Checking in With Climate Corp’s Open Platform Strategy and the Future of Ag Data
Eighteen months ago, The Climate Corporation announced that it was working to build the first open digital platform for agricultural service providers. The digital agriculture company, acquired by Monsanto in 2013, said at the time that its aim was to provide a hub for ag data providers and ag-minded developers to sell their wares and build new tools while creating a centralized distribution model for data, imagery, and analytics services for farmers. It was a bold move to try to corral the ever-competitive IoT and data collection tools within ag tech and take a stance on what form the future of ag data distribution will take.
“There is not one silver bullet when it comes to data,” Climate’s CTO Mark Young told AgFunderNews in August of 2016. “We need a network of providers to provide value to farmers.”
Climate has now recruited at least 19 providers for its platform, FieldView. By capturing and centralizing ag tech providers’ data and imagery, FieldView offers farmers a way to access important information resources and subscribe to providers’ services. The decision to make the platform open, Young explains, was not only part of an effort to bring more value to customers, but also to move the digital ag space forward.
“It’s for other innovators in the space to have a cheaper path to market and accelerate their ability to take their innovation to market,” Young says.
It is also meant to get rid of redundancies and save time and money in keeping start-ups from reinventing the wheel, he adds. “We all end up spending money to build the same stuff — accounting and cloud and apps and ground support and how to get paid,” says Young.
The FieldView platform now has more than 100,000 users, though Climate would not disclose how many of these are paying customers. The company beat its target of 25 million paid acres in 2017, reporting 35 million paid acres — that’s more than double the 14 million logged in 2016. Young attributes FieldView’s recent growth at least partially to the platform model.
“A lot of it has to do with the success of the tool, the expansion of compatibility, and the results that our customers are seeing,” he says. “Then as we add additional platform partners, the value proposition becomes that much stronger.”
Though the open platform strategy originally drew comparison’s to Apple’s iTunes, Young explains that integrating new partners is “higher touch” than Apple’s platform in practice.
The original plan was “a self-service portal and well-defined APIs enabling developers to sign up and get a developer key to build products for the platform,” and for the most part, this is the reality. Climate says that developers do request and receive API keys, but the process could not yet be described as “self-service.”
Several Climate partners affirm that the vetting process to sell through the platform is extensive and revenue sharing is agreed on a case-by-case basis.
Young says the platform gives start-ups an opportunity to test their technologies and figure out what works in the market while working with Climate to find a revenue-sharing model that makes sense for both parties. “We have to make our partners successful. Locking them into a business model is premature,” he explains.
For the start-ups partnering with Climate, the value of the new model has varied based on the starting position and goals of each company.
Agribotix, which joined FieldView in May last year, is a drone-based agricultural intelligence company whose information supports cost efficiency and crop performance. In its early days, the company spent a lot of time and resources figuring out its own business model, particularly its approach to acquiring new customers. Agribotix’s vice president of sales, Jason Barton, says the company “reinvented the wheel” a lot, by developing its own user interface to integrate data from various sources and services, for example. But, the company soon realized it would be more successful by focusing on its core technology and prioritizing compatibility with other platforms that could introduce the company to new users. Now, Agribotix is integrated with John Deere’s Operation Center platform and Climate’s FieldView.
While these platforms also include competitors of Agribotix, Barton says there is more value in being part of a space where customers can compare services than trying to go it alone when it comes to customer acquisition. “If we’re fighting each other for the 10% of the market that has adopted this technology, we’re doing ourselves a disservice,” he says.
Other partners on the platform agree. “We have direct competitors on the platform and obviously selfishly, we would love to be the one that everyone uses,” says Ashwin Madgavkar, CEO of aerial imagery start-up Ceres Imaging. “The reality is that there is education and important differentiation between imagery options. Having multiple options on the platform is good in that it allows a constructive discussion around the pros and cons as to what is the best solution.”
What FieldView doesn’t include is services that compete with Climate’s own services. Though Young says these may become available on the platform one day.
“We’ve got a fertility modeling solution – imagine if a third party developed a nitrate modeling system that was better than ours. It makes sense to have that on our platform,” says Young, allowing Climate to then share in the success of its competition.
While it is still early days for the open platform strategy, FieldView is already delivering value to its partners on multiple levels. Better visibility has made it easier for Ceres to enter new markets and develop retailer relationships, for example.
“A platform like Climate or other data platforms alone aren’t enough when it comes to distribution. Also integral are the retailers that have the last-mile relationship with the farmers,” he explains. There is, therefore, a huge opportunity in getting relevant information on their services into the hands of retailers.
The retail market is highly fragmented and difficult to develop exclusive relationships with, Madgavkar says. Integrated data platforms reduce companies’ barriers to developing those relationships.
Madgavkar adds that both retailers and end users are more receptive to an all-inclusive solution like an integrated platform, rather than buying imagery and analytics services piecemeal.
For TerrAvion, an aerial imagery provider focused on plant health and irrigation, the decision to join FieldView was more about pleasing existing customers than acquiring new ones for this reason.
“We don’t benefit directly from being a Climate platform partner. We are a partner of Climate Corp because our retail partners and growers want access to the Climate record keeping and analytics with the best-in-class imagery that we provide as an integrated solution,” says TerrAvion’s CEO Robert Morris.
Being part of an integrated data platform like Climate’s FieldView also enables surprise discoveries about doing business in agtech. For Agribotix, one of those was discovering new geographic possibilities.
Last year, Climate expanded into Germany, France, and Ukraine, through its acquisition of Vital Fields, and into western Canada and Brazil. This expansion presented Agribotix with an opportunity to do a pilot program in Brazil, which would introduce Agribotix to a new market on a manageable scale.
“It’s probably not quite ready for us, but it’s getting closer, and having Climate do this pilot with us gives those growers a really good end-to-end look at the technology” in a market that would otherwise be difficult to navigate on its own, Barton says.
What does Climate’s platform strategy mean for the future distribution of ag data and imagery? The model is the first sign that the marketplace will likely have both platforms offering fewer, exclusive data partnerships and platforms looking to be an all-encompassing home for farm data with a broader, non-exclusive offering.
“We think all ag platforms should be open,” TerrAvion’s Morris says. “We promise our growers and agronomists that they can process the data we provide on any platform. We believe open platform approaches like Climate’s are the future.”
Other leading agronomic software companies that want to win in the 21st century are adopting similar open approaches, he adds.
But there are scenarios where exclusivity is valuable for both the platform and the data provider. AgFunder cofounder Rob LeClerc cautions against predicting whether open or exclusive data strategies will win out because both have value, depending on the goals and position individual partners.
“I’m not sure we can make generalizations,” he says. “In some cases, exclusive partnerships give the stability to invest in more innovation, and the platform may be able to deliver a better product. Yet, exclusivity can also drive an insurgency of competitors who take a more open-platform approach. In the long run, open platforms tend to outcompete closed platforms because they can be more adaptive.”
When Climate announced the new platform model in 2016, the company made it clear that it would take years for the concept to reach its final form. As competitors choose between open and closed platforms, the ag data distribution landscape is likely to go through many permutations as digital ag players work to convert the majority of farmers still not using digital ag tools.
“Every technology adoption curve looks similar. As we work our way up that distribution curve, we’re starting to get into the fat part of technology adoption,” says Young, who adds that he believes ag tech has reached beyond early adopters at this point.
Editor’s Note: The author of this article is Emma Cosgrove. This story originally appeared in AgFunderNews.
Want more agriculture, technology and investment news? Visit AgFunderNews.com for daily news and interviews with ag tech start-ups, investors, and more.