This story is part of a Techonomy series about women innovators in agtech. It’s produced in partnership with From Farms to Incubators.
Late one recent autumn morning in an office park in Santa Clara, Calif., Miku Jha, founder and CEO of AgShift, is meeting with her team of engineers. They’re refining the company’s main product, known as the “Hydra,” a machine roughly the size of a small refrigerator. It’s an AI-enabled food-quality-inspection platform. During the meeting, an engineer retrieves a tray from the machine and places strawberries on the tray. Instantly, a high-definition monitor shows an image of the strawberries, which are scanned for their quality.
At many food businesses and farms, the critical process of quality inspection has always been dependent on the human eye. But here at AgShift’s headquarters, we’re witnessing a glimpse of agriculture’s next big wave. And Jha is one of the women driving bold innovation in agtech—an industry that’s historically been dominated by men.
Her company’s Hydra machine uses AI to automate the quality inspection process for commodities, specifically strawberries and cashews. It collects data on everything from the color to contours, size and ripeness, and uses neural networks to do the grading. The package also comes with a downloadable mobile app called “Hydralite” that allows companies to easily capture and track the results. The information could impact the grading and pricing of the fruits and vegetables for growers and suppliers.
Now the machine is being actively tested at Driscoll’s, one of the largest berry companies in the world, and at Olam International a Singapore-based food company. To finance its development, AgShift has so far raised $6.5 million from two venture capital funds.
Jha’s journey into agtech certainly wasn’t planned. She grew up on a farm in northern India, part of the fourth generation of a family that grows mangos. In 1996 she was one of the first female computer science majors at the University of Mumbai. Eventually she emigrated to the U.S. to pursue a career in technology. She launched AgShift in 2016, with the goal of using technology to innovate safety processes in the food supply chain. It’s certainly a ripe area of opportunity. The global food safety testing market’s value is projected to grow to $25.9 million by 2024, driven in part by an emerging middle class in the developing world. Today, Jha’s LinkedIn profile reads: “Tackling food waste head-on.”
She has founded and run three startups, including Worklight – a technology firm that manages mobile apps across different platforms. IBM acquired Worklight in 2012 and Jha stayed on. “Before AgShift, I was pretty blue,” Jha says, referring jokingly to IBM. At Big Blue, while building various mobile-first products for the internet of things, she became curious about how sensors could be useful in agriculture. She also pursued an MBA at Cornell University in New York. In 2014, she relocated to Silicon Valley to work on technologies to help small- to medium-sized farmers. She brought along her husband and young daughter.
Once in California, to better understand the landscape, she drove thousands upon thousands of miles to meet with different growers to “get a sense of how farming communities and ecosystem were similar or different compared to the small-farmholder community I grew up with, back in India,” Jha says. The core question that drove AgShift’s launch was: can you bring technology and apply it to food challenges? She recalls asking: “Could vision technologies used for self-driving cars be extended to a machine designated for “self-grading strawberries?”
There were several key milestones. In 2017 AgShift was chosen to join the THRIVE agtech accelerator, operated by Silicon Valley venture capital firm SVP Partners. She served as a panelist or speaker at high profile conferences including The Economist Canada Summit and the Forbes AgTech Summit.
Raising capital for AgShift has been more challenging than at her previous ventures. Some of that could be attributable to the fact that agtech is still a nascent sector, and a concern among investors that farming remains too dependent on unpredictable factors like weather patterns.
Nevertheless, Jha is confident AI is the answer to some of agriculture’s biggest problems—including its severe and growing labor shortage in the U.S. Jha believes technology and AI can eliminate the errors and subjectivity that go with human inspection of factors ranging from texture to color to size. “What you’re trying to solve is very subjective, in the first place,” Jha says. “If you say, ‘give me a count of all of these blueberries,’ that’s objective. That is very straightforward. But how do you measure AI success when tackling these kinds of problems? Machines and automation replace the subjective with the objective, because software only has one eye.”
One of Jha’s main goals now is to commercialize AgShift’s core product and expand its customer base. To position the company to handle its growing business, Jha recently signed a deal to partner with a Pennsylvania robotics company that will produce some of the company’s machines. AgShift’s focus will remain on “high margin, high volume, high commodities,” and there are plans to expand into produce like pistachios, a variety of berries, almonds and avocados. “We will start exploring what sort of commodities match AI well, and invest research and development into new commodities,” she says.
Hear more of Amy Wu’s insights at Techonomy’s 2019 retreat in Half Moon Bay, Calif.