GroGuru Revolutionary Agriculture Technology, or AgTech Systems Solution, Helps Farmers More Efficiently Use Water and Fertilizer, While Maximizing Crop Yield
In this interview with Patrick Henry, the CEO of QuestFusion, we discuss our revolutionary agriculture technology, or AgTech product. This AgTech system solution is doing terrific to help farmers improve the yield of their crops, more efficiently use water and fertilizer, and meet government regulations. GroGuru has developed a break-through wireless soil monitoring system that will enable a cloud-based water and soil management system that gives real-time data to farmers, enabling them improve crop yield and the quality of their crops.
Competing soil sensors are frequently inaccurate, unreliable and expensive. The GroGuru solution provides unprecedented improvements including a game-changing end-to-end wireless solution with wireless sensors.
Farooq is an engineering leader with over 20 years of experience and a PhD in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Maryland. Forooq led large global teams to ship products in mobile communications at Qualcomm, wireless networks at Telcordia Technologies, and artificial intelligence and machine learning devices at On Ramp Wireless. Farooq has several patents, has published over 60 research papers, and authored two books. Farooq has expertise is the Internet of things (IOT), systems architecture and design, machine learning, software engineering, quality assurance, wireless communication, big data and cyber security. As it turns-out, all of these skills come into play at GroGuru.
Patrick: This is Patrick Henry, the CEO of QuestFusion with the Real Deal…What Matters. I’m here with Farooq Anjum. He is the CEO of a very cool agriculture technology company, or AgTech, that is doing a terrific job to help farmers improve the yield of their crops and more efficiently use water and fertilizer, and also meet government regulations.
GroGuru has developed a breakthrough wireless soil monitoring system that will enable a cloud based water and soil management system that gives real time data to farmers, enabling them to improve crop yield, and in some cases, the quality of the crops.
Competing soil sensors are frequently inaccurate, unreliable and expensive. The GroGuru solution provides unprecedented improvements, including a game changing end to end wireless solution with wireless sensors. Farooq is an engineering leader with over 20 years of experience and a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of Maryland.
Farooq led large global teams to shift products in mobile communications at QUALCOMM, Wireless Networks, Telcordia Technologies and artificial intelligence and machine learning devices at On-Ramp Wireless. Farooq has several patents, has published over 60 research papers and authored two books.
He has expertise in The Internet of Things, which is involved in the GroGuru product, system architecture and design, machine learning, software engineering, quality assurance, wireless communications, big data and cyber security. All of these technologies come into play in the GroGuru solution. Welcome, Farooq.
Farooq: Thank you very much, Patrick.
Patrick: This is a very interesting area for me because it merges artificial intelligence, cloud based computing, Internet of Things and a very interesting and important vertical market with agriculture technology. Talk us through what got you interested in this area. What made you decide to start GroGuru?
Farooq: As you can see from my background, I’m not an agriculturist. At my previous company, one of the verticals we were looking at is agriculture. We could see some potential there. I was also having some challenges because I don’t have a green thumb, I have a brown thumb. I was killing plants. We moved from an apartment and bought a house. I was looking at the water bill. I was looking at the garden that I had to maintain.
Those things combined got me interested in the ag vertical. I started looking at sensors and realized the potential. Farmers need a lot of help in order to grow food for the next billion people that we’re expecting. I also got in touch with Jeff Campbell, the co-founder, who has been a soil scientist for nearly 30 years. He’s been an agronomist by experience for many years. We said that we wanted to make a difference in the life of farmers. That’s where GroGuru started.
Patrick: Jeff brings the specific knowledge and domain expertise around agriculture technology and sensing technology as it relates to that vertical market. Then you bring the other pieces of the solution together along with the system expertise.
Farooq: Yes, exactly. These are things like wireless and the machinery aspects. I combine that with the knowledge that I get from Jeff about growing plants.
Patrick: Your customers are farmers. You have to keep it simple, although there are farmers who are extremely sophisticated in terms of their use of technology. We throw buzz words around in the tech word. This is a different group of customers. Describe the product as best you can in layman’s terms.
Farooq: We help farmers with two main things. We help them determine the right time and amount of water. Secondly, we help them determine the right salinity and fertilizer levels for the plants that they’re growing. That’s what we do for farmers. To achieve this, the system itself is complex. We have stripped away all complexities so that the farmer does not see any of that.
The system is very easy for the farmer to install. It’s very low maintenance. If you look at some of the existing systems, some of them require the farmer to have a degree in information technology or analyzing data. That’s the other thing that we do. We make it very easy for the farmers. They are very busy people. They don’t have to spend time maintaining the network. They don’t have to spend time analyzing the data. They get recommendations on what they should be doing.
Patrick: One of the key technologies that you provide is the soil sensing technology, which checks moisture and salinity. That is the salt level. That’s one factor to determine how much fertilizer to use. What do you call the technology for each of those nodes?
Farooq: We call them stems that are connected to sensors. I will show you an example of a stem. This is a stem and these are the soil sensors. The soil sensors go in the ground. You will see three of these at every location. One goes above the root zone, one around the root zone and one below. Each of them is measuring moisture, salinity and temperature. It sends the information to the box that we call the stem.
Patrick: Then the stem connects to the base unit that aggregates the data across all the different stems that are on a farm.
Farooq: That is right.
Patrick: You mentioned that each stem is also capable of supporting other sensors. Talk a little bit about that.
Farooq: This one sensor was our initial entry point into this market. At the same time, we have made this platform extensible so that you can add other sensors. You can add a pressure sensor to this platform.
Patrick: What does a pressure sensor do?
Farooq: The pressure sensor measures the pressure in the irrigation pipes that are installed in a vineyard or farm.
Patrick: It’s the water pressure in an irrigation system.
Farooq: Exactly. It tells the farmer two main things. First, it helps them determine whether the crew is doing the irrigation at the right time and the for the right amount of time. Second, it helps determine the health of the irrigation system. We are not looking at just the soil. We are also looking at whether you are applying water at the right time and for the right amount of time.
It’s more like a water management system. Going forward, we also plan to add other sensors, such as a water flow meter. This is something that government regulations require farmers to report. They need to report how much of the ground water they are using. The typical approach these days is to have people drive around and note the readings on the flow meter valves. The platform is extensible so that we can add these other types of sensors. That is what we are planning to do.
Patrick: All of this data comes out of the ground and from the water pipes. Then it gets sent up into the cloud. How does the farmer view that data?
Farooq: We have a machine learning algorithms and sending them to the cloud tailored for agriculture. It uses the data and, right now, focuses on two main recommendations for the farmers that I mentioned earlier. That is the right time and the right amount of water, and the right level of salinity and fertilizer. We present the data to the farmer on apps that we have in the App Store. There is a GroGuru app in the App Store for iPhone and iPad.
We also have a web application. As soon as the farmer logs in, he will be able to look at the different locations on the site to see that everything is okay. The yellow lights indicate to him that something is not okay. The farmer has to take action for the yellow or red lights. To determine the actions, the farmer can click and see what action to take, as part of the recommendations that we provide to the farmer.
Patrick: Your machine learning artificial intelligence system determines if it’s red, green or yellow.
Farooq: That is correct. We also work with the farmer to do that. Some farmers are very tech savvy. They say, “I understand my system and the data.” We work with them to tweak the system so that they get alerts and recommendations.
Patrick: Is there a big difference between a vineyard growing grapes to make wine and a corn or soybean farmer?
Farooq: Yes, there is. It will determine how much water that crop needs. It calculates how much water you have to apply. It depends on several factors. For example, there is something called soil type. There are certain soil types that hold water. There are other soil types that just let the water go through. You need to irrigate more frequently if you have sandy soil that lets the water go through. On the other hand, clay soil holds water, so you don’t have to water as often. How much water does a plant need? It depends on the stage of growth of the plant.
Patrick: It’s dynamic, it’s not static.
Farooq: Exactly. There are also environment factors, like high temperature days, wind and humidity. We take all of those things into consideration to tell the farmer, “Your field is off five millimeters of water. Based on the factors, you will lose seven millimeters of waters.” This means that he has to irrigate much sooner than one week.
Patrick: I saw this IBM Watson commercial about agriculture technology a week after I met you. Tell me about that. What does Watson do? Are they aggregating other data? Are they doing things like you’re doing?
Farooq: I’m on the non-optimistic side as far as Watson. I’ve been reading articles where IBM is hyping up Watson quite a bit. In reality, it should be looking at data from the soil, above the soil, the type of plant, and combining the information. That information keeps on changing over the life of the plant. What we are doing is what they should be doing.
Patrick: This is a hot area. How big is the market for something like this?
Farooq: In the US alone, it is about $2 billion annual revenue. Think about outside the US. We have been talking to some people who are very interested in taking this technology to the Middle Eastern countries, India, South America and South Africa. The opportunities are endless outside the US as well.
Patrick: Talk about your entrepreneurial journey? What got you into smaller companies like On-Ramp Wireless and then eventually to the decision to start your own company?
Farooq: I used to work with larger companies at the beginning of my career, including QUALCOMM. I wanted things to move faster. I wanted to make a real difference in the lives of end customers. That’s when I joined a startup. It was about seven years ago. I was with them for six years. I also saw the potential that was out there as well as some of the challenges.
I also had the itch to start taking control of my life, and the difference that I could make in the lives of farmers. That’s when I made the jump and started this entrepreneurial journey. There are definitely ups and downs. It’s not an easy journey, as I’m sure you realize. It’s much easier from the outside.
You have up days and down days. Sometimes the high that you get on the up days more than makes up for the lows that you have on the down days. That gives me the energy to keep going forward.
Patrick: Jeff is an agriculture technologist. You’re more of a big data, cyber security, system engineer, software technologist. What have you done to shore that up from a business standpoint?
Farooq: We realized our weaknesses. We are very strong in technology. At the same time, we also depend on advisors to help us bridge the gap as far as the business side. I learned a lot on the business side from working with some advisors over the last 18 months. I plan to continue to learn. With the growth plans that the company has, we also plan to add people who are stronger on the business side.
Patrick: I love that mentorship model. It’s something that all entrepreneurs can learn from. My background is technology as well, but I’ve been on the business side for a long period of time. I’m always trying to learn things from people who might have expertise that I don’t. In the early days of Entropic when we were starting to scale the company, we didn’t have someone in house who had a high amount of operational experience.
Working with our subcontract manufacturers, we had some great engineers. We had a good test engineer and a good product engineer, but not someone at the senior level who had dealt with pricing issues and negotiations. I was able to add someone on my board with that specific expertise. That was very helpful to us.
Farooq: Sometimes I’m faced with questions on how to address things on the business side. There are things like sales commissions and sales quotas. It might be easy for you, but I’ve been talking to my mentors to help me understand and navigate these questions. GroGuru is part of EvoNexus, the incubator here in town. We have benefited a lot from that and the mentors that we have there. I appreciate everything that we’re getting from them.
Patrick: I’m a big fan of EvoNexus. What are the biggest takeaways, both positive and negative, from your entrepreneurial experience?
Farooq: It’s definitely harder than it looks. You might read TechCrunch stories where companies are getting millions of dollars. It does not come easy. You have to work towards it. There is a lot of hard work that goes on in the background. I mean that positively. Sometimes you have to deal with bullshit out there. You have to figure out how to deal with it. As the leader of the company and an entrepreneur, you have to go in there and figure out how to address it.
Patrick: Can you give me an example?
Farooq: Sometimes people don’t work out. You get new people on the team. You have expectations, and those expectations peter out. You have to make the hard decisions about letting those people go because it’s not working out for both sides. It’s not easy.
Patrick: That’s one of the toughest things about management, and especially running a company when you’re the ultimate person making those decisions.
Farooq: Also, raising money is not as easy as those TechCrunch stories. You get a lot of “no” answers.
Patrick: I’ve never been in the fortunate position where people are just throwing money at me. I’ve read those stories, too. I still haven’t met anyone who has done that.
Farooq: For me, not having been in sales, it’s been a hard lesson learned. For entrepreneurs with an engineering background, you need to focus. You need to be less verbose. I used to have a tendency to be much more verbose. Now I try to focus on the questions being asked, whether they are questions from investors or customers. It’s alla bout selling the product and the company. It’s a slightly different mind shift than what I was used to as an engineer in the past.
Patrick: There is something that happens with brilliant engineers, scientists and medical doctors who become founders. There is what I call transference of credentials. “I’m great and brilliant in this. Therefore, I think I’m great and brilliant at everything.” The inability for the entrepreneur to learn is almost a guaranteed death sentence in terms of building a company.
You might get to a certain level. When it comes to building and scaling a business, if you can’t realize there are things you don’t know, which opens you up to learning and makes you receptive to it, then it’s very difficult.
That’s something that I’ve really enjoyed in the time that I’ve gotten to know you. You are receptive to learning. You know what you know, and know what you don’t know. You’re open to different ideas, even in areas where you have a degree of expertise. I love that about you. I think that bodes well for your ability to be successful as an entrepreneur. Plus, you have a great idea and a big business opportunity.
Farooq: Thank you for the compliment. I feel strongly in terms of my responsibility to the people who are sacrificing their weekends and days of working on this. They are the people who put their hard-earned money into the company. That’s a big sense of responsibility for me personally. I have to do it. I can’t say, “I know everything. Forget you guys.” You are exactly right. That would not bode well for the company.
Patrick: That’s a good, healthy perspective to have. What’s next for GroGuru? Are you going to raise more money?
Farooq: We are attempting to raise a seed round. I’ve been talking to investors as well as getting ready to launch the product in October of this year. You will probably see me half of the time in Central Valley, talking to the customers. Our current customer base is there, from the growers to the farmers. I plan to go back to Silicon Valley. I’ll spend a week there and a week in Central Valley. I’m looking for sales and more investment.
Patrick: It’s a great company with cool technology and a big market opportunity. I think it’s a differentiated product. What is a good way for people to reach you?
Farooq: The website is www.GroGuru.com. There is an option to send me an email. We also have a Facebook page.
Patrick: Thank you so much, Farooq, for joining the program today.
Farooq: Thank you very much.
Patrick: It has been educational. This is Patrick Henry, the CEO of QuestFusion, with The Real Deal… What Matters.
This article was originally published on QuestFusion.com.