With New Cash, iUNU to Help More Greenhouses Monitor, Manage Plants
People in the Pacific Northwest who grow plants in greenhouses and nurseries face good odds of turning a profit on their 2019 harvests, according to Spokane, WA-based Northwest Farm Credit Services, which supports farmers, ranchers, and other agribusiness in the region.
This positive outlook comes thanks to steady demand for crops, a strong U.S. economy, and a booming housing market, and the trend could even compel some greenhouse operators to invest in new equipment and technology. One startup that would stand to benefit is Seattle-based iUNU, which has developed a system to record and project how quickly plants grow inside greenhouses, among other information.
iUNU recently raised a new round of funding to support its growth. (More on that below.)
Growing plants in greenhouses limits their exposure to the elements. These structures make it possible to grow fruits like tomatoes and blueberries year-round in regions that get cold in winter, says Adam Greenberg, who co-founded iUNU in 2013 and leads the company as its CEO. Such a feat would be extremely challenging, if not impossible, on a farm where everything is grown outdoors, he says.
Still, greenhouses need to provide more than just shelter from the cold for the crops inside them to grow properly. Plants need to get the right amount of light and water, and a ventilation system is typically installed to prevent fungus and other plant pathogens from building up.
Today, many greenhouse operators track inventory manually, Greenberg says. “The majority of the industry … walks around with a clipboard and a pencil” each day to note whether plants need to be watered more, or show possible signs of disease or infestation, he says.
iUNU’s greenhouse management platform, Luna, includes proprietary hardware developed by the startup as well as some off-the-shelf parts, Greenberg says. iUNU employees with expertise in computer vision worked with a team of horticulturalists to capture the appearance of various crops at different stages of growth. The goal is for the software to identify plants that are ready to harvest and ship, and send an alert to users.
The system of cameras, sensors, and software lets growers monitor things like temperature, humidity, changes in plant coloration, and levels of light and carbon dioxide inside their greenhouses, Greenberg says. The company’s products can also function as a crop-monitoring hub for greenhouse managers, saving them from having to drive or fly between all of the operations they’re responsible for, he says.
iUNU’s software improves as it processes more plant images and data. “The system learns as it sees more and more crops and species and growth cycles,” Greenberg says.
Greenhouses are popping up in greater numbers. One impetus has been more municipalities, like the Canadian national government, moving toward legalizing recreational marijuana use in recent years.
Greenberg says his startup is “mainly focused on produce and floriculture.” However, some of iUNU’s customers plan to use the company’s products to grow cannabis indoors in countries where federal law permits doing so, like Canada.
iUNU operates under a “system-as-a-service” business model, where clients make recurring payments to use the startup’s digital tools, Greenberg says.
However, each order iUNU gets from customers is unique, he says, making it difficult to estimate how much the operator of an average-size greenhouse pays the startup to use its products.
Greenberg says iUNU is focused on commercial growers.
“Anybody who does commercial-scale indoor farming or greenhouse operations is our target customer,” he says. “Generally anybody who’s got more than 10 people in the organization would have a use for our system.”
In late February, iUNU announced it had raised $7.5 million in new funding from an investor group that included BootstrapLabs and NCT Ventures. The cash brings the startup’s total funding haul to more than $13 million.
Greenberg says his company plans to use some of the proceeds from the round for product development and to add staff. The startup currently has about 35 employees, and plans to expand its sales, marketing, and engineering teams in coming months, he says.