How Cisco LaunchPad portfolio startup Sensegrass is creating 360-degree smart farming solutions

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India’s official farmer population is anywhere between 100-150 million and for them, this is not just a source of food on their plates, but also a means of existence. In fact, according to the World Bank, agriculture can help reduce poverty, raise incomes and improve food security for 80 percent of the world's poor. But despite being the single largest employer in the world, it is one of the industries which is not able to utilise its resources efficiently.

Issues such as farmland degradation, crop wastage and soil erosion further add to a farmer’s distress. Although agriculture is largely dependent on environmental factors like weather, water availability, soil health, most of these issues arise due to the inefficiency and deficiency in traditional practices.

Recognising the need for a platform that bridges the gap between manual and automated practices, Lalit Gautam and Rahul Gundala founded Sensegrass in 2019. The startup, with its AI+ML interface, is trying to disrupt contemporary farming techniques to enable farmers to manage farms efficiently.

Identifying the pain point

Lalit, a Pharm D and MBA graduate, conceptualised Sensegrass in 2019 and later Rahul joined, seeking an alternative agrifood movement that has the potential to reframe the Agricultural Revolution amidst the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Before founding Sensegrass, Lalit had accumulated over 12 years of startup experience while Rahul had previously built a patented motorised soldering tool that was acquired by Soldron.

But the journey of Sensegrass actually began in 2018 when Lalit was working with his first startup, Handscraft. He had the opportunity to explore the core problems in rural communities and villages. Being a third-generation farmer, he had only seen his forefathers do farming and wanted to get hands-on experience. "After a lot of research, we realised that agriculture is a very broken industry, especially in developing nations. We launched Sensegrass with high-end technology, but as a more efficient solution for small-scale farmers," says Lalit Gautam, Co-founder and CEO, Sensegrass.

Smart farming: Combining AI+IoT

Based in UP’s Ghaziabad, Sensegrass has developed a platform to monitor soil health, fertiliser conditions and other environmental factors, to provide real-time data to the end users. This smart farming technology consists of sensing/detection technology, AI-based software application, IoT-based hardware platform, nano-satellite mapping and Rover Bots technology.

In India, farmers lack knowledge on the right amount of nutrition that crops require. The problem of soil health analysis is also loosely handled by the Government of India. The only available option then is the traditional lab method in which the farmer takes the soil sample to the lab where the soil test report is generated in a few weeks, using chemical methods.

"Our platform predicts the value of nutrition, fertiliser, water and other resources in real-time and gives the right prediction to farmers or users. Especially for small farms, we need a technology which is not just efficient but affordable," says Rahul Gundala, Co-founder and CTO, Sensegrass.

To enable this, Sensegrass uses a combination of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT system represents the hardware component of the product, which is responsible for sensing and monitoring the soil conditions, water conditions, rainfall prediction, temperature and other relevant metrics. With special firmware to monitor 18+ soil and environmental parameters as well as NPK detection, the smart soil sensor helps in keeping accurate data surveillance on soil health, as well as to keep track and check on trends, and to predict the irrigation and fertiliser needs.

Secondly, the AI system is responsible for the software which uses the data to formulate smart decisions to solve existing problems of soil health, fertiliser conditions and other environmental factors.

Synergising with Cisco LaunchPad to add value to farming

Sensegrass is one of the startups in this year's Cisco LaunchPad cohort. Over the last five years, Cisco has been creating an exciting environment for high potential startups with Cisco LaunchPad.

The programme has provided significant advantages to Sensegrass, from technical mentoring to marketing support to an opportunity to pilot with Cisco in India. "We are getting continuous support from the Cisco team from almost all aspects of business, including PR and marketing. Cisco's Digital Agriculture Architecture has hardware and software components for better farming and knowledge centres that have been actively involved in alleviating farming distress. As part of Cisco's agriculture solution, we found key areas of synergy where Sensegrass can add value," says Lalit.

Working with the global agritech market

Sensegrass is currently the only soil fertiliser management company in India with NPK sensors. It started operations in the international market and eventually entered India. It has 35+ clients in India, including agricultural marketplaces, food and agro production companies, and has also done a pilot with the agricultural ministry. Currently, the company operates in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Karnataka, with notable brands like Pepsico, Bayer, Corteva, Onset, etc.

What makes Sensegrass stand out is that it broadly provides two solutions - precision farming and semi-automation. "Our technological combination not only brings disruption to contemporary farming techniques but also helps in achieving the objective of making farming techniques easier, safer and more affordable," says Lalit.

Accelerating growth by serving all Agri stakeholders

For the last two years, Sensegrass' potential has been proven by its exceptional track record of global engagement. The bootstrapped startup has been incubated and backed by world-class mentorship, and have also been awarded as Forbes 30 Under 30 twice.

In 2020, they launched the first edition of Agro Handbook for Agri stakeholders, which comprises uses cases, technology, facts about the usage of fertiliser and carbon emission and more. They are now working on the second edition, for which the theme is 'New Reforms Bill'.

Last year, when the pandemic hit, one of the biggest impacts on the agriculture sector was a shortage of migrant labour, void in supply chain and transportation problems. For a short period, due to the suspension of various activities, there is a disruption in the demand-supply curve. However, this is a potential opportunity to revolutionise the traditional farming practices, and to transit from manual to semi-automated systems. With Sensegrass and its 360-degree solution for soil and farm management, farmers and all the relevant stakeholders can manage and progress their farms more efficiently and sustainably.

Driving towards a positive future

Sensegrass' core mission is to drive a positive impact for small to mid-sized farmers in India with its cutting-edge technology. Currently, it is working to become a sustainable impact-driven agricultural company that provides high-end tools to farmers and companies, makes farming more sustainable and efficient, and helps small-scale farmers improve their income.

"We are working on reducing the fertiliser input and are currently finishing our new version of a portable soil sensor that will be available in a few months. In a year, we will be launching the world's first soil testing rover and Farm OS for global use. Five years down the line, we are expecting an acquisition or merger in a company that is doing something similar for sustainable agriculture and farmer growth," says Rahul.

As Sensegrass continues to scale, it is leveraging the support of Cisco LaunchPad. The startup is now in the final stage of product development with its new portable Soil Sensor jointly developed with the Cisco team for the Indian market. "During the initial months, we developed the prototype of our new hardware product with a modular version with Cisco networking support and tested in limited conditions. Now, we're heading towards the industrial version with the support of Cisco mentors," says Lalit.