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INNOVATORS Q&A

‘A CT scan for plants:’ Helping farmers diagnose the health of their crops

Cloud Agronomics of Providence is receiving $9 million in venture capital

Mark Tracy, CEO of Cloud Agronomics
Mark Tracy, CEO of Cloud AgronomicsCat Laine (custom credit)

The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com.

This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Mark Tracy, CEO of Cloud Agronomics, a startup based in Providence.

Question: When did Cloud Agronomics form, what does it do, and how many people does it employ?

Answer: Cloud Agronomics was formed in 2017. We are the only civilian company in the United States that uses a new technology to give farmers a snapshot of the health of the plants and soil in their fields. You can think of the technology as a CT scan for plants. We now have 15 employees, and we are hiring more. (Please check out our job postings).

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Q: How are a bunch of people at computers in Providence helping farmers in their fields?

A: Our founders had a technological breakthrough with hyperspectral imaging that allows us to image farm fields in a unique way. It gives a real-time snapshot into plant health that allows farmers to produce more food in a more sustainable fashion. This way, farmers can target which plants need more nutrients and which ones need help fighting disease, weeds, or other pests -- all in real time.

Q: What is hyperspectral imaging and what did people do before that technology came about?

A: Hyperspectral imaging is a technology originally developed by NASA to explore distant planets and stars. Hyperspectral “sees” more than a thousand bands of spectrum. By comparison, our eyes only see three. Today, most plant health is diagnosed with the naked eye by farmers and crop scouts. However, imagine trying to diagnose the health of an entire farm field that is thousands of acres. Using hyperspectral imaging, we can fly over an entire field and tell the real-time health of the whole field. We’re the only civilian company that can do this at scale in the world.

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Q: How does Cloud Agronomics track carbon content in farmland, and why is that done?

A: Using farmland to absorb carbon would drastically reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, thereby mitigating climate change. People refer to the practice as carbon farming. If farmers adopt certain regenerative farming practices, they can double or triple the amount of carbon in their soils. But to know how much carbon is in soil today, you have to sample dirt in test tubes and bring it to a laboratory. That is very expensive and inefficient. Cloud Agronomics is developing the technology to measure that carbon remotely across the whole field.

Q: I understand the company recently received a large investment. What are the details?

A: Cloud Agronomics is closing a Series A investment round for $9 million. Our lead investor is a large venture capital firm. At this time, we cannot disclose any more details.

Q: How is your company dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, and what can state and local officials do to help local businesses at this time?

A: We are working remotely, but we have physical hardware that must be assembled by a team of people in person. We are taking precautions to keep those team members safe. Access to credit will increasingly become a problem as this extends and can be an extinction-level event for many small businesses like ours. State and local officials should do their best to also address the mental health of our communities as social isolation extends into weeks and potentially months.

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Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.