Startup Challenge 2021 Venture Division winner talks agtech, collaboration, and mentorship.
As COVID pushed meetings, conferences, and networking events online, AGXactly founder, Russell Cole seized the opportunity to cast a wider net to find potential partners.
Prior to the pandemic, Russell Cole was working in his home country of Canada on a project developing insect frass (aka bug excrement) nutrient solution to help farmers. While passionate about the agtech industry, Cole realized he wanted to have a more direct impact.
“I just wanted to be a little bit more proactive in the ecosystem of farming, and that led me to imaging,” he said. “It was COVID while I was on this exploratory journey and I was able to meet people online, have virtual meetings, and find drone pilots.”
During this time, Cole met drone pilot and AGXactly’s future Director of Ops, Graham Evans, who was already serving Salinas Valley farmers. Cole also met a number of imaging experts in Silicon Valley, who shared his vision.
“We got really collaborative and had some good ideas about ways we can improve services to farmers to give them as much value as possible with proactive technologies,” said Cole. “And that led down the path of being an imaging, sensing, informatics company, which we are today.”
AGXactly provides technology that helps farmers analyze row crops from a farming, sales, and operations perspective. The startup leverages drone and sensory technology, evaluates information, and provides valuable insights to farmers and their sales and operations teams. Using crop yield predictions and other tools, farmers can increase harvest yields while using minimal resources and waste.
The startup uses a crop counting algorithm to provide farmers with total numbers of crops, which they can cross reference with farming activities to see which ones result in the greatest crop losses. Farms can also use this data to plan how much labor and supplies they need and forecast future sales.
Unlike the majority of Startup Challenge applicants, Cole lives outside of California. But the Salinas-based company’s central valley connections— specifically Monterey Bay Drone, Automation, and Robotics Technologies (DART) co-founder and director Chris Bley— led the company to apply to the Startup Challenge 2021.
“We luckily have many great mentors and supporters of AGXactly, one mentoring supporter who is heavily involved in the Institute for Innovation & Economic Development (iiED) is Chris Bley, and he was the gentleman who introduced us to the ecosystem.
“Because of COVID and all the virtual conferences and events that were happening, AGXactly had the opportunity to participate in an event that was nowhere near where I physically was and put us on this path towards winning the venture division and basically growing our business in this region that we didn’t expect to gain so much support in so quickly.”
According to Cole, Startup Challenges’ mentorship program was extremely important to his experience and AGXactly’s success. AGXactly was paired with Brooks McChesney, Silicon Valley veteran, mentor, and Advisory Council Member at CSUMB’s Institute for Innovation & Economic Development (iiED). McChesney is a long-time startup veteran, who has been involved with Startup Challenge since the beginning.
“I could tell you with certainty that we would not have won the competition without Brooks’s help,” said Cole. “The experience included many calls of pitch practice and going through the types of information and the time limits we had to share that information, to be able to present it concisely, quickly, and professionally.”
McChesney continued to mentor Cole and is currently on AGXactly’s board.
According to Cole, AGXactly continues to grow to further serve Salinas Valley farmers.
“We are very excited about our story and how we got here, but I think we’re more excited about where we’re going,” he said. “There’s so much work that we’re doing with machine learning and building prediction models, and I think it’s really being designed to solve problems that just aren’t being solved right now. That’s what AGXactly is, and that’s what excites us every day.”