As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ash Madgavkar . Ash grew up in Texas and early in his career worked as an electrical engineer and strategy consultant, primarily in the energy industry.
In 2012 he worked for a leading Brazilian sugarcane ethanol producer and saw that large-scale agriculture operations often still make blanket decisions in areas like fertilizer and pesticide use, leading to waste, productivity losses, and environmental damage. In surveying an agribusiness opportunity in Colombia, he saw further evidence of a need in the industry for advanced data sources.
A solution to those problems began to take shape for Madgavkar in his time at Stanford, where he earned an MBA and took earth sciences classes that related to his engineering interests.
He learned about phenomenal advances in spectral imaging that Stanford researchers were applying to study Amazonian tree species and microclimates. Why couldn’t that advanced technology be applied to help farmers improve their yields while saving water in drought-prone areas like California?
Madgavkar founded Ceres in 2013 and recruited a talented core team of scientists to develop the hardware, software, and know-how that has made the company fast-growing and well-loved by customers.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ceres began when founder and CEO Ash Madgavkar wondered why large-scale agriculture operations like the one he’d worked for in Brazil weren’t taking advantage of the remote sensing science he saw in his studies at Stanford.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The most interesting project I’ve worked on is the multi-year research partnership Ceres Imaging did with Blake Sanden and the UC Davis co-operative extension. California was in the middle of the drought, and UC Davis researches worked with our technology to see if our imagery could be an accurate tool to predict water stress in almond trees and control for irrigation issues. I don’t think anyone thought that technology would be just as effective as it was. More importantly, I had no idea how much momentum this research study would give us with farmers throughout CA and elsewhere. You can learn more about this research here: http://www.ceresimaging.net/blog/new-research-shows-aerial-images-can-predict-almond-tree-water-stress
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
My big idea is that imagery powered by AI can put farmers in the driver’s seat to increase profits and be better stewards of the land at the same time. A great example is something called variable rate application. Today we have the hardware to selectively apply inputs such as organic or inorganic pesticides on specific areas that need them, as opposed to broad-based spraying. However, the majority of producers spray their entire fields. With predictive analytics from our imagery, we can tell farmers of hotspots so they can address them before they become major issues. This not only saves them significant money from having to do broad spraying reactively, but it has obvious huge environmental benefits by drastically increasing resource efficiency on farms.
How do you think this will change the world?
I think farmers will increase profits, minimize risks and gain leverage over input suppliers like fertilizer and other chemical companies. I also believe there will be enormous environmental benefits from increased resource efficiency.
Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?
We enable scale. Large farms can use us to efficiently gain intelligence across thousands of acreage. In this sense, our technologies narrow the playing field between big and small farmers.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
During graduate school, I did work at a large sugarcane plantation in South America. I was surprised by the incredible lack of good information available to the farm managers to make agronomic decisions. Often the farm managers would take precautionary measures because they didn’t have good data to inform their decision making. These decisions tended to be very expensive as well as bring with them big environmental costs, such as blanket fertilizer or spraying. At the same time, I was working with different labs at Stanford seeing how remote sensing and AI technologies were being combined to extract really interesting data from farms. I felt that there had to be a better way to help farmers make better decisions using this technology.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
There are two things that are important to our growth:
We need education. Today, farmers think imagery is the same as the low-quality satellite photos that have been around for decades. What we call “imagery” today is something different. It’s precise, it’s accurate, and it’s predictive. AI powers it and getting better all the time. Farmers are used to old school NDVI imagery and have built a bias around it being helpful.
We need farmers to be willing to try it. Unfortunately, there are so many companies trying to sell solutions to farmers, many of whom go out of business quickly, or worse, sell products that don’t move the needle for farmers. However, once farmers try Ceres Imaging, they continue using it season after season at a very high rate. This demonstrates that there is real value. Unfortunately, if you don’t try, you won’t know.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Just because the science works, doesn’t mean that customers will use it. Ceres Imaging has demonstrated time and again, and industry-leading role in the accuracy of our imagery. For example, a major government-funded research study just came out that showed that Ceres Imaging was the most accurate solution for measuring nitrogen uptake in rice. Does that mean rice farmers around the world are lining up to use us? Not exactly. There is a lot of evangelizing and educating needed.
- Scaling analytics in farming is difficult.
A lot of our competitors have jumped from one region to the next, one crop to the next. The problem is that all crops are different, all regions are different, and even within regions, soil variations and topographical differences make scaling highly accurate analytics quite difficult. We have been slower to expand than the completion; however, we tend to last. For example, the CA vine and tree nut market used to be busy with tons of competitors. We focused on this. Go the science right. Today, we see far less real competition in this market.
- Take breaks.
There are endless things to do at all times. Many CEO’s like me tend to work non-stop. I have learned that if I take breaks and try to relax, I can be much more effective.
- Hire well.
As my company has grown from myself and a handful of PhDs to a team of nearly 100 people spread out across three continents, I’ve had to learn the hard way about the importance of hiring well. Today I focus a considerable portion of my time on finding and hiring great team members.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
There is no doubt that Ceres Imaging makes labor management considerably more efficient for farms. This means that farmers can route labor to high priority areas and get a lot more efficiency out of their labor force. Of course, this does mean that in the future labor costs should go down as a percentage of farm expenses.
Within Ceres Imaging specifically, we continue to grow quickly. We know that AI without humans doesn’t work. We will continue to hire in all aspects of our organization, from sales to science.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
We recently raised a $25M Series B. We are investing in our science, our sales and marketing effort and engineering.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
I try to be reflective and think back on my day to see what I did well and what I could do better. I also try to be the best me and also try to not be too hard on myself if I make a mistake.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
Make lists. Check in on priorities constantly. Seek out experts and learn from them. Have fun along the way.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
I would say we are not raising right now, but I’m happy to talk to them and see if I can be helpful 🙂
How can our readers follow you on social media?