Big data startup 640 Labs has created a device that attaches to tractors and other farm equipment to measure activity during planting and harvesting. It can then analyze factors like how hard the ground is.
By next year, the Chicago company wants to provide farmers recommendations for what products to use in their fields, in what quantities and where.
The 3D-printed 640 Drive widget plugs into a universal port in tractor cabs and automatically collects data ranging from machine performance to GPS location. That syncs to a mobile app whose dashboard offers a centralized look at farmers’ data and analytics.
The company kicked off a private beta in April 2013, eventually partnering with two dozen farmers in Illinois and Indiana who mostly grow corn, soybeans and wheat — crops whose production is highly mechanized and prevalent across the Midwest.
This spring, 640 Labs will expand that to Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Currently, the company tracks 50,000 acres. By the end of 2014, it hopes to be monitoring 1 million acres.
“So much of the information the farmer has never leaves the field,” said co-founder and CEO Corbett Kull. “If you don’t capture that information, you can’t study it and you can’t improve.”
Soybean and corn farmer Steve Pitstick of
“All of the things that’s going on in my operation, all of my machines, every vital function — the data is being captured,” Pitstick said. “We’re looking at more data points to figure out where we can cut corners or improve efficiencies or maximize our yield and minimize inputs.”
He also has tested Monsanto’s FieldScripts, which has similar goals but operates differently and is ultimately used to promote Monsanto products. Farmers voluntarily submit planting and harvest data to Monsanto via certified dealers. It is then paired with public information and put through a proprietary algorithm. Monsanto then suggests which of its seeds farmers should use and can even give a tractor automated directions on how to plant a field.
640 Labs’ lack of ties to major companies attracted Pitstick, who is used to getting product advice from salespeople.
“The advantage is 640 is not selling me anything,” he said.
Pitstick said he hopes investing in data analysis will give him an edge, increasingly difficult to find as farming becomes ever more efficient.
None of the data points on their own is a game changer, he said, “but if I can do five or 10 of them, it becomes a wow.”
Joe Bassett, president of Dawn Equipment, a DeKalb County-based mechanical component producer that is one of 640 Labs’ four B2B customers, liked the idea of offering customers data analysis that isn’t tied to any one seed provider.
Though his machines had sensors, they didn’t take data capturing to the next level. “We were weak in UX and mobile development,” Bassett said. “They provided the cloud and mobile.”
Kull said 640 Labs intends to make money off data analysis, likely charging a dollar per acre per year to start. Pricing for the device itself is yet to be determined. He said they would not sell data to outside parties.
The company is now in talks with local and coastal VCs as it seeks $3 to $5 million in seed funding.