Roadmap for a startup

By |  August 30, 2018 0 Comments
Drone (Photo: The Toro Co.)

Few U.S. companies have been granted a waiver by the Federal Aviation Administration to operate a drone without a pilot present. GreenSight’s pilots are in Boston. (Photo: The Toro Co.)

When you think about a tech startup, you might envision a residential house stocked with young, tech-savvy hipsters all hunched over laptops, with an accouterment of off-hours amusements dotting the periphery. Once some venture capital firm swoops in, infusing said startup with cash, the whole tableau moves to a sprawling former warehouse space elegantly retrofitted for the new economy.

But what does a golf tech startup look like? The golf industry offers precious few examples. But GreenSight Agronomics may offer our best insights to date.

Based in Boston’s Seaport District, the 3-year-old drone services and data-analysis company is, in part, just what you’d expect. Its offices at 12 Channel Street do feature a gaggle of young coders and engineers, all milling about an oversized, honest-to-goodness former warehouse space.

Led by CEO James Peverill and in the middle of its third golf season, GreenSight has steadily been adding client courses to its subscription service, whereby daily drone flights (deploying thermal-mapping cameras) deliver actionable data that enables superintendents to reduce water consumption, better task labor associated with moisture measurement and be more efficient with fungicides, pesticides and fertilizer applications. The firm’s proprietary software also interprets drone-gathered data relating to soil temperature and soil compression.

Thermal camera image (Photo: Greensight Agronomics)

The thermal camera image measures the surface temperature of the turf relative to the exact time of the mission. If the image is showing green, this is a measure of the average temperature. If the turf is warmer, the image will turn yellow, orange, and then red. If the turf is cooler, the image will begin to turn shades of blue. (Photo: Greensight Agronomics)

GreenSight drones ( fly autonomously. Data is uploaded and processed automatically using the firm’s dedicated cloud service. Client superintendents can access that data almost immediately, thereby monitoring changing turf conditions and stress levels daily. All-in drone service packages from GreenSight start at $500 per month, with lease commitments ranging from three months to 12 months.

This past winter, The Toro Co. — acting in a venture capital role — announced a strategic minority equity investment in GreenSight (terms were not disclosed). Also last winter, GreenSight secured earlier funding rounds from Kiddar Capital, Science Vest and Emerald Managers, all of which marks a sort of coming of age in the life of a tech startup. Toro’s VC investment — aside from adding an influx of working, growth-enabling capital — brings with it a sort of validation from one of the best-known brands in golf.

“We call it corporate venture capital, and we’ve found these opportunities serve to accelerate innovation and better inform the products we market for customers,” explains Nick Rhoads, Toro’s director of business development and strategic planning, who adds that the company has made several such investments in the last 10 years.

“We were attracted to GreenSight for its leadership in turf sensing. With things like Turf Guard (Toro’s wireless soil-monitoring system) and PrecisionSense (a patented system that collects data on soil moisture, volumetric water content and salinity), we’ve been very involved in this aspect of the turf market for quite a while — but these are in-ground tools. What drew us to Green Sight was the ability to do this sort of data collection remotely.

NDVI camera shot (Photo: Greensight Agronomics)

The NDVI camera measures turf reflectance of NIR to highlight variations in relative plant health on that day’s mission. (Photo: Greensight Agronomics)

“The goal for a golf course superintendent is to achieve a more efficient use of resources, be it human resources or fertilizers, pesticides, etc. GreenSight offers a tool to superintendents that complements the turf-sensing capability we already had. The background of the founders of GreenSight was also attractive. It brought validity to the technology. The cameras, the sensing package, the data analytics — it all offers actionable information to the superintendent. We were drawn to that because that’s what we are and what we do.”

In many ways, GreenSight’s growth and Toro’s investment in it are straightforward. This is how 21st Century capitalism is supposed to work.

In other ways, however, GreenSight is an anomaly — that rare tech startup in the golfing realm. But why are golf tech startups so rare?

Emerging technology, common misconceptions

Prior to forming GreenSight in 2015, Peverill worked for nine years at Aurora Flight Sciences, which contracted with the U.S. Department of Defense to develop and deploy drone-reconnaissance technologies in military locations like Afghanistan. In a sense, technology training doesn’t get any more “real world” than that, but Peverill long had his eye on consumer applications for this emerging technology.

“I wanted to build something that really changed the face of an industry,” he says. “I had a strong belief that unattended operation of aerial cameras and monitoring vehicles could do that, and that drew me. I had played around with starting a company before GreenSight. We never raised any money but I learned a lot about the space, about the VC process. It obliged me to do a lot of research about drone technology in the context of commercial markets.

In the military context, you’re talking low-volume, high-priced, very specialized applications. I was pretty convinced, as others were, that there were opportunities outside the military where this sort of capability would generally be more useful to society, to a market. I also felt that outside this highly regulated atmosphere, the technology could be way less expensive, which makes a lot more people interested in it from a commercial standpoint.”

There’s a common misconception about drones. Most unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), while technically “unmanned,” are in fact deployed and operated by a pilot on the ground who must remain within visual sight of the aircraft. “What our technology allows,” says Peverill, “is the removal of that person on the ground. We fly that vehicle and gather aerial data without anyone present.”

This sounds routine to drone operation, but it’s not. The key acronym here is BVLOS, or “beyond the visual line of sight.” Only a dozen U.S. companies have been granted a waiver by the Federal Aviation Administration to use technology enabling the operation of UAVs in this manner. GreenSight was formally granted that clearance in December 2017.

“When you get to a point where it’s unattended, and the system can operate on its own, then customers don’t spend much time on the flying. That makes it far less expensive and time consuming for clients,” Peverill says. “It really unlocks new business models and makes the company supplying the drone service that much more viable.”

In the early 2010s, Peverill was unsure as to what specific markets could best be affected by this technology and its potential. Agriculture was attractive because each crop really is its own market, he explains.

“We looked at all sorts of different crops, trying to game out what might be the best fit,” Peverill says. “That’s how we came to turf, which is one of the single biggest and best ag markets when you look at it through this lens.”

There are all manner of turf managers out there, of course. When Peverill drilled deeper and came upon golf course superintendents, the proverbial light bulb went on.

“Specifically in golf, there’s a focus on perfection that is different from other ag markets,” says Peverill. “Any faults in turf quality or performance are immediately recognized and people — golfers, members, board members — are watching very closely for those faults. In other markets, there is more margin for error and more focus on yield.”

In December, GreenSight was selected by Airbus (OTCPK:EADSY), a global leader in aeronautics, space and related services, to provide hardware, firmware and software tools for the Airbus Reliable Aircraft Connectivity Demonstrator, a flexible new radio architecture designed to improve passengers’ onboard experience and support efforts to implement more autonomous commercial aircraft. The technology also will support future capabilities in formation-flight, urban air mobility and the digitization of maintenance and flight-operations support services.

“The aviation community is very risk averse, too. Because, you know, you can’t have any slip-ups when you’re flying people around,” Peverill says. “I think there’s an analog there — with turf management in the golf sphere. It’s not life and death, but superintendents don’t have that margin for error, either.

“Superintendents are very interesting case studies. They deal with time constraints. They are sensitive to adding anything to the mix that might reduce efficiencies. They do the accounting, all the labor allocation, the hiring and firing, the budget planning. It’s like a mini company within the golf course organization — but it’s not their company! So they are very crunched for time, obsessed with perfection when it comes to course presentation, and a bit risk averse.

“Basically, this was a very promising group of potential customers for us… Yes, there’s a barrier to entry, but if it helps them deliver perfection with more accuracy? They immediately see the value.”

Art meets science

The rest, as they say, is history. The hard work of coding and programming the flight capabilities of a golf-specific drone — to rise (unattended) from its small “garage” each morning, to fly an entire course footprint before returning to that garage — was relatively straightforward for Peverill and his team. It took longer (and several pilot programs) to determine just the right kind of cameras to transmit all the image data to company headquarters, then relay it back to client superintendents for analysis. That said, GreenSight is now flying drones at golf properties nationwide, utlizing its third-generation system.

The success of a tech startup like GreenSight does beg the larger question: Why aren’t there more like them? Here again, the psychology and work profile of the golf course superintendent are central to working theories.

“I think this is an industry where supers are very by the book, very old-school,” says Jason VanBuskirk, GreenSight’s vice president of sales and marketing and a former superintendent. “Whether they’re 24 or 74, most of the time, supers are going to do what they did before, or what their buddies have done successfully down the road. We’re very habitual creatures.

“Yes, younger guys are more tech savvy generally. They’ve grown up with cell phones and aren’t intimidated by a cloud-based system. But I’d say that a big chunk of the superintendent population is 10 to 15 years behind the curve on the technology side, which has got to have an effect on the opportunities that entrepreneurs see when they’re considering golf as a market. Adaptation to tech — tech that will better them as superintendents — is a really difficult pitch. It’s almost like we’re coming in and telling them they’re not as good as they could be.”

And does this end-user attitude tend to discourage the development of tech in golf, from startups or more established firms?

“I think this tech is largely available now,” VanBuskirk says. “If you focus hard enough, if you want to find something, it’s available. Monitoring your pump from a cell phone? Already available. Mapping your irrigation system from your phone? Already available. I think companies have done a pretty good job, to be honest, staying ahead of the curve. But supers are so nitty gritty and habitual. They should trust data more, but instead they want to go out to the 6th green, take a core, feel it and taste it.”

VanBuskirk isn’t just a former superintendent. In 2016 (alongside another former super, Stephen Ohlson), he launched his own tech start-up, Turf Cloud, a digital transformation tool aimed squarely at golf course supers. GreenSight acquired Turf Cloud late in 2017, and Ohlson came aboard as GreenSight’s vice president of products. Turf Cloud’s proprietary dashboard (Turf Dash) has three core programs:

  • CourseTrakk, a digital job board embedded right on the Turf Dash that helps supers manage and monitor ongoing labor allocations;
  • EquipTrakk, a digital log book that allows superintendents and equipment managers to keep tabs on equipment coming into the shop for routine maintenance or emergency repairs; and
  • AgTrakk, which allows supers, their assistants or any staff member to input and monitor all agricultural practices performed each day, each week, each month.

Turf Dash enables superintendents to store all this data — the actionable data every superintendent craves — in a single place, organize it, and make it accessible for analysis and deployment. As you might expect today, Turf Dash neatly integrates GreenSight’s drone-enabled data, as well. Which is to say, VanBuskirk comes at the questions of why superintendents are seen as resistant to tech (and why there may be fewer golf tech start-ups) from a pretty informed perspective.

“Look, there’s an art to growing grass. I don’t want that to ever die,” VanBuskirk says. “But supers don’t buy like typical tech customers buy, either. They make decisions based on feeling, touching and using the product. If they can’t, you’re not going to sell them. If you can’t throw down a drone for a demo and offer them total access for 30 days, you’re not going anywhere.

“It’s still a pure word-of-mouth industry. Not sure that will ever change. Normal tech customers see a cool commercial, read a review. They make the investment because they want the latest and greatest. Supers aren’t like that. Of course, tech consumers are generally after the latest for themselves, whereas supers are buying on behalf of the club. In the tech world, some company builds a site, adds a buy-now button, a PayPal option, and expects the sales to start flowing. That is never going to happen in golf.”

Toro first came across GreenSight at the Golf Industry Show in early 2017. Previously, Toro had done extensive work in turf sensing through its Center for Advanced Turf Technology, which aims to identify emerging trends and, through the application of appropriate technologies, help discover new solutions to increase productivity, conserve resources and improve growing conditions. Part of its mission is to keep an eye out for companies like GreenSight that are innovating in ways that bring value to customers.

“It’s a sort of ‘where the puck is going versus where it is today’ thing. There are large, entrenched market leaders on the product side who are innovating in effective ways. Toro is one of them,” Nick Rhoads says. “But it’s companies like GreenSight that are really innovating to help superintendents be more efficient. Acceptance has been slower. Why? Well, a lot of superintendents who’ve grown up in this industry, old and young, are very product driven with a lot of brand loyalty, which isn’t going away. Given where we are on the product side, to take it to the next level we have to think outside the box — something that isn’t your typical product.

“For superintendents, I think it’s about being more efficient, more productive with the resources you have. In today’s connected world, you do what you have to do — or you’ll be behind. With more millennials and younger people in the field, I think they’ll be more accepting of innovations like this.”

Peverill argues that, for GreenSight, the involvement of Toro effectively leverages a superintendent’s innate brand loyalty. “Supers already believe in Toro,” he says. “Yes, they’re playing a VC role here, but they have far more credibility in this marketplace that any traditional VC would have. If we’re going to try and disrupt a super’s traditional behaviors, which are very habitual — and if that habit is working with Toro — OK then. Let’s work with Toro.”

“Brand loyalty is not diminishing in golf, and word of mouth remains extremely strong in the golf course superintendent community,” Rhoads adds. “Yet I think a good product with some of their own behind it will work. GreenSight and Turf Cloud getting together is a testament to that hypothesis. We believe they’ll
be successful, and we’re excited to be involved.”

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