California is the home of high-tech Silicon Valley, but it’s also the epicenter of the drought-stricken Central Valley, which produces more than half of the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the U.S.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Mist Labs, a start-up company that’s trying to help farmers use water more efficiently, is based in Redwood City in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is also the latest winner of the Cool Idea Award from Proto Labs in Maple Plain.
Proto Labs chooses six to eight enterprising companies each year and provides them with services that use one or more of the company’s specialized technologies in 3-D printing, computerized machining and high-injection molding.
Mist Labs CEO Matt Kresse said his company’s invention is a flow meter that ensures that water is flowing through irrigation systems uniformly so that less water is wasted and crops can reach optimal yields and quality.
Most California farmers, Kresse said, have switched to micro-irrigation systems that pump water through tubing networks and release it in controlled amounts through small holes or sprayers at the base of plants that are closer to root zones.
But those systems primarily use manual controls and record-keeping that can be prone to error, he said. In addition, the tubing systems that snake down the rows of vineyards, orchards or vegetable crops can have pumping irregularities or may become blocked or damaged, leading to crop damage and uneven distribution of water.
The flow meter, called AgPulse, sends data about how different parts of an irrigation system are performing. “Basically the devices communicate to a hub that will send all the data to the cloud or to the internet whereby a farmer can see the data in real time on a website or a dashboard,” Kresse said. That allows for both more precise irrigation and quick repairs if necessary, he said.
The unit has a solar panel on the top to transmit the information wirelessly. It also has a solar sensor that detects changes in how the leafy canopy from trees, grapevines or other crops is developing overhead. Since the device is attached to irrigation tubing near the ground, the sensor measures how much less sun is hitting it as the canopy grows and produces more shade.
“Especially for wine, tracking the size of the canopy over time can help farmers modify their fertilizing and watering, which are both very important to maximize yields and crop quality,” Kresse said.
Mist Labs also worked with product design firm Radicand Inc. of San Francisco on how to protect the flow meter and sensors from sun and weather damage. They came up with a two-part housing assembly that fits together over the sensitive equipment.
The award from Proto Labs takes advantage of the Minnesota company’s injection molding expertise. Proto Labs produced a pair of molds and used them to manufacture about 5,000 housing units for Mist Labs using high-strength polycarbonate material.
Proto Labs public relations manager Sarah Ekenberg said the purpose of the awards is to reduce barriers to entry for entrepreneurs with good ideas.
“When you’re a start-up company, funds are typically sparse,” she said. “We’re happy to empower those entrepreneurs that have these promising ideas by providing them with the groundbreaking services that we have.”
Proto Labs founder Larry Lukis said that innovative companies also need to move through the design-to-development process quickly if they expect to be successful in the marketplace. “We can help award winners create exactly what they need and when they need it to move their business forward,” he said.
Proto Labs has provided 28 awards since 2011, and Ekenberg said that each is worth an average of $40,000 in services.
Previous awards have helped firms that made a purse that can charge a smartphone, a tracking system to record images of surfers or other athletes, and a screwdriver meant for tight spots that can be configured into 168 different positions.
Kresse said he has been working primarily with orchard and vineyard owners so far, because both are heavy users of irrigation water and some of the highest margin crops.
The orchards include California’s citrus industry, he said, and especially its almond and pistachio crops.
“Our ability to improve yields has the biggest impact on their bottom lines,” Kresse said. The technology will also have potential use for other crops, he said, and for both large and small producers.
Kresse plans to ship several thousand AgPulse units to customers later this summer, and tens of thousands in 2017.
“This is the first product on our road map,” he said. “We’re set up to be a platform to sell myriad devices related to crop sensing.”