Hylio, based just south of Houston, is setting out to bring the agriculture industry into the 21st century. Photo courtesy of Hylio

Renowned American inventor Thomas Edison once said, "There's a way to do it better, find it."

That timeless adage has been the spark that has ignited countless technological advances over the years and Hylio is no different, applying it to its own mission to disrupt the agricultural technology space.

With rampant systemic inefficiencies with current crop spraying solutions negatively affecting farm economics, Hylio developed its AgroDrone, a precision crop spraying drone system that is revolutionizing ag-tech.

"Our company started about five years ago, when we were delivering in Central America and noticed the way people were doing spraying was extremely inefficient," says Arthur Erickson, CEO and co-founder of Hylio. "They were doing it either by hand or by plane or helicopter. If you are doing it by hand, you are doing it extremely slow and very inaccurate. If you're doing it by plane or helicopter, you're doing it faster, but you're extremely inaccurate."

In most cases, when farmers use traditional crop spraying methods such as helicopter or plane, up 90 percent of the fertilizer or pesticides miss their intended targets or float away.

However, AgroDrone, which was recently accepted into the Capital Factory accelerator, provides for a very precise method of applying those chemicals with its intuitive planning system, which monitors and controls the spray volumes using pre-existing map files or polygons.

"For the past year, we've been our own first customer," says Erickson. "We've used the technology in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala on 40,000 acres. We learned the product and what made it more efficient by using it in the field 10 hours a day. We built this from the ground up using it as a farmer would. We worked out all the bugs, optimized it and made it reliable, so when farmers are out there in the mud or in the rain, it still works."

The drone's flight software allows it to be completely turnkey. The electron-based application can be run on any cross platform and gives pilots control over the drone at all times.

Additionally, the redundant critical flight system ensures stable flight.

"Our software was made completely in house," says Erickson. "Like a Google map interface, you can set up your own pre-loaded missions, in different polygon shapes, draw them yourself or import polygon files and generate missions for the drone to fly."

Because of the radar altimeters fitted on the drones, farmers are able to reduce the amount of chemicals they use because the drones maintain optimal height over crops at all times, which minimizes drift and maximizes application quality.

"If you talk to any farmer that has 400 acres of corn, for example, and they want to get it sprayed, it would cost them maybe $400 times 10 for labor times 10 for chemicals, so about $8000," says Erickson. "The problem is they're providing a brute force solution to a problem that is very simple to solve with a drone.

"If they've got weeds on their 400 acres, and the weeds are only on one or two acres, little spots in the field, they just want to eliminate those spots, so they don't need to pay someone to spray their entire field, so they're saving the chemical cost per acre is $10 bucks. So if they run our drone for 10 minutes, they're literally saving $7,000 or more."

The innovators behind Hylio started the company because they were passionate about drones, but saw that the crop spraying system for farmers was broken and inefficient, so they sought to make the process better and more sustainable.

"Farmers are responsible for how we eat, how everyone eats," says Erickson. "The current technologies used in agriculture is outdated and not very cost effective. We looked at the farm economics and wanted to help develop viable solutions. Every farmer has to battle weeds; it is universal. All crop and weeds are different, but it is the same concept. The more you control the weeds, the more money you make at the end of the year. A farmer could lose 20 percent or more of their crops if they do not control their weeds properly. Despite the inefficiencies and razor thin margins, farmers still use helicopters and planes because they have to kill those weeds.

"There's a better way to do it with drones and it comes at a fraction of the price."

The AgroDrone starts at $19,300 and is delivered to the farmer fully tested and assembled. The package includes four pairs of 30,000 mAh 22V LiPo batteries, charging equipment, one handheld GPS tracker unit and access to the Hylio AgroSol Mission Control Software.

The software, which was designed by farmers for farmers, requires a recurring monthly fee that ranges from $100 to $500 depending on the level.

Hylio also provides the central device that can control multiple drones at the same time and service hundreds of acres per day.

"The people that are doing the weed control spraying for farmers literally won't come out because it's not worth their time to just come out and spray one or two acres," says Erickson. "So even if a farmer has a problem that they know is only on one or two acres, they have to spray the whole thing, because they market will only allow people to spray the entire amount. They cannot come out and afford to spray one or two acres. However, if you buy a drone, you can do it yourself with the click of a button. Farmers are saving literally $10,000 per application depending on how big their crop is."

According to the US Department of Agriculture, American farmers received $11.5 billion in subsidies in 2017. That number will be drastically higher in 2019 to offset the market losses farmers will see due to President Donald Trump's trade war with China.

With profits in continual decline, Hylio's mission to improve margins for farmers continues.

"Farming is heavily subsidized now," says Erickson. "None of them are making money, so they desperately need something to increase their bottom lines. We are here to make farmers' lives better and help them feed us better. It's a win win."

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Houston rodeo prepares for 2020 season with new technology on the grounds

rodeo ready

When the 2018 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo opened the gates to its first show of the season with headliner Garth Brooks, the nearly 90-year-old organization had just switched to digital ticketing. Around the time to enter the stadium, the BHP Billiton entrance, which welcomes in 51 percent of rodeo goers each night, was backed up with impatient rodeo fans.

For whatever reason, the roll out of the technology didn't go as planned, says Joel Cowley, CEO of the rodeo. But, after some damage control, the rodeo made some adjustments to the gate and ensured that those inefficient lines never happened again.

It was a lesson to learn for the rodeo, which isn't shying away from any other technology upgrades that will benefit rodeo goers and the organizations staff and volunteers.

"Anytime you do something new, you have to be on guard," Cowley tells InnovationMap. "You have to make sure you are stacked up on capacity — whether that be personnel, scanners, server capacity — because if you're not, it could create a situation from that."

A few months ago, the rodeo announced a slew of c-suite changes to its team following a reorganization led by McKinsey & Co. Among the changes was changing Andy Sloan's responsibilities from chief information officer to chief technology officer.

"As part of that reorganization, there was some focus on improving the technology that we utilize — and that's everything from our customer management system to what the consumer sees," Cowley says. "Andy is a great resource when we're trying to integrate those things."

The study prompted big ideas for new tech-driven initiatives for the rodeo, like a wristband that acts as your ticket but is also synced to your credit card for all purchases on rodeo grounds. But while that's an initiative for the future, 2020 rodeo attendees can expect to see new technologies this season.

Digital carnival packs

This year, the rodeo's carnival has began selling digital carnival ticket packs in an effort to transform the carnival experience to 100 percent digital. To prepare for this transition, the carnival volunteers have received extensive training — especially on how to communicate the process during the sales encounter.

Cowley says he expects to receive some negativity from longtime carnival ticket buyers, but also knows many people will appreciate the upgrade.

"The convenience for the users once they get used to it is going to be really great," Cowley says.

Gamification

Around two years ago, the rodeo conducted a study to understand its market. The study found that there are seven types of consumers for the rodeo. Cowley says they learned that there was a particular consumer type that they realized the rodeo could improve on attracting.

One of the ideas to attract this segment within the market was gamification. Cowley explains that according to the rodeo's survey data, rodeo goers' primary reason for attending is the show is the musical performer. The data also shows that when they get here, they enjoy their overall experience — not just the concert, Cowley says.

"Gamification is something that we are adding this year to engage the younger tech-savvy segment to give them something to do on the grounds," Cowley says.

The new tool, which is available on the rodeo's app, prompts users to check in around the grounds and complete tasks to earn buckles that can be redeemed for prizes.

"We think the more they see of the grounds, the better chance we have of making them lifelong fans," Cowley says.

There's also a new lounge called the Social Spur just north of the stadium where visitors can charge their devices and learn more about the app and the game.

Updated app

When it came to exploring gamification, Cowley says the rodeo looked into its app developer's capacity, as well as other app development companies. This process resulted in a new app provider and an overhaul of the rodeo's mobile app. The app, which syncs to the user's Facebook, is run by Canada-based Greencopper.

"It has been completely rebuilt from the ground up," Coweley says. "I think appearance-wise and functionality-wise — even though there was nothing wrong with the last one — this one is better."

Over the years, the rodeo's app has become more and more key in the rodeo experience. Users can find maps, buy tickets, view schedule information, and even receive up-to-date parking information.

Cowley says connectivity hasn't been a huge issue for the rodeo, but this year they've extended their WiFi service within NRG Stadium to cover just outside the gates so that users with digital tickets on the app can have that access.

In-seat food ordering

Also new for rodeo attendees is sEATz, a Houston-based startup that has developed an app that allows sporting event or concert attendees to order food to their seats. The app — through its partnership with the rodeo's food and beverage provider, Aramark —will be servicing the 100-level seats.

"It's really great to be able to be a part of the rodeo as far as a provider to help enhance that experience in the stadium," says Aaron Knape, CEO and co-founder of sEATz. "It goes back to our model of we want to serve a venue and the fans in that venue — not necessarily a specific sport or concert."

3 things Houston entrepreneurs need to keep in mind to run a lean startup and reduce risk

Houston voices

There are few things riskier than launching a new business. You could run through a mine field and have a better chance at living than launching a successful, long-lasting business. In fact, the Harvard Business School even reported that three out of every four startups fail. Fortunately, a new process has come to light that was designed precisely to reduce the risk of starting a business. Lean startups champion trial and error over detailed planning. Customer feedback over "gut feeling." Cyclic processes of design over traditional development.

Some lean startup ideas have already gone mainstream because they've proven to be so effective. The principles of "minimum viable product" and "startup pivot" have become so engrained in modern business that even university business colleges have begun to teach them.

There are three key aspects of the lean methodology.

Educated guesses

Number one: Instead of spending a year conducting research and planning long-term, lean startup entrepreneurs go with the idea that all they have on the first day is a bunch of unproven ideas. Guesses, really. These entrepreneurs forego the traditional business plan and opt instead to give a Cliff Notes version of their big idea using a template dubbed "business model canvas." It's pretty much a diagram that shows how a business generates value not just for its consumers, but for itself.

Field work

Number two: Lean startups use an "out and about" method for testing their ideas. It's a kind of customer development. They go "out and about" and basically interview potential customers, interested people, and people on the fence about all aspects of their business. How's our pricing compared to others you've seen? Do you like our product features? What do you think of our strategy? Lean startup entrepreneurs amend their ideas based on the feedback they get from customers. That's the beauty of the lean method: it's based on your willingness to change directions based on new information. Sound familiar? Well, it should. I just described pivoting. A lean startup concept now adopted by major corporations.

Agility means stability not fragility

Number three: The software industry bore a method called agile development. Agile development cuts down on wasted time because it emphasizes the ability and willingness to change directions and adapt fast. That's what agile means. To move quickly. There's a company named RoofProtect Pro that created a chemical they thought would appeal to homeowners looking to reduce shingle rot. Turns out there wasn't really a demand for reducing shingle rot. It wasn't as big a deal as the RoofProtect Pro founders had hypothesized. However, after speaking with business owners they discovered there was a demand for something to help reduce rust and deterioration of signage. RoofProtect Pro went back to the drawing board to build and test a prototype for a chemical that reduces rust and staining on different material like concrete and metal. A year later RoofProtect Pro became SurfaceSustain and obtained over $2 million in venture capital funding.

Now that's agility!

It's no surprise, then, that in the high-stakes world of business, a methodology designed specifically to reduce risk would prove successful. Lean methods don't guarantee success, of course, but the principles it holds dear do help strip away a lot of wasted time and energy and have proven to be highly efficient. Now, if there's an antidote to riskiness, it's got to be efficiency. Efficiency tightens a business to bare bones so there is little room for big risks to hurt your venture.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Nissan selects Houston to debut its on-demand subscription service

driving innovation

Volvo and Porsche are already doing it. Now, Nissan is getting in on the vehicle subscription service model with a new program called Nissan Switch. The service will debut in Houston.

"Nissan Switch is another way that Nissan is testing alternatives to the notion of traditional mobility, without long-term financial commitments for our customers," said Andrew Tavi, vice president, Legal, External Affairs and Business Development, Nissan North America, Inc. "This program provides more choice, convenience, and flexibility. For those who want a sedan during the week and an SUV or sports car, like the GTR, on the weekends, Nissan Switch provides the solution."

By signing up for the Nissan Switch program, subcribers can test models including the Nissan Leaf Plus, Titan, and GT-R. Nissan has recently redesigned many of the vehicles in their lineup including the Versa, Sentra, and Altima. The Frontier got a new engine for the 2020 model year and Murano, Maxima, and Titan have gotten significant updates in the past 18 months.

The program works similar to how on-demand media programming works. The price tier of the service subscribed to dictates the vehicles that can be switched out. There is no long-term contract or commitment.

For $699 per month, subscribers have access to the Altima sedan, Rogue and Pathfinder SUVs, and Frontier truck. Spending $899 per month allows for testing of the Leaf Plus electric vehicle, Maxima sedan, Murano and Armada SUVs, Titan truck, and 370Z sports car. Those wishing to test out the GT-R must elect for the $899 per month Premium service level and pay an additional $100 per day with seven-day consecutive maximum use.

Subscribers won't be driving just rental car spec base models. Each vehicle will be featured in a well-equipped trim level, some with Nissan's ProPilot Assist driver-assist technology that has features including lane centering, lane keeping, and blind spot warning.

After a $495 membership activation fee, the monthly subscription includes the vehicle (unlimited switches, as often as a new vehicle each day), delivery, cleaning, insurance, roadside assistance, and regular maintenance.

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This article originally ran on AutomotiveMap.