Can drones make better wine? Pollen Systems launches service to analyze vineyards from the air

Can drones make better wine? Pollen Systems launches service to analyze vineyards from the air

A Pollen Systems drone working a vineyard. (Pollen Systems Photo)

While many wine makers would explain that growing grapes is as much an art as a science — a harmonizing of soil, sun and water — the startup Pollen Systems is hoping to infuse some technology into the process to boost efficiency.

The concept for the Bellevue, Wash.-based company began fermenting two years ago and officially launched one year ago. This month, Pollen Systems made its public debut at the Auction of Washington Wines event where CEO Keith McCall unveiled Pollen Scout, their first product. Pollen Scout is a service using aerial drones to quickly survey and photograph vineyards on a regular basis, stitching the images together so that they can be analyzed for crop growth, over or under watering, and the presence of pests or diseases.

Pollen Systems CEO and founder Keith McCall. (Pollen Systems Photo)

“There is tons of interest,” said McCall. “This is an area that is looking for new technology to address some of these pressing issues on their farms, especially with the huge amount of growth in the industry.”

There are more than 350 wine grape growers in the state, tending more than 55,000 acres of vineyards, according to the Washington State Wine Commission.

This past spring, Pollen Systems tested its drones at some wineries in eastern Washington and northern Oregon, including Hedges Family Vineyard and Seven Hills Vineyard. Currently the images must be analyzed manually, and McCall said their employees partner with the vineyard owners to review the data. The company will work over the coming year to develop artificial intelligence tools to start automating the process. Part of the challenge is that some areas might be naturally wetter than others or prone to dryness, requiring a nuanced analysis and benefiting from human insight.

Even with the need for farmers to participate in the process, it’s still much more efficient than walking the fields and gathering information. The commercially certified drone technologists can survey 100 acres in an hour, a task that could take days on foot. And the images provide a database of conditions documenting each year’s growth.

Pollen Systems is McCall’s third startup and has seven employees. The business has raised about $250,000, and McCall will be making pitches to investors this fall with the goal of raising $1 million in seed funding. He’s not aware of any other company using drone technology to survey vineyards in Washington or Oregon. In California, there are small companies providing a similar service in Napa and Sonoma valleys.

McCall previously founded Azaleos Corp., a hybrid software as a service (SaaS) email management company that was acquired by Avanade in November 2012, and Enroute Systems Corp., which helps retailers with shipping and was bought by Pitney Bowes in January 2016.

The plan is for Pollen Systems to expand into crops including hops, cherries, peaches, raspberries, blueberries and wheat.

And McCall apologizes for the allergy associations with his company name, but explains that to him, “Pollen represents data, visible and invisible, that pervades the farm and is ripe for harvesting and analysis.”

We caught up with McCall for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: Pollen Systems uses drones and data analysis to help farms and vineyards monitor crop growth, discover irrigation issues and investigate pests and diseases.

The Pollen Systems team, from left to right: Keith McCall, founder and CEO; Mason Lanphear, drone technologist; Nathan Albright, drone technologist; Trina Nelson, director of integration and customer experience; Carolyn Canterman, director of operations; Jacob Mayfield, partnership executive and Kyle Clark, partnership executive. (Pollen Systems Photo)

Inspiration hit us when: l Iike developing companies that find new ways to help businesses improve their existing processes through the use of technology. In early 2017, my family and I visited Singapore’s Supertree Grove at the Gardens by the Bay. The government-led project features artificial trees up to 160-feet tall that support elaborate vertical plant gardens. The application of technology to agriculture there was clear and spurred the idea of using leading edge technology such as drones and data. With my background helping businesses optimize shipping, it wasn’t a huge jump to imagine helping farms and vineyards optimize their harvest yield.

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Pollen currently is bootstrapped. We wanted to first create a demonstrable product and complete a successful pilot program with a handful of vineyards. We have recently opened a Series Seed round to fund our expansion into other crops and regions.

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: Our team. Each member is committed to the company and our pilot customers. We are enthusiastic about developing a product that helps businesses and can potentially aid developing nations. We see our priorities as 1) the customers, 2) the employees and 3) making a profit. This lets us prioritize helping others rather than an overemphasis on our bottom line.

The smartest move we’ve made so far: We originally thought that collecting images using drones was pretty cool. But we soon discovered that we could create a holistic view of a farm by combining the images taken, manually collected data, and Internet-of-Things data. By delivering our services via a weekly flyover and a subscription model, we collect and map images and data over the entire growing season and make that data available to our customers in our SaaS portal.

For example, at this moment correct irrigation is critical to vineyard health and production, but in a few weeks the vineyard managers’ focus will shift to harvesting the grapes that are ready to pick before others that might need a few more days to mature. By delivering a weekly update to farmers, we help them track and respond to different periods in the growing season, while our competitors only capture a moment in time with their approach.

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Our first drone flights were at the end of May, which is halfway through the grape growing season. As a result we don’t have images from the first half of the growing season, which would be helpful in determining all of the data that can be extracted and analyzed over a full season.

A sample photo collected by Pollen Systems using multi-spectral image cameras that can detect healthy and unhealthy vegetation. (Pollen Systems Photo)

Which leading entrepreneur or executive would you most want working in your corner? I read an article a few years ago about American philanthropist and Midwestern farmer Howard Buffett, the oldest son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett. Howard grew up in Omaha and has been active in business, politics, agriculture conservation, photography and philanthropy. I think he would be a great person to have in our corner and would like to meet him.

Our favorite team-building activity is: Members of our team are often off-site in Eastern Washington. We prioritize sitting down together, typically over food, and sharing our latest wins and challenges. It’s important for everyone to understand what is happening in our business. We also enjoy taking a break together to chat, brainstorm and share.

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Because of how small our team is and how much is going on, independence is vital. Employees need to know when to ask for help, but also not expect to have their hand held. In many cases, we don’t have the answer and we rely on a person to do their own research and present a recommendation to the team.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Don’t be afraid to talk to your potential clients. So many entrepreneurs approach their product with a “if you build it, they will come” mindset. That can work, but actually going out and meeting with your potential market can help you develop a product that solves an actual need.

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