biomass, and more. TeleSense recently established offices in Australia and Europe, and it plans to focus on strengthening its sales channels, speeding production, and building out its data science team.

“The pandemic has highlighted the need for a safe and protected grain supply chain,” Zafar said. “As labor safety and  shortage concerns escalated, our remote wireless sensors have been a blessing for the grain growers and handlers relying on TeleSense. The data comes directly to them, and companies do not have to go out and have workers try to sense what may be wrong. Our predictive models and prescriptive insights can offer specific action they can take to keep the grain in the best condition. Beyond the pandemic, climate change is causing increasing reliance on ground piles and silo bags — where monitoring can be challenging.”

Finistere Ventures led TeleSense’s series B round, bringing its total raised to date to over $17.4 million. Fulcrum Global Capital, UPL, Artesian, Mindset Ventures, and Rabobank’s Food & Agri Innovation Fund also participated.

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