In 2017, I invited Michael Gilbert, President and CEO of a then seven-year-old company called Semios, to share a bit about the technology the company was deploying across targeted specialty crop markets in Washington state and California. I was intrigued by the self-contained, self-actuating insect monitoring system, which is capable of not only monitoring microclimate data and pest activity, but then automatically dispensing a pheromone at the point at which insect activity (flight times) warranted a treatment.
And after hearing that Semios had raised $75 million in private equity funding recently, I thought it was time for a revisit.
As it turns out, things have been going quite well for Semios — specialty crop producers have been equally intrigued with the system, and company growth has doubled each of the past five years. “It’s been an amazing product for us,” says Gilbert.
The backbone of the Semios system is deployed units gathering data on humidity, temperature, and evapotranspiration as well as actual insect pressure, and data points are collected for each factor and variable every 10 minutes for every sensor. With approximately one million sensors deployed, it amounts to more than 350 million data points every day.
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As someone who’s encountered a lot of tech startups, this is often where the story ends – with a semi-truck full of data. This is only the beginning for Semios.
The company employs 160 people all-in, and 70 of them are dedicated to boots-on-the-ground service. A portion are checking and fixing data collection units. “It’s in-field technology, so it’s going to break. We can respond to a down system or unit in one or two days,” says Gilbert. The other field people are “customer success specialists” who work with grower-clients to maximize the system’s capabilities for the crops they grow and the size of the operation.
“A lot of tech companies are terrified of the boots-on-the-ground aspect of agriculture,” says Gilbert. “It is expensive, and when someone from the software side is deciding whether to hire a software developer or a field technician, the temptation is to hire the software person. We’re always focused on in-field staff to ensure our system works when needed, and it’s why we’ve had the success we’ve had in the market.”
Being constantly interactive with customers also has served to expand the utility of the system and increase customer reliance on the data. “As we get more and more traction, a lot of our customers are asking us, ‘now that you’ve set up this wireless network, can you do more for me as well?’” says Gilbert. This has led to the addition of more features around understanding the impact of frost, disease management, bloom timing, harvest timing, and other aspects of tree and crop management.
The insights are available because the Semios sensors are providing 10-minute updates on two essential data points – heat and water. “They drive almost every biological process,” notes Gilbert, “and we have a read on the temperature and humidity in the canopy of a tree every 10 minutes on every acre we monitor.”
Customers now get critical insights on factors such as when bloom will occur, when bees are active, and when almonds split among other valuable bits of information. One that’s demonstrated a pretty cool value payback is “chill portion” in pistachios.
A pistachio tree needs a “dose” of colder temperatures at some point in its growing cycle that allows it to “rest,” conserve energy, and put that energy to use in producing nuts. Without specific knowledge of the in-canopy temperature at any given time, a grower can only use field averages to gauge whether the chill portion was adequate for a particular orchard. An oil can be sprayed to simulate the chill portion, but without deeper data all the trees would need to be sprayed. Semios data allows the grower to identify only the areas that did not receive an adequate chill portion, reducing field work cost.
Semios is servicing eight different specialty crops in its target areas, and is currently working on expansion to select international markets where it is currently performing field trials. Because the units function as a pheromone application tool, regulatory approval must be gained before deployment can begin.
To me, Semios is really the essence of a successful technology deployment in agriculture – combining the right technology and systems with boots-on-the-ground interactivity with the growers, and always looking to improve capabilities and services. And, don’t grow too fast. Congratulations, Michael.