The TerraClear team poses with the farmland rock picker that is part of what they’ve been developing. Founder and CEO Brent Frei is second from right in second row. (TerraClear Photo) TerraClear’s bid to upend the farming industry by using advanced technology to help farmers clear rocks from fields is producing a reliable crop — cash. The startup just closed a $6.1 million funding round led by Madrona Venture Group to bring its total capital raised to more than $13 million since launching in December 2017. Based in Bellevue, Wash, and in the farming community of Grangeville, Idaho, TerraClear was founded by Brent Frei, the former CEO of Onyx Software who co-founded Smartsheet in 2005. Born out of a desire to take the heavy lifting out of vital farm work and prevent damage to expensive machinery, Frei’s team and technology have been growing steadily. TerraClear will add Madrona Managing Director Matt McIlwain to its board of directors and has just hired Trevor Thompson, a former U.S. Navy SEAL and Rhodes Scholar, as president. The new funds will help to accelerate hiring, product development and testing as the company brings more automation to the $5 trillion global agriculture industry. PREVIOUSLY: McIlwain was the first venture investor in Smartsheet, the publicly-traded software company that helps automate key work processes. “The value that he and the team at Madrona brought to Smartsheet was significant,” Frei said. “He had exceptionally good advice along the way, he was very good at mentoring the leadership and our strategy. So in a lot of ways when he said he was interested in being on [TerraClear’s] board, I felt honored. We’re still at a very small stage right now relative to the things he’s involved in. To get his focus on this, there’s just nothing but upside.” For his part, McIlwain called Frei a “visionary leader” and said the TerraClear team is drawing on their “deep understanding of both the life and work of a farmer as well as expertise with robotics and software-enabled machine learning to change how fields are cleared and planted.” TerraClear’s Dwight McMaster addresses a group of farmers in Grangeville, Idaho, during a demonstration of the company’s rock-picking machinery. (TerraClear Photo) With 15 employees now and positions currently open, Frei said he wouldn’t be surprised if the team is double the size at this time next year. The company formally opened a fully outfitted lab and test facility this spring in Grangeville, a town of 3,000 where Frei grew up and where his family still farms. Earlier this month they hosted a field day and invited a dozen farmers from the biggest and most advanced farms in the area and showed them end to end how TerraClear works. Fields are surveyed by drones, rocks are classified and localized by a neural network, rock size and location data is mapped, and finally the heavy lifting is done by automated machinery. “It was fantastic. It exceeded all of my expectations,” Frei said of the show and tell. “Both from the candidness of the input and the things that we learned all the way to the interest and the financial potential of the product and the business.” (TerraClear Graphic) Farmers can be a stubborn lot, a characteristic perhaps born out of having to locate and lift heavy rocks out of their fields by hand over generations. Finally showing those who have been relying on inferior processes that the tables have potentially been turned was eye opening for the farmers and Frei. “One of the farmers there, who I have a lot of respect for, when he first came in he said, ‘I’m interested in seeing what you’ve got, but we’ve got a process in place and we don’t really need anything, but I’m perfectly happy to give you advice.’ As we went through the process his opinion didn’t change much until ultimately he saw the thing working and he said, ‘Yeah, we probably need this.’ “That admission all by itself was a real checkmark in the box of ‘this has got legs,'” Frei added. “Because when you’ve got some of the more advanced farmers who have really worked on automating the expensive and mundane and routine processes and they’re looking at this going, ‘I could save a lot of time and money doing this’ … that’s meaningful.” Brent Frei holds a “field day” with farmers in Grangeville, Idaho, where TerraClear has established a production and test facility. (TerraClear Photo) With ready access to many thousands of acres of farmland around Grangeville, TerraClear plans to be all about testing this summer, with hundreds of hours in the field planned. The picker is mounted on either a human-driven piece of machinery, like a front-end loader, or could eventually be attached to an autonomous vehicle. If TerraClear’s engineers can collect and analyze data and innovate and iterate on the picker prototype quickly enough, the hope is to put a beta product in the hands of farmers next year and learn from real customers. “Right now it’s just making sure that that thing grabbing the rocks is as foolproof as possible,” Frei said. “The market is huge and we’re laser-focused on building exactly what farmers need to make their lives easier.”
Some interesting M&A is afoot in the world of hardware and software that’s aiming to improve the quality of audio and video communications over digital networks. — the Danish company that broke new ground in mobile when it inked deals first with and then to stream audio from their phones directly to smart, connected hearing aids — is expanding from audio to video, and from Europe to Silicon Valley. Today, the company announced that it would acquire Altia Systems, a startup out of Cupertino that makes a “surround” videoconferencing device and software called the PanaCast (we reviewed it ) designed to replicate the panoramic, immersive experience of vision that we have as humans. GN is paying $125 million for the startup. For some context, this price represents a decent return: according to , Altia was last valued at around $78 million with investors including Intel Capital and others. Intel’s investment was one of several strategic partnerships that Altia had inked over the years. (Another was with Zoom to provide a .) The Intel partnership, for one, will continue post-acquisition. “Intel invested in Altia Systems to bring an industry leading immersive, Panoramic-4K camera experience to business video collaboration,” said Dave Flanagan, Vice President of Intel Corporation and Senior Managing Director of Intel Capital, in a statement. “Over the past few years, Altia Systems has collaborated with Intel to use AI and to deliver more intelligent conference rooms and business meetings. This helps customers make better decisions, automate workflows and improve business efficiency. We are excited to work with GN to further scale this technology on a global basis.” We have seen a lot of applications of AI in just about every area of technology, but one of the less talked about, but very interesting, areas has been in how it’s being used to enhance audio in digital network. , as one example, is creating and tracking “audio fingerprints” for security applications, specifically fraud prevention (to authenticate users and to help weed out imposters based not just on the actual voice but on all the other aural cues we may not pick up as humans but can help build a picture of a caller’s location and so on). GN, meanwhile, has been building AI-based algorithms to help those who cannot hear as well, or who simply needs to hear better, be able to listen to calls on digital networks and make out what’s being said. This not only requires technology to optimise the audio quality, but also algorithms that can help tailor that quality to the specific person’s own unique hearing needs. One of the more obvious applications of services like these are for those who are hard of hearing and use hearing aids (which can be awful or impossible to use with mobile phones), another is in call centers, and this appears to be the area where GN is hoping to address with the Altia acquisition. GN already offers two products for call centre workers, Jabra and BlueParrot — headsets and speakerphones with their own proprietary software that it claims makes workers more efficient and productive just by making it easier to understand what callers are saying. Altia will be integrated into that solution to expand it to include videoconferencing around unified communications solutions, creating more natural experiences for those who are not actually in physical rooms together. “Combining GN Audio’s sound expertise, partner eco-system and global channel access with the video technology from Altia Systems, we will take the experience of conference calls to a completely new level,” said René Svendsen-Tune, President and CEO of GN Audio, in a statement. What’s notable is that GN is a vertically-integrated company, building not just hardware but software to run on it. The AI engine underpinning some of its software development will be getting a vast new trove of data fed into it now by way of the PanaCast solution: not jut in terms of video, but the large amount of audio that will naturally come along with it. “Combining PanaCast’s immersive, intelligent video with GN Audio’s intelligent audio solutions will enable us to deliver a whole new class of collaboration products for our customers,” said Aurangzeb Khan, President and CEO of Altia Systems, in a statement. “PanaCast’s solutions enable companies to improve meeting participants’ experience, automate workflows, and enhance business efficiency and real estate utilization with data lakes of valid information.” Given GN’s work with Android and iOS devices, it will be interesting to see how and if these video solutions make their way to those platforms as well, either by way of solutions that work on their phones or perhaps more native integrations down the line. Regardless of how that develops, what’s clear is that there remains a market not just for basic tools to get work done, but technology to improve the quality of those tools, and that’s where GN hopes it will resonate with this deal.