Colin Hurd

 

Smart Ag Technologies; When the Ag Grad 30 Under 30 Collides with the Future of Farming Podcast 

In 2015, Colin Hurd founded a company called Smart Ag that he then sold in a merger acquisition to Raven Industries after four years. After all that work and effort, frustration and excitement, it seems strange that Colin would sell his pride and joy.  However, it was for the betterment of Smart Ag and the future of agriculture overall. Savvy business decisions, like this, are a big part of the reason that this Iowa State University graduate in Ag Business is continuing to be one of the top young movers and shakers in agriculture. 

Understanding the Problem

Despite no engineering background, Colin firmly believes that a big part of what an engineer does is discover a problem and find a solution for it. As an ag business major, he didn’t take engineering courses or technology courses, but he did take the Ag Entrepreneurship Initiative at Iowa State. Kevin Kimle was the chair of this program and helped provide the resources for Colin’s first company, Ag Concepts.

Ag Concepts

“One of the things that was always frustrating to me was that we could only get back 80% of yield,” explains Colin about the initial thought process behind the creation of Ag Concepts. Colin was able to understand that the root of the problem was the scarcity of agriculture labor and, because of that scarcity, farmers were having to use larger pieces of equipment that could handle larger loads; thus the issue of compaction. 

It was the age-old issue of diminishing returns; bigger machines could do more acres per hour but the inefficiency was growing exponentially. They created a product called TrackTill to reduce compaction during planting. Four years and two innovative products later, Ag Concepts licensed TrackTill to Yetter MFG and sold the distribution rights of Caden Edge as they exited the business. 

Smart Ag 

Ag Concepts opened up the door to Smart Ag for Colin in the identification of a new solution to the compaction issue: lightweight autonomous machines. Matt Rymer was a Canadian farmer from Canada who became a piece of inspiration for Colin. Without any engineering or coding background, he had taught himself to code and took the brains of a drone and wired it into his tractor. Matt had posted his work onto an open source community where Colin discovered that the pain point had become so large that it had been worth the time to a farmer to teach himself to code and engineer. The market was finally ready for autonomous farm equipment!  

Founding Smart Ag

A three-way founding partnership, it’s an interesting dynamic that makes the difference between a co-founder and an early employee. While Colin believes he may not do it the same as everyone else, he chose to make Quincy and Mark his fellow co-founders as they also risked a lot for the business to succeed and spent copious amounts of time to get it to a working point. 

Quincy can “do anything from a technical standpoint,” says Colin. Quincy’s quick learning capabilities were a bonus as the idea of autonomous farm equipment was a quickly moving variable with new ideas, concepts and thoughts coming down the pipeline. Later that year, they showed Mark what they were working on and he was sold – that was the tipping point! Six months later the full team was assembled and working full steam ahead. 

Flagship Autocart

The initial goal was to build a platform and, with input from the current market, apply the technology first to an auto grain cart. 

“Based off of the customers and farmers that I met in Ag Concepts, seasonally the biggest headache always came back to harvest,” explains Colin about their decision to work first on an autocart. 

Testing the product, however, was another story and, right when they felt that everything was going smoothly, the autocart wrecked into a tractor. Colin still masks some pain from that experience. He explains how that was one of the low moments not only when it came to the product that they were working on but in damaging expensive equipment to a farmer that was going out of his way to help them on their project during harvest. They were able to fix the farmers equipment to the point that he could continue and finish his harvest but team morale was definitely low at this point. 

On the plus side, the team did learn that insurance does cover autonomous vehicles!

Challenges of Driverless Equipment

Perception

  • There is no existing perception systems.
  • We had to start from scratch in reliably identifying what is in front of a machine automatically. 

Navigation

  • While basic navigation where you can pull a line across a field does exist, they had to take that to the next level and be able to navigate a changing environment as the harvest happened. 
  • They had to make point-to-point navigation.
  • They had to create the ability for multiple vehicles to sync together and work collectively. 
  • Despite having a really good system created today, they still have a lot more work they can do to make it perfect. 

Communication

  • Even though cell phone infrastructure exists, cell phones typically don’t have service in most remote places where farmers are working fields. Cell phones alone were not reliable enough; they had to create a better system for the vehicles to sync together. 
  • They then had to make that communication scaleable to a varied set of environments. 

Sales, Mergers and Acquisitions

Creating your own business is a part of your being so when it came to Smart Ag being acquired by Raven Industries, it was a big win for Colin and the Smart Ag team. 

“We knew from day one that we would want to partner with several people or the right person to help us expand our platform onto new vehicles,” explains Colin. Smart Ag was built to retro fit autonomous technology onto older, existing vehicles. Being able to join the market of new products was also on the list but is much harder to do due to resources for a start-up company. 

Part of what made the merge into Raven Industries attractive to Smart Ag was not only the existing technology but also the energy and strategy that they had around autonomous farming. Raven Industries has made a commitment and are investing heavily to make autonomy a reality for farmers, which aligns with what the team at Smart Ag wanted to do. 

Merger Benefits to Smart Ag 

“The biggest thing is a lot more support and resources than a traditional start-up,” explains Colin about the difference since the merger. “It wasn’t the end of the road, it was the beginning of something bigger.” 

The team now has a state of the art manufacturing facility in Rapid City, the ability to leverage the technology of Raven Industries, and more “tools” in their “toolbox” than ever before. 

Raven also announced, around the same time that they acquired Smart Ag, that they took an ownership stake in Dot, another autonomous farming company. A group that Colin has known and worked with, it was a great opportunity to bring these industry leaders together under one umbrella. 

You can connect with Colin on LinkedIn to stay up to date with all that they are doing! Make sure to subscribe to the AgGrad YouTube Channel to learn more about career opportunities in agriculture and follow along on the special “30 Under 30 in Agriculture” series!

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Katie Schrock
katie.schrock@thatwesternlife.com
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