Publication, Jan 2016: Geoprospectors auf

Thanks to technologies also used in archaeological prospection, Austrian startup Geoprospectors aims to improve the world of agriculture and precision farming. 

We caught up with Matthias Nöster, a.k.a the business guy, to talk about the company’s beginnings, their game-changing concept, and the most important aspects of their entrepreneurial journey. Although it’s a high tech device, complete with a sleek web interface, Geoprospectors Topsoil Mapper isn’t of the Amazon-best-seller-gadget type. The system consists of a sensor unit that can be mounted on a tractor’s standard clutch, which can be used to map out the structure of the uppermost soil layers. Electromagnetic induction and other technologies allow visualizing and quantifying variations in soil characteristics, such as compaction, water saturation and soil composition. All of these variables can be viewed on a terminal inside the cab. The system provides real-time data that helps the farmer to determine the suitable use of his towed machinery, and thus to get better tillage outcomes. So, how did that tech gem come to life? 

Starting up Like all good tech stories, Geoprospectors started with some obscure experiments in a garage. A garage that belonged to geophysicist Michael Pregesbauer, one of the company’s four cofounders, who together with business consultant Matthias Nöster, geophysicist Immo Trinks and archaeologist Klaus Löcker, invented the product. 

The quartet met about five years ago, at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology in Vienna. Experimenting with near-surfaces exploration technologies in archaeological prospection, they started looking for other potential fields of application that could benefit from their method. Agriculture came up as a relatively untapped market. The team started working on the concept of the Topsoil Mapper several years ago, yet Geoprospectors only became a company in May 2014. Their business plan was thoroughly planed around several different activities: Sales of their manufactured systems, consulting and prospection services, and also as a reseller of Canadian prospection technology, which was a side business. 

The business launched with 120,000 euros received in pre-seed program from the federal bank, Austria Wirtschaftsservice  (AWS), and 75,000 euro in equity from the four cofounders. A big consulting contract brought some extra cash flow in 2015, allowing them to further develop the prototype of the system. By the end of 2015, a business angel provided additional equity into the company for the marketing of the Topsoil Mapper.

Empowering  farmers Systems using their geophysical methods, electrical conductivity of the soil and electromagnetic induction, are not new in the industry. “There are some companies out there doing this kind of measurements as well, but they have some very obvious limitations, especially in terms of applicability,” says Nöster.

These companies, he explains, rely on expert systems, which are mostly devices that can be attached to a sledge or hand-carried, often applied by geophysicists. “They collect raw data and after paying a consequent amount of money, farmers eventually get some results” he says, adding that “farmers usually let them come at specific times when their fields are not in use, so the periods over which experts can conduct research are very limited and the results not always usable.” 

Unlike other players in this field, Geoprospectors wants their user-friendly technology to be accessible to all. “We want a system that any farmer can fix on his tractor every time he goes over the field and wants to acquire real-time data, not raw data but practical maps” he says. “We want to empower end-users; we want geophysics to be for everybody, not only for experts,” he continues, elaborating on their general approach.

In the pipes For its first public presentation, the Topsoil system harvested a silver medal at Agritechnica, the world's largest trade fair for agricultural technology in the world, last November in Germany. A milestone that was their main goal for AWS funding from the very beginning, Nöster explains.

“We met the essential industry players, farmers, consultants, agricultural machinery manufacturers from all around the world,” he explains, “some talks with big tractor manufacturers made us very optimistic for the future.”

Remaining firm on its stance towards independence as company, Geoprospectors isn’t planning on partnering or exiting in the near future. Though Nöster admits that being profitable would be agreeable, he explains that the scientific innovation aspect of their project was the main reason for the creation of the company.

“We are all very much convinced by our methodology and this technology is quite new, so for us it’s about raising awareness about our system: It works, so it makes sense for farmers to benefit from it.”

However, Nöster concedes that if an opportunity to partner with a big player such as American manufacturer John Deere arises, then it would be sensible to do so, as Geoprospectors will target Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, the BENELUX countries, but also the US market in the future. 

“First we have to prove that we can market our product and then we can discuss about partnering. They know we exist so it’s already something,” he concludes with enthusiasm, mentioning they have already talked with John Deere’s CEO.

The first five Soil Mappers are expected to be released in April of this year, and will available for rent to farmers and cooperatives for feedback and adjustment. The products entry on the German market is planned for the end of this summer.

published 15 Jan 2016 by Manon Pierre