How a tech entrepreneur went from potatoes to Amazon and back again with a family startup – GeekWire
Everyone knows the built-in-a-garage startup origin story. But how about a tech company grown out of potato fields?
“At the peak of planting, I was trying to write code while driving a tractor, which doesn’t work that well,” said David Wallace. “You’re bouncing around and trying to turn.”
In Western Washington’s Skagit Valley, the potato season is most intense during the summer months. So luckily David had other, less jostling opportunities to build CODA Farm Technologies, an internet of things (IoT) agriculture startup that he launched last year with his brother Connor.
Their new company builds on family tradition stretching back to the original Wallace potato farm on the west coast of Ireland in the 1700s. The family immigrated to the Pacific Northwest and started farming in the valley in 1903. Generations of the family members worked the land, some going off to college but eventually returning to the fields.
The Wallace Farm’s website proclaims the clan has “spuds in our blood.” David and Connor apparently bleed russets as well.
David graduated from Whitman College and earned a chemistry Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University before taking a job at Amazon. After four years, he left a role as senior data scientist with Amazon Web Services to return to the farm. Connor has a physics degree from Reed College and worked as a software engineer in Portland and San Francisco.
“I’ve always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to apply my technical skills to agriculture,” said David Wallace, who is CEO of CODA Farm Technologies.
Back on the farm, David began looking for a problem to solve using his tech expertise. Given his own farming knowledge and with input from his dad, he settled on irrigation.
Bringing IoT to sprinklers
Smaller farm tracts in the valley and elsewhere irrigate their land using the “traveling sprinkler” method. The labor-intensive approach uses a sprinkler on wheels that is slowly pulled across a field by a reel at one end. The sprinkler is connected to a pump and a well, and as it’s pulled, it waters the field at a set rate.
The trouble is that the reel can malfunction and stop moving, flooding an area until a farmer physically visits a field and notices the problem. And when the sprinkler has finished a field, someone needs to manually turn off the pump.
So the Wallace brothers developed an IoT platform that uses sensors and devices placed on the sprinkler reels and pumps that can automatically shut off the water when the reel stops. Cellular signals share the information to a dashboard that lets a farmer remotely check the sprinklers.
The Wallaces are joining the surge in research and startups in the field of precision agriculture and ag tech. But some of the developments in the sector have been less tangible, focused on monitoring and data-driven insights that emphasize cost savings and yield benefits down the road. When David tells people he’s working on a cloud-connected product for agriculture, “some farmers will kind of roll their eyes,” he said.
That’s until he explains his labor-saving application.
“They get it immediately,” he said. “They know what it is like to wake up in the middle of the night to check on the reel and the pump.”
Lav Khot, a WSU associate professor in precision agriculture, agreed that it’s helpful to connect monitoring inputs with a direct response.
“With IoT, if we integrate meaningful technology, we can monitor and manage things together effectively,” he said. Khot is working on sensors that measure heat stress in apples, which could trigger automatic sprinklers to turn on and off to cool the fruit.
30 prototypes, 6 guinea pigs, 4-person team
The Wallaces are marketing their first product, called FarmHQ. The monitoring system works on any model of sprinkler reel, using a magnetic system to detect the rate that the equipment is rolling. If used on Google Chrome, the web app has a Spanish translation.
The brothers built 30 prototypes and tested the devices on their own farm in order to develop the technology, and six other farmers in the area offered to try the tools at cost. David has expertise in data science and Connor knows software engineering, but the hardware was new territory.
“We spent of lot of time soldering circuit boards together,” David said. “It was a very trial-and-error process.”
The brothers work well as partners, David said. They were homeschooled for much of their elementary school years and regularly built things together.
The startup is selling two devices for monitoring, one costing $779 and an updated version for $1,179, plus a $108 annual service fee. Wallace Farm is outfitted with CODA Farm Technologies on all 20 pieces of its irrigation equipment.
Based on U.S. Department of Agriculture data, David estimates that the American market for their products could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Right now, the 4-person startup — which includes Dan Oschrin, lead software engineer, and Gabe Martin, who has a background in robotics — is manufacturing the devices in David’s basement. They hope to sell 200 this year, and could handle up to 500 sales.
The COVID-19 pandemic has put farming trade shows on hold, but they’ll start pitching at the events when they resume. For now they’re marketing through word of mouth and online ads. A sod farmer in Michigan is interested and so is a potato farmer in New York.
“It’s early days, but it’s really exciting,” David said. He noted that one key customer has given his endorsement: “Dad loves it.”