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SA drone startup Aerobotics launches bid to take on US market

Stephen Timm

SA aerial data-analytics startup Aerobotics has hired a US representative and plans to expand into the US market, with a team from the startup set to embark on a sales visit to the US tomorrow (3 August).

It follows the announcement the Cape Town based startup made last month that it had closed a Series-A funding round led by local bank Nedbank for an undisclosed amount (see this earlier story).

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Aerobotics co-founder James Paterson — who founded the startup in 2014 with Benji Meltzer — revealed the developments at a sales demo yesterday at Boshkloof Wine Estate near Stellenbosch.

The demo was aimed at presenting the product to wine farmers and was partly sponsored by Nedbank. About 50 people attended.

Aerobotics plans to set up a US sales office, and expand into US, South America and Europe as quickly as possible

Without revealing too much, Paterson confirmed that the startup did have plans to set up a US sales office.

The startup’s CFO Tim Willis and COO Andrew Burdock leave tomorrow (3 August) for a visit to California and Florida where they expect to meet with nut, citrus and wine farmers.

Willis also revealed to Ventureburn that the startup has hired a representative in the US, who started work two weeks ago.

‘To scale as quickly as possible’

During a presentation to farmers on Aerobotics’ Aeroview management tool that uses drones, Burdock pointed out that the startup is trying to scale as quick as possible, to take advantage of the fact that the startup has few serious competitors at present.

Explained Paterson to Ventureburn: “We’ve been expanding quite nicely into South Africa, but there’s a huge market sitting in the US, obviously and then after that also into South America and Europe”.

He added that startup also has plans to develop new products – such as identifying diseases at “leaf-level”.

Aeroview helps farmers – by way of a web-based and artificial-intelligence (AI) enabled web platform and app – to scout and find areas of their vineyards of orchards that are underperforming because of pests or other problems. The tool identifies the problem and tracks it, allowing farming to then know where to take action.

Aeroview is priced at R500 a hectare per season (with the first month offered for free), which includes three serviced drone flights per season.

Paterson said for example, when it came to a citrus orchard the service usually helps identify potential losses of R10 000 to R15 000 per hectare for farmers.

“We’re not necessarily saving them (that money). We’re showing them that they are losing that money. So then they must still do something to correct that issue,” he pointed out.

Aerobotics’ Sizwe Kunene engaging with local farmers

In four years the startup has grown from two guys (Meltzer and Paterson) in a garage, to a team of about 30 — with much of the growth having come about in the last year, in a time in which the startup clinched R8-million in funding from 4Di Capital and Savannah Fund (see this story).

The idea for the startup came about as Paterson’s family owns a farm near Clanwilliam. Today the company has signed on 500 clients in 11 countries.

While Burdock said 90% of the startup’s clients are located in South Africa, the startup also has clients in Peru, Uruguay, France, Spain, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, the US, Namibia and Kenya.

In all 20% of South African citrus farmers and 40% of the country’s macadamia nut farmers are using the startup’s Aeroview software.

While the startup focuses only on the agriculture sector – the duo at one time were also focusing on the mining sector and were involved in game counting. But Paterson and Meltzer subsequently opted to just focus on agriculture.

Explains Paterson: “We learnt that over time that as a small company to add enough value to a client, you have to focus and kind of become the best in your section… and even within agriculture we focus only on pest and disease control and not (on) irrigation necessarily. So, there is so much more to do within agriculture before we would consider other industries.”

The company also used to build its own drones, but Paterson said after the quality of off-the-shelf drones improved the startup switched to focus only on building software.

Aerobotics drone operator Saadiq Jacobs during the demo

‘Google impressed’

The startup was also part of the most recent class of Google’s six-month long Launchpad programme. In June Paterson and Meltzer were in San Francisco to attend the graduation ceremony (see this earlier story).

Paterson said Google were “quite impressed” with the AI that Aerobics uses as when it comes to AI, Google itself focuses mostly on things such as natural language processing and so forth.

“They were quite impressed and kind of gave us some advice, but nothing really anything game-changing that they could tell us on the technology side. But we learnt a lot on the running of the business and the way that they plan the technology – how they scope out projects and how they align a whole team to work on that project,” he said.

He said the startup had participated in a lot of accelerators in the past that turned out to be “a waste of time. Google Launchpad however was different, he said.

What made it different, he said, is that Google experts spent time with each participant to see how they could help them – rather than what he experienced at other programme where sessions involved listening to lectures more than anything else.

So, why then does he reckon Google runs Launchpad, what does it get out of it?

“I think the one thing is that they (Google) try to stay on top of new technologies. So they try and see what are these interesting companies doing, so that they can learn. But also they do invest in some companies that form part of the programme, but unfortunately they only invest in US and Europe (based firms),” he said.

If Google is interested, US clients are sure to be too. But it isn’t easy scaling and growing into new markets. Meltzer and Paterson will still have to keep focused — all while hurrying to deploy their technology before others angle into the market before them.

Read more: SA startup Aerobotics secures funding round from Nedbank VC fund [Updated]
Read more: How Google Launchpad helped prepare newly cash flush Aerobotics to scale
Read more: Silicon Valley bound: Aerobotics team set to jet off to US for Launchpad Accelerator
Read more: Aerobotics one of three African startups selected for Launchpad Accelerator
Read more: SA drone startup Aerobotics secures R8m in funding from 4Di, Savannah Fund

*Correction: In the initial version of this article we had Aerobotics CEO James Paterson’s surname as ‘Patterson’ when it is in fact Paterson with one ‘t’. We regret the error.

Editor’s note (8 August 2018): In a press release sent to Ventureburn on 8 August, Aerobotics founder James Paterson said the startup will attend the Florida Citrus Expo in Fort Myers which takes place on 15 and 16 August. He added that the US representative the startup has hired is Florida based business development manager, Greg Land.

Featured image: Aerobotics CEO James Paterson pictured at the sales demo yesterday (1 August) (All photos: Stephen Timm)

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