Ceres Imaging raises $5 million to pinpoint crop stress for farmers

Oakland, Calif.-based Ceres Imaging has raised $5 million in a Series A investment led by Romulus Capital. The startup uses cameras, sensors and software to pinpoint crop stress in the field for farmers, so that they can apply herbicides, pesticides and irrigation just where it’s needed.

Ceres, like several other startups, started out with the notion to build a drone just for agricultural use. However, according to CEO and founder Founder Ashwin Madgavkar, the company quickly realized commercial farmers needed to cover thousands of acres, proving too big a job for most drones.

Instead, Madgavkar said, the company has developed a proprietary sensor and camera which pilots in traditional aircraft, like Cessnas, can fly over vast swathes of farmland every day.

Besides its sensors, the company has created image analyzing software that can zero in on just the vegetation, leaving out soil and shadows in post-processing analysis. “We translate spectral signatures into what’s happening on the ground,” the CEO said. The company has worked closely with researchers and data from UC Davis to perfect its analytics.

Romulus Capital founder Krishna K. Gupta said Ceres stood out from other agtech players because it is using hyper spectral imaging to provide “ground-level insights” to farmers. Many other companies rely on the “NDVI,” the normalized difference vegetation index for crop analysis. This provides a measure of leaves per unit area. “Ceres can get a finer grain detail on what a farmer’s crops, irrigation and nutrient profile looks like,” Krishna said.

Ceres is already working with six out of ten of the world’s largest tree nut and vine growers with most of its work in California and Australia today, Madgavkar said. It provides imaging for at least 10% of the global almond industry now.

The company plans to use its Series A funding for hiring, expanding its sales and marketing efforts, and to adapt its analytics to help growers of corn, soy and other commodity crops in the Midwest, the CEO said.

Competitors include TerrAvion, Intelinair, and drone-based solutions like PrecisionHawk to name a few.

Prior to raising its Series A round, Ceres attained $1 million in non-dilutive grant funding from the likes of water tech accelerator ImagineH2O, and the Elemental Excelerator, a non-profit backed by Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective.

While regulation can hamper some startups, Madgavkar said it’s actually aiding demand for Ceres’ technology. “Farmers are dealing with increased regulation which prevents them from just applying a lot of chemicals and fertilizers like they used to,” he said. Being able to look on a map, and quickly see where a crop is experiencing stress, or where the soil may be lacking nitrogen or potassium, helps them work within the new rules.