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 e-commerce unicorn secures $130M in financing

scaling up

Houston-based Cart.com, which operates a multichannel commerce platform, has secured $105 million in debt refinancing from investment manager BlackRock.

The debt refinancing follows a recent $25 million series C extension round, bringing Cart.com’s series C total to $85 million. The scaleup’s valuation now stands at $1.2 billion, making it one of the few $1 billion-plus “unicorns” in the Houston area.

“Scaleup” refers to a startup that has achieved tremendous growth and has maintained a stable workforce, among other positive milestones. Airbnb, Peloton, and Uber are prime examples of businesses that evolved from startup to scaleup.

Cart.com says the new term loan facility from BlackRock consolidates its venture debt into one package “at competitive terms.” Those terms weren’t disclosed.

The company says the refinancing will enable it to expand into new markets and improve its technology, including its Constellation OMS order management system.

“Cart.com is one of the fastest-growing providers of commerce and logistics solutions today, and I’m excited to partner with BlackRock as we continue to aggressively invest to help our customers operate more efficiently,” Omair Tariq, the company’s founder and CEO, says in a news release.

Through a network of 14 fulfillment centers, Cart.com supports over 6,000 customers and 75 million orders per year.

"BlackRock is pleased to support Cart.com as it advances its mission to unify digital and physical commerce infrastructure," says Keon Reed, a director at BlackRock. “This latest facility underscores our confidence in the company’s differentiated product offerings and financial strategy as it enters its next stage of growth.”

Elon Musk says he's moving SpaceX, X headquarters from California to Texas

cha-cha-changes

Billionaire Elon Musk says he's moving the headquarters of SpaceX and social media company X to Texas from California.

Musk posted on X Tuesday that he plans on moving SpaceX from Hawthorne, California, to the company's rocket launch site dubbed Starbase in Texas. X will move to Austin from San Francisco.

He called a new law signed Monday by California Gov. Gavin Newsom that bars school districts from requiring staff to notify parents of their child’s gender identification change the “final straw.”

“I did make it clear to Governor Newsom about a year ago that laws of this nature would force families and companies to leave California to protect their children,” Musk wrote.

Tesla, where Musk is CEO, moved its corporate headquarters to Austin from Palo Alto, California in 2021.

Musk has also said that he has moved his residence from California to Texas, where there is no state personal income tax.

SpaceX builds and launches its massive Starship rockets from the southern tip of Texas at Boca Chica Beach, near the Mexican border at a site called Starbase. The company’s smaller Falcon 9 rockets take off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Southern California.

It’s just below South Padre Island, and about 20 miles from Brownsville.

Play it back: This Houston innovator is on a mission to develop tech for the moon

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 244

Editor's note: This week on the Houston Innovators Podcast, we’re revisiting a conversation with Tim Crain, the co-founder and CTO at Intuitive Machines, that originally ran in October of 2023.

If you haven't noticed, the moon is having a bit of a moment — and Tim Crain of Intuitive Machines is here for it.

For the past five or so years, NASA and the federal government have introduced and strengthened initiatives to support innovation of technology to be used to get to and explore the moon.

NASA, which is currently focused on its Artemis program that's sending four missions to the moon, also launched the Commercial Lunar Payload Services that's working with several American companies, including Intuitive Machines, to deliver science and technology to the lunar surface.

"Around 2018 or 2019, the moon came back into favor as a destination for American space policy, and it came back in such a way that there's a directive at the national level — at a level above NASA — to explore and develop the moon as a national priority," Crain says in the episode.



On the show, Crain explains the history of Intuitive Machines, which has taken an indirect path to where it is today. The company was founded in 2013 by Crain and co-founders CEO Steve Altemus and Chairman Kamal Ghaffarian as a space-focused think tank. Crain says they learned how to run a business and meet customers' needs and expectations, but they never fell in love with any of the early technologies and ideas they developed — from long-range drones to precision drilling technologies.

But the company answered NASA's call for moon technology development, and Intuitive Machines won three of the NASA contracts so far, representing three missions for NASA.

"We dipped our toe in the 'let's develop the moon' river and promptly got pulled all the way in," Crain says. "We left our think tank, broad, multi-sector efforts behind, and really pivoted at that point to focus entirely on NASA's CLPS needs. ... The timing really could not have been any better."

Since recording the podcast, Intuitive Machines celebrated a historic mission that landed the first lunar lander on the surface of the moon in over 50 years — and the first commercially operated mission ever. The company is also working on a $30 million project for NASA to develop lunar lander technology.

This week, Intuitive Machines announced a successful test result for engine technology to be used in the lunar lander project.