Colin Hurd has developed a knack for bringing the gritty world of farming harmoniously together with the white collar life of the entrepreneur. As comfortable in the glow from his laptop as he is working under a massive tractor, Colin is carving out a reputation for successfully applying the startup mindset to one of the world’s oldest trades.
Just a few years out of Iowa State University—he graduated in 2013—Colin and a small circle of partners have launched a number of promising new businesses. It is his comfort on the farm and in the board room that is spurring steady growth at AgVentive and Smart Ag.
“With both companies, we are looking to bring technology to the farm that aids farmers in doing more,” Colin says. “By empowering the farmer with tools and technology that increase efficiency, we can help them get more out of their land than has ever been possible.”
Smart Ag is Focused on Autonomy
Colin has a well-developed vision of the future of farming. And it is that vision that is informing his approach to the development of technology that enables autonomy in respect to farm machinery.
“In 25 years, I don’t think we will look at machinery the way we do today,” he says. “We are focused on allowing the farmer to remove themselves from the cab and developing technology that allows driverless machinery. Once farmers see they don’t need an operator in the machine, I think it opens the door that to smaller equipment that is fine-tuned to the land they are farming and the size of their operation.”
Specifically, Smart Ag has deployed technology that automates a tractor for grain cart operations. Through the installation of an unobtrusive hardware package loaded with a comprehensive software suite, grain carts can work without a driver during harvest. While the initial work in developing the technology has been focused on grain carts, Colin says the Smart Ag team is focused on expanding it to virtually all farm machinery in the future.
“A lot of today’s equipment is semi-autonomous, so we are essentially taking the next step,” he says. “Initially, we have been working on proving we can run equipment without people in the cab. In the long term, simple modifications of the software will allow us to be able to run tractors, combines or almost any other piece of equipment that currently requires an operator.”
Comprehensive Suite of Products
Headed into the Fall of 2017, Colin says Smart Ag is offering farmers three products:
AAVI (Automated Ag Vehicle Intelligence): This is the software control and monitoring platform for all connected manned or unmanned machinery.
SmartView: This tool allows any manned machine to be hosted on the AAVI platform and work with unmanned machines. Not only is it able to host any machine on the in field network and cloud platform but it can be configured to capture data from the field and machine and deliver directly to the farmer via the AAVI platform.
SmartHP: This enables farmers to get the most out of their machine’s horse power regardless of manufacturer. It is the main “brain” which allows virtually any machine to be automated, and can be moved from machine to machine.
On the heels of successful in-field testing in the Fall of 2016, the Smart Ag team is excited about what the near-term future holds.
“Our beta testing in the fall taught us a lot,” Colin says. “We were able to test and tweak code right there in the field and that was valuable. We didn’t have to wait weeks to implement enhancements. We were able to gain insight on the technology in real-time.”
Fall of 2017 is equally important as Smart Ag begins to roll the technology out in a wider network.
“Our goal is to have a handful of paying customers and early adopters on board by this coming harvest,” Colin says. “We want to be in a position where we can point to practical success and begin to put plans in motion that will help us scale in a much bigger way.”
Addressing a Shortage
Colin says being able to scale and offer driverless technology to more and more farmers is essential in an industry that is rapidly changing.
“This has to be the next wave of technology on the farm,” he says. “Really, since we started using machinery on the farm, the only advancements have been making them bigger and faster. There is a limit to how big and how fast you can get. It’s just not practical to continue to try to innovate in that way.
“Technology will drive the next set of advancements,” he continues.
Without those advancements, Colin says farming is facing a crisis.
“So far, technology in agriculture has failed to address the difficulties in finding labor,” he says. “There has been a trend developing over time of fewer kids who grew up around farming remaining on the farm. That means there are fewer and fewer people available who are comfortable with farming. And seasonal labor just isn’t readily available or practical in a lot of instances.
“I hear from farmers all the time struggling to find qualified, skilled labor.”
Building a Business
While Colin is focused on delivering solutions that spur efficiency for farmers, he is also focusing on building his business for the long-term. In addition to participating in the Ag Startup Engine at the Iowa State University Research Park, Smart Ag was a member of the first cohort in the Iowa State University Startup Factory.
“It has been valuable to have that kind of guidance in establishing the business,” Colin says. “We were provided solid advice on how to set up operations to make a living at what we were doing, how to protect our IP [intellectual property], and how we could make our products easier for the consumer to understand.”
Participation in the programs has also helped Smart Ag identify potential investors to fund further development and growth.
“We have had a small injection of capital to this point,” Colin says. “And we are working on raising more from strategic investors. It has been helpful to have so much support in developing an overview of our company that is attractive to funders. Overall, participation in the Ag Startup Engine and the Startup Factory has been very beneficial. There is just a lot more that goes into running a successful business than having a great idea.”
Back in the Startup Factory
During Smart Ag’s participation in Cohort 1 of the ISU Startup Factory, Colin learned that another of his ventures, AgVentive, was accepted into Cohort 2 of the program. AgVentive, which he operates with his brother Evan, business partner Kyle Meyer, and Test Engineer Brandon Norton, is focused on bringing innovative machinery to the farm.
AgVentive already has two of its patented products available for sale in its online marketplace:
TiltSpear™: This tilting double bale spear offers farmers time savings over traditional bale spears. The hydraulically tilting double bale spear allows operators to pick up a bale, then hydraulically tilt the frame allowing a second bale to be engaged without dragging the first bale on the ground and ripping the net wrap.
Stalk Chopper: This product offers a revolutionary design that provides solutions to some common problems that are faced in current stalk chopping/shredding operations. The technology creates a higher quality end product, increased efficiency and operator ease. The better end product is especially appealing to manufacturers of biodiesel.
In addition to products they have developed themselves, AgVentive partners with other manufacturers to offer machinery in their online store. Currently, AgVentive is offering the Stalk Devastator and TrackTill™ products from Yetter. The Stalk Devastator is designed to assist with preventing erosion after harvest, and TrackTill is designed to remove tractor and planter compaction as farmers plant.
Evan, who serves as General Business Manager, says AgVentive’s primary focus is on providing tools to address the challenges faced by farmers day in and day out.
“As our customers have ongoing requests for new solutions to more and more problems, our mission is to continuously innovate and develop new solutions to meet those needs, and make them readily available,” he says.
While TrackTill is a product of Yetter, Colin and Meyer were instrumental in its development. In fact, it is TrackTill that got Colin interested in the business side of farming.
“I really got into being an entrepreneur with TrackTill,” Colin says. “It was something I developed the concept for, but didn’t have the engineering background, so I needed someone to build it. That’s when I was put in touch with Kyle.”
Colin and Meyer, who is AgVentive’s Co-founder and Chief Engineer, worked together in developing the prototype, testing it and preparing it for market. The work was performed under the umbrella of their company, Agricultural Concepts, which laid the groundwork for what they are today.
“Kyle can build anything,” Colin says. “I was able to explain to him my vision and he was able to absorb that and make a tangible product. When that project wrapped up we recognized that we worked well together and that’s when the idea for AgVentive was born.”
With so many irons in the fire, Colin brought in Evan to handle the day-to-day management of AgVentive. In his role overseeing operations, Evan says there is a lot to be excited about.
“We developed ourselves as a full-service online dealership for farmers,” Evan says. “Being seen as a ‘solution provider’ keeps us connected to our customers – we work with them to find the solution that fits them, even if that means developing a new solution to address their problem.”
Innovation is always at the forefront for AgVentive. Whether it be strategizing new equipment to solve problems on the farm, or changing the way machinery is sold, Colin says the team is committed to doing things differently.
“We are constantly re-thinking the way we work with dealers and sell to clients,” he says.
“There is always the opportunity that a large, well-known equipment manufacturer is going to want to license our products,” Colin continues. “But that isn’t really our focus. We want to be lean and efficient in the way we develop our products so we can be quicker in getting them to market and having a practical impact on the operation of famers in the field.”
When it comes to manufacturing, Colin says the AgVentive team takes its cues from customers.
“We have found clients who believe in our vision and are willing to pay for a product before it’s even built,” he says. “In fact, we don’t really decide what our next product is going to be until customers begin to approach us with a challenge that needs a solution they are willing to pay for.
“We are in a unique situation where we are able to validate our ideas thoroughly before we build an actual product,” Colin continues. “That is a lean approach to manufacturing that allows us to do an incredible amount of research and development before we are locked in to producing a large quantity of anything.”
Bill Adamowski, who heads up the ISU Startup Factory, says AgVentive’s approach to business has them on a strong footing.
“They have virtually unlimited potential,” he says. “They are the right people at the right time. A rapidly expanding market space and the ongoing need for innovative solutions to agriculture producers’ problems requires the years of experience and expertise that AgVentive brings to get the job done.”