By 2050, it’s estimated that our increasingly crowded planet will require 60 per cent more food than is currently being produced. With climate change making that task more challenging, Ros Harvey GAICD is applying the Internet of Things technology to boost agricultural outputs.
As founder and managing director of The Yield, she heads up an expanding team of engineers, data scientists, agriculturalists and technologists. Together they apply artificial intelligence to on-farm data to create highly accurate microclimate predictions. User-friendly apps then help growers determine when to plant, harvest, feed, protect and irrigate, which ultimately creates agribusinesses that are more profitable and sustainable. The Yield’s technology for aquaculture is being widely used in the oyster industries of Tasmania and NSW, and the company has agricultural clients in Tasmania, NSW and South Australia. Crops assisted by The Yield include lettuce, apples and wine grapes.
From apparel to oysters and beyond
Harvey describes her professional background as “eclectic”, though a common thread runs through it: a commitment to creating public good through the innovative use of technology. In 2007, she founded the global social enterprise program Better Work. This partnership between the World Bank Group and the United Nations’ International Labour Organization aims to improve working conditions in global apparel supply chains while simultaneously boosting competitiveness. Better Work now covers two million workers across seven countries.
Harvey spent 13 years abroad before returning in 2010 to Hobart, where she’d lived from the ages of 19 to 32. She launched The Yield at the end of 2014 and the agtech solutions were first applied to oysters before the company pivoted to agriculture last year. “I went back to Australia because my son had been very sick,” she says. “I went home with a great passion for technology’s transformative power. While there weren’t a lot of apparel factories in Hobart, there was a lot of agriculture. And so The Yield was created as a result of that transition.”
Harvey says she drew on her experiences of working with some of the world’s biggest brands to attract backing from the likes of Bosch, KPMG and Microsoft, raising $6.5 million in Series A funding. Total investment in the business to date stands at $11.5 million. The Yield’s aquaculture product, Sensing+ for Aqua, was released in June 2016 and Sensing+ for Agriculture has been on the market since October 2017.
Blurring the lines
“Often people think of start-ups as young boys in sneakers who suddenly all become multimillionaires,” says Harvey. “But that’s so rare. An awful lot of hard work goes into good governance, management and execution.”
Harvey wanted to get governance right from the get-go, which is why she established a board after the first capital raise. “A board is an enormously useful tool for a start-up business.” Equally vital is creating a board of an appropriate size — a smaller board is better in the early days, she says.
Harvey is grateful for the tutelage of her business coach, Paul O’Dwyer MAICD, who follows the Gazelles methodology developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“In the early days, we purposefully blurred the lines between our board and management,” says Harvey. “Normally, you’d keep governance and management completely separate. But using the Gazelles methodology, we made the conscious decision to involve the board in a quarterly reset during the first 18 months.”
Keeping stress in check
Founders who ignore collective stress levels do so at their peril, believes Harvey.
The Yield has set its employee Net Promoter Score as a KPI — this incentivises the company to understand the impact stress has on its people. It uses Officevibe software to carry out weekly micro-surveys that take the “pulse” of its staff.
“It’s not just about managing workload,” says Harvey. “We also put a lot of effort into making sure that our behaviours reflect our values.”
In 2016, The Yield received the Australian Information Industry Association’s inaugural #TechDiversity award. The company has won others for excellence in technical design. In March, it won the Most Valuable AgriFood Tech Accelerator Program from AgFunder.
This year is set to be a big one for The Yield, with the company releasing its technology in the United States. It is also developing a global subscription model and its products are in the process of being certified in five other countries. “Our plan has always been to develop technology locally and scale it globally,” says Harvey.