US agritech startup, TeleSense helps grain growers’ yield go the extra mile
Silicon Valley engineer Naeem Zafar is single-handedly disrupting the post-harvest ag industry using machine learning and IoT to predict the quality of crops in storage and transit – and it’s all thanks to a sliding doors moment involving a group of Australian executives searching for storage solutions for the grain industry.
Naeem Zafar made the Silicon Valley home 25 years ago and in that time, he’s founded seven companies and invested in, and advised on, more than thirty.
His seventh and most recent company is TeleSense – an IoT enterprise creating real-time wireless sensing and predictive analytics solutions for the stored grain industry.
Originally though, grain wasn’t on his radar at all.
“I’d started the company based on IoT wireless sensors collecting data and I was looking for the right use case,” said Naeem.
“We looked at seafood monitoring from the time you catch it until the time you consume it but there were a lot of other cheaper competitive products, so then we started looking at vibrating machinery and anything which required maintenance – but we realised a lot of the big boys were doing that too,” said Naeem.
“We were trying all these things until, about four years ago, we ran into a group of executives from Western Australia who were in the Silicon Valley looking for innovation and I showed them our system.
“They asked if it would work in grain and being an entrepreneur, I said well of course it does! I flew over to Perth, showed them our technology and realised we had a bunch of other things we could help with.”
TeleSense set up a pilot project in WA, and six months later CBH Group – Australia’s largest co-operative owned by Western Australian grain growing businesses – signed on as the very first customer.
“A few months later our second customer, GrainCorp on the east coast of Australia came on board,” explained Naeem.
“TeleSense started with a bit of serendipity, and its roots are in Australia. We had the solution, we got customers and we raised money and the rest is history.”
Data access made easy
For grain growers, manual inspections or cable-based solutions have been the only options available to monitor their harvested crop in storage.
“It used to take an employee a couple of days to drive to some remote storage location and note down a bunch of data, then drive back,” said Naeem.
“Due to the difficulty of the monitoring process, they only did it once every two weeks and a lot can go wrong in an Australian summer in that time if you have five-thousand tons of canola in a vertical silo.”
For TeleSense, the key value proposition is actionable, prescriptive insights that tell the user exactly what’s required with data that’s already been analysed, and accessible from anywhere.
“One of our key products is a two-meter-long spear with five sensors in it. It has a five-year battery, and a bulb with all the electronics which send the data to the cloud,” explained Naeem.
“All the magic happens in the cloud. We analyse the data to figure out what actions should be taken, and the insights are delivered to your mobile phone. Beyond that, you can also access historical data and predicted data.
“Collected data points about the weather, grain temperature, moisture level, CO2 levels should all be put into something people can use and act upon – that’s where we come in.
“We don’t just show you a bunch of numbers – we tell you, for example, to turn on the fans on bin number six for eight hours. That’s actionable information and it’s based on a deep understanding of grain storage conditions.”
Understanding the Aussie brief – from Silicon Valley in a pandemic
Despite not setting out to work specifically in agritech, or with Australian grain growers, like all good entrepreneurs – Naeem has made it his sole focus to nail the brief for his new customers and overcome the challenges of the pandemic.
“There are many insights that only became obvious over the last few years as we started to interact with industry deeply and listen to them and respond to issues,” he said.
“Of course, the ultra-conservative COVID-19 restrictions in Australia have made it very hard to connect with people. This business is based on a handshake – you don’t video call and sell something to a grower or a farmer.
“They want to develop trust; they want to shake hands and that has been very hard given those trillion restrictions. But having said that, although the pace is slower, the minds of Australians in agriculture are not closed and that’s been a positive thing about the Australian market.”
TeleSense has set up an Australian entity and hired people from the Australian grain industry to build a small team based in Perth, with plans to expand in the coming years.
“We are seeking grants and research opportunities in Australia, and we are very bullish on this. Now that we have a couple of larger customers, that should encourage others to trust us and try it,” said Naeem.
“I have been frustrated with slow adoption – I want us to be three yards ahead of where we are in Australia. I was banking on it, but it’s what I’m calling a staged adoption. They want to try it on one bin and see if it fits, how they work and operate, and then expand. So, it’s a staged adoption and there’s nothing wrong with that.
“The nice thing about Australia is after many years of drought you had a fantastic harvest last year and this year is looking really promising, and because of COVID-19 restrictions a lot of grain is piling up which is very attractive for our product.”
The power of fresh eyes on Australian agritech
From a business perspective, Naeem said it’s the dynamics and consideration given to export quality that makes the Australian grain market most attractive for TeleSense.
“The Australian grain sector is quite sophisticated when it comes to agriculture. They’re the pioneers in hermetically sealed storage and they have a huge grain export economy, so they have extremely high standards,” he said.
“Australia has six quality levels, whereas Canada has five and Russia has two, so it relies on very strict standards.”
And those strict standards create the perfect niche market for an electrical engineer who has built a career on solving complex problems.
“Airbnb was not started by hotel people and Uber was not started by a taxi company, so it’s not strange that somebody from outside the industry comes in and looks at the same problem with a different set of eyes,” explained Naeem.
“We were not from the industry and did not know if this would work; we asked a bunch of dumb questions and that led to some unique insights.
“Plus, growing up in Silicon Valley and having exposure to artificial intelligence, machine learning, wireless technology, and security, gave us an unusual and unfair advantage by looking at one of the oldest industries and seeing certain things that could be done differently. I think it has worked to our advantage.”
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