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Cultivian Sandbox leads $5m raise for data analysis company

Los Alamos-based Descartes Labs promises to convert a glut of agriculture data into useful information for precision agriculture.

Cultivian Sandbox, the agri-focused venture capital firm, has led a $5 million raise for data-analysis company, Descartes Labs.

The investment is the 11th by Cultivian Sandbox’s Fund II, which reached a final close at $115 million in February.

Descartes will use the money for staffing and working capital, according to Cultivian Sandbox managing director’s Andy Ziolkowski, who has just been added to the company’s board.

With origins in the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Descartes Labs has the ability to run complex analysis on massive amounts of imagery. Its first product is a report on US corn yields from current and historic satellite imagery, rather than the grower surveys that form the basis of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data on agricultural output. The company says its report, released every four days, consistently beat the monthly Natural Agricultural Statistics Service survey from the USDA in both speed and accuracy, over an 11-year backtest.

“Descartes Labs is able to predict the corn harvest to an accuracy near 99 percent,” wrote Descartes Labs co-founder, Mark Johnson, in an announcement of the raise on LinkedIn, “which means we are using satellites orbiting above the corn fields to effectively measure the weight of the average kernel of corn to better than 3 milligrams, an error which is roughly the weight of a grain of sand.”

Ziolkowski told Agri Investor this capacity makes it unique in an agriculture sector suddenly awash in data collection. He said the proliferation of drone, sensor and miniature cube-satellite technologies creates a relative scarcity in processing capacity for new data sources coming to market.

“We’ve looked at a number of drone companies and sensor companies over the years,” said Ziolkowski. “The bottleneck we saw developing wasn’t so much in collecting the data but in processing it.” He added that Descartes’ technology has global applications, particularly in areas where little to no agricultural data currently exist.

The addition of Descartes Labs compliments Cultivian Sandbox’s previous investments in farm management and soil monitoring software companies, according to Ziolkowski.

He added told Agri Investor that Cultivian Sandbox plans to make two or three more investments from its second fund before reaching full deployment. He said he is confident that the firm will launch a third fund but that the timing is still being discussed.