Michael Bloomberg once explained farming in this tongue-in-cheek way: “You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn.” Even I, a city guy, know that farming is a lot more complicated than that. In fact, agtech is among the hottest and arguably sophisticated tech sectors today. That’s why I’m excited to introduce our first October Pitch Week presenter, Jon Jackson, president of Global Neighbor Inc. (GNI). His company may be on the verge of transforming how farmers around the world control a growing problem, herbicide-resistant weeds, using a green technology called Directed Energy to kill weeds and their seeds rather than chemical-based herbicides. GNI has secured $3 million in support from the U.S. Department of Defense and the USDA and captured the attention of farmers. Here’s a preview of the investment opportunity Jon will share in detail at VisionTech Angels’ Pitch Events later this month. Enjoy!Ben Pidgeon, executive Director, VisionTech Angels
BP: How did you get interested in agtech?
JJ: I have to credit my parents. At 14, they let me farm five acres on the family farm and keep the money from the crop sales. I planted soybeans, sold my harvest, made some money—and wrestled with weeds. Later, I saw my brother’s epic struggle with weed control as he was raising organic soybeans for export to Japan. This “tribal knowledge” coupled with being an engineer, ultimately led to Global Neighbor Inc. (GNI) and helps tremendously when I talk with the farm community about our technology.
BP: You also have a connection with VisionTech Angels.
JJ: I do. GNI is headquartered in the Dayton area and we’ve worked with TEC Dayton, which hosts a VisionTech Angels chapter, on multiple projects such as filing our international patents. TEC has also supported us with mentors, who suggested VisionTech Angels should be at the top of our list.
BP: Explain GNI and the problem you’re solving.
JJ: Agricultural around the world is at a crossroads in terms of feeding the world and doing so in a sustainable manner. One answer is regenerative agriculture which is a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems. Currently, the industry relies heavily on chemical herbicides and insecticides, which can have devastating consequences for the environment and public health. At the same time, weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to chemical herbicides. This increases weeding costs, reduces farmer yields and profits, and exacerbates the excessive use of herbicides that contributes to soil degradation and also the incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Farmers using combines to harvest crops make the problem worse as combines collect and distribute weed seeds back into the field, increasing weeds in following years.
“Weed-related crop losses are a huge issue. Without weed control measures, U.S. and Canadian corn and soybean farmers would see estimated yield losses near 50 percent, losing $43 billion annually. That’s why farmers spend billions annually on weed control measures.“Jon Jackson, President, Global Neighbor
Our vision is to solve the world’s food sustainability problem with technology. We use high-intensity, multi-wavelength light sources called directed energy to control weeds. This technology has the potential to be deployed at scale economically. When combined with regenerative agriculture techniques, we can provide a novel farming system that will allow wide adoption of sustainable ag practices and reduce dependence on chemical herbicides.
BP: What products do you have in the pipeline?
JJ: Though our consumer-directed Weederase is already selling and our SmartSprayer will be out shortly, our first agtech product is the Weed Seed Destroyer (WDSD) that kills weeds at the seed stage. The WDSD addresses the challenge of herbicide-resistant weeds in grain crops, a clear and urgent pain point in terms of lower yields and loss of income. The WDSD mounts to the back of a combine and applies directed energy to basically kill the weed seeds which are in the chaff. We’ve tested the WDSD concept with many farmers, and they immediately grasp the concept and the value. We produced a video with farmers expressing their excitement about directed energy weed control. They are pretty excited! View video here.
BP: How easy will it be to commercially scale your solution?
JJ: From a manufacturing perspective, scaling is straightforward. It is not a highly capital-intensive business, and the gross margins are high. Our primary market will be aftermarket sales, which involves retrofitting combines with our WDSD system, a process that takes about an hour. Our sales channel will be through the independent ag dealer network across the country. These dealers already offer similar retrofit and aftermarket technical support to farmers.
BP: What’s the status of your intellectual property?
JJ: We are an early pioneer in the use of directed energy for weed control and our approach is unique. This has allowed us to craft our intellectual property to provide broad protection. We have seven issued U.S. patents and four U.S. and international patents pending.
BP: Why hasn’t anyone tried this before?
JJ: Until now, sustainable ag practices like non-chemical herbicides have not been widely adopted because of how impractical they are to scale. Others are exploring the use of lasers for weed control but lasers for use in ag are technically complex and cost prohibitive. The most direct competition for weed seed control are chaff mills, which use high-speed mills to grind weed seeds. Chaff mills, although highly effective, are high price—up to $100,000. There are other issues, but chaff mills are gaining market acceptance. Our WDSD system will sell for about half the price, use approximately half the power, and will not suffer from excessive maintenance or result in system downtime.
BP: Who is your ideal customer?
JJ: Our target market is small grain owner-operator family or smaller corporate farmers that own combines. These farmers care about their land, and herbicide resistant weeds reduce the value of their farmland and a farm’s profitability. There are approximately 120,000 operating combines in the United States, with approximately 100,000 of them owned by family or small corporate farmers that farm more than 500 acres of grain crops.
BP: You have the USDA’s support via an SBIR Phase I grant. What captured their interest?
JJ: We are thrilled to have won an SBIR from USDA to support our WDSD development! Their interest is driven by the acceleration of global trends. First is the tremendous growth in the number of herbicide-resistant weeds in the United States and worldwide. Research out of Australia confirm that a major tool in the fight against herbicide-resistant weeds is harvest weed seed control; that is, making the weed seeds non-viable at the time of harvest. Finally, our approach of using non-chemical directed energy to control weed seeds is novel and consistent with consumer preferences and government policy trends, reflecting a tidal shift toward sustainable ag.
BP: What will this fundraising round be used for?
JJ: We are raising a $375,000 seed round to leverage our USDA SBIR funding. This will be used to bring on a key engineering hire, support product development efforts including prototype and demonstration expenditures, and support initial marketing outreach and initial product sales. Our goal is to achieve a significant value inflection milestone prior to raising our next round.
BP: Why should VisionTech Angels members invest in GNI?
JJ: Two reasons. First, it takes the chemical industry $300 million and 10-plus years to develop a new herbicide with a new mode of action to destroy weeds. We’ve received $3 million in non-dilutive grants and with this substantial R&D investment, we’re developing alternative weed control modes of action for substantially less money and in far less time than the chemical industry.
Second, there are many companies applying software, the internet of things, machine learning, robotics, and genomic tech to agriculture, all in attempt to disrupt the industry. Many of these attempts will fail as they are a technology searching for a market, a me-too strategy not substantially differentiated, or are burdened by substantial costs of development and deployment. We are not falling into these traps. Instead, we are integrating a proven technology, directed energy weed control, into a farmer’s normal operating practices, and leveraging existing equipment to solve real problems. We believe we have the potential to disrupt the industry and change the world.
To learn more about Global Neighbor Inc., visit their website. VisionTech Angels’ October Pitch Events include a live event on Tuesday, October 27 in Fort Wayne at the Pine Valley Country Club at 6 p.m. and a virtual pitch event on Thursday, October 29 at 6 p.m. Pitch events are open to our members and accredited investors interested in joining our group. To register, check your email for an invitation or email Ben Pidgeon at firstname.lastname@example.org.