Funding announcement blogs, especially for seed rounds, are a curious thing — part press release, part introduction to the company, and part mission statement.
That makes sense in a way, since they are usually meant to communicate to a widely disparate audience: current and future investors, prospective employees and partners, the media.
Rarely, however, are they meant to address one audience specifically: current and future customers of our precision crop load management system.
That’s what I hope to do today. For you, the grower reading this, I want to explain how we got here and what we are going to build for you with the money we raised. And I want to thank all those who generously gave of their time and resources to make this funding possible.
How Growers Helped Us Get Here
Three years ago, Jeff and I, with only the faintest inkling of what FruitScout could be, showed up on the doorstep of several apple growers in the central Washington area near Yakima asking a lot of questions, including if we could take pictures of their trees. Lots of pictures. Tens of thousands of pictures.
And instead of running us off, they not only said yes, but they did something that changed not just the company’s trajectory, but our lives and, hopefully, the way growers manage crops in the future.
They walked us through the many phases of the growing season and patiently explained what mattered most to them.
We learned a lot from growers that we could never have learned sitting back in an office somewhere writing code. In fact, we learned that the code wasn’t even the most important part of our software product.
Instead, we learned how to count. That’s right. After more combined years on this earth than either of us cares to mention, Jeff and I uprooted our lives, rented a house near George, Washington, and started counting the way growers count.
We counted apples, in this case. Tree after tree, row after row, of apples. Fujis. Honey Crisps. Goldens. Cosmic Crisps. And in all sorts of configurations — single spindle, v-trellis, multi-leader grafts.
Manual Counting is Hard
Counting, along with sizing, is at the heart of precision crop load management — a set of data-intensive principles developed by Dr. Terence Robinson and others to help growers maximize profitability and sustainability.
We wanted to build software that made this process affordable and accessible to growers of all crops, with operations big and small, anywhere in the world.
Counting is hard work, though not in comparison to most other farm tasks. (Let’s just say it’s hard for technologists and leave it at that).
Standing in front of a tree in freezing rain or under the intense summer sun, trying to count every bud (omitting the ones on first year wood and a dozen other exceptions), every bloom, every visible fruit, using just a clicker and a clipboard takes concentration.
If you lose your place, you start over.
Marking branches with ribbon or apples with a market can help, but takes a lot of time. A tree can take fifteen minutes to count and adding and taking down markers can take longer than counting. You have to measure hundreds of trees. If you are lucky, you can squeeze in enough trees to make a sample size of .03% of your total operation.
And then you make business critical decisions based on that count.
And the craziest thing for all the data nerds out there is that growers consistently made really good decisions. Years of experience and wisdom, handed down often across generations of family operators, clearly designed to make up for the lack of data, drive what they do today.
Bringing Industrial Processes to the Orchard
But when we told growers our idea — to bring computer vision-driven industrial processes to the orchard in order to increase data collection efficiency 1000x, unlocking the potential of precision crop load management — growers quickly saw the potential.
Operators like Dan Plath, Andrew Del Rosario, and Darrin Belton of Washington Fruit, Mark Boyer of Ridgetop Orchards, and Joy Cline and Konnor Trimmer at Bear Mountain Orchards gave generously of their time, then their trust, became customers, and showed enormous patience as we learned on the fly.
The idea for FruitScout, shaped in the orchards, actually came to me after years spent building industrial process automation at Intel and Boeing.
The computer vision challenge in measuring orchard processes, where the ‘widget’ being manufactured changes shape and color, is different than it was for CPU’s and airliners, but the business application of measuring processes in order to improve them is exactly the same.
The tech to count and measure the physical objects… in this case, trees and fruit… is just table stakes. The real aim is to instrument orchard processes, measuring what matters to the business of orchards and providing orchardists with timely access to data so they can make decisions before Mother Nature takes their options away.
The Part About the Funding Announcement
As for the money we raised, I am incredibly pleased to announce that FruitScout has closed $4 million in seed funding, led by Bowery Capital and TFX, along with SaaS Ventures among others. Loren Straub (Bowery) and Matt Abrams (TFX) join existing board member and early investor Frank Tucker on our board.
We are excited by and fortunate to have these investors for a simple reason: they all understand and share our passion for listening to customers and for putting in the field work. Frank even spent time counting with us back in 2020.
Each of them brings specific resources and operations expertise, beyond their capital partnership, to the table and I am glad to have them as allies in the campaign to come.
Seth Shuldiner, co-founder and partner at SaaS Ventures, focused on the potential of the Fruit Recognition system at the heart of our PCLM Cloud offering:
“FruitScout is one of the most unique companies we have come across. Their ability to measure in four dimensions… computer vision that recognizes objects that change shape and color over time… and their application of cutting edge machine learning to a traditionally labor-intensive industry makes FruitScout a disruptor in a massive market.
“TFX is thrilled to be co-leading AFS’s seed round and eager to roll up our sleeves and help the AFS team continue to scale their unique and easily deployable software to growers looking for a competitive edge,” said Kevin Eckert. TFX is a veteran-led, founder-focused venture capital firm that invests in early stage B2B software and technology-enabled service companies where Kevin is partner.
Matt Abrams, also from TFX and who will be joining the board, brings focus to the potential for FruitScout to bring broader benefits:
“Growers will not only reap the benefits through increased profitability and predictability while reducing labor costs, but society benefits with lower carbon and chemical footprints, and the promise of scalable, software that will open up new opportunities for agriculture.“
We have great investors.
How We Plan to Invest the Funds
Four million dollars gives us the resources to do more of what we’ve been doing faster and better. We are going to keep talking to growers and turning what we’ve learned into software. We already have some immediate tasks to accomplish based on customer feedback.
We are going to overhaul to mobile app, making it easier to label data and upload in the background. The current dashboard will see a complete revamp for both performance and usability. And we are going to provide customers with self-administration tools both for managing their teams and their data.
To accomplish all this, we are going to expand the team, every one of whom will spend time counting and sizing by hand as well as using our app, no matter their role.
We are currently hiring data engineers and field service representatives — improving both the capacity of the system to rapidly process data and the amount of in-person time we can spend with our customers. We are also going to add someone to help communicate our message more broadly. Growing our customer base is as important as adding engineers to build product — both improve the likelihood we will be a stable, enduring company for years to come.
And of course, I’ll be using our resources to do what I love most: get out on the road and visit growers. Aside from my home away from home in the Central Valley of Washington, I’ll be visiting the agave plantations of Guadalajara, and traveling from the apple orchards of upstate New York to the orchards and vineyards of Chile and Brazil. That’s where the company’s future lies. That’s where I hope to meet you.