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Data Sheet—Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Like many people who did not grow up on a farm, I have a romanticized image of life in agriculture—waking up to a rooster’s crow, driving around in tractors, and wiping dirt off freshly pulled carrots.

I’m not sure if roosters are still part of farm life, but I do know these days most tractors drive themselves and carrots are rarely pulled out of the ground by hand. And now that the machines have been automated, agribusiness is getting even more hands-off and high-tech. Why? You guessed it, big data.

It’s been more than two years since Monsanto paid $1.1 billion to acquire Climate Corp., a startup that used machine learning to predict the weather. Today, there is a growing cluster of other big data startups hoping to capitalize on agriculture’s cash cow (no pun intended).

Between 2013 and 2014, Silicon Valley’s appetite for agricultural and food-related startups doubled in terms of deal size, according to data from the Cleantech Group (and a recent story from my colleague Katie Fehrenbacher).

Take Farmers Business Network. The San Carlos, Calif.-based startup, which runs a network for connecting farmers to agronomic data, raised a $15 million round in May led by Google Ventures. Even more recently, Descartes Labs, a small company utilizing artificial intelligence to process satellite imagery for agricultural uses, raised a $5 million round from Chicago-based Cultivian Sandbox Ventures (the most creatively named VC firm I’ve heard of to date).

Led by serial entrepreneur Mark Johnson, Descartes is comprised of a team of scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory (yes, home of the Manhattan Project) and is actually based in Los Alamos. According to Johnson, there will be many use cases for Descartes’ technology. He decided to focus on agriculture first because of the large opportunities it represents and the obvious applications for satellite imagery. The company’s initial foray into the industry involves mapping all the wheat fields in the U.S. over the past 20 years in an effort to understand crop production with greater granularity (again, no pun intended).

“Agriculture is just one of the patterns of human life that can be seen from space,” CEO Johnson wrote in a LinkedIn post last week, announcing the company’s round of funding. “Understanding the changing world through time and space is an idea whose time is now.”

Lest you worry that farming as we know it (or as we envision it) is coming to an end, rest assured it already has. But the opportunities for startups in the agriculture space are likely just beginning.

Your regular host, Fortune assistant managing editor Adam Lashinsky, is enjoying an extended Thanksgiving break. Michal Lev-Ram is a Fortune senior writer based in Silicon Valley who writes frequently about technology.

Michal Lev-Ram


Apple Pay heads to China. The tech company is negotiating deals with the country’s state-run banks that will let Chinese accountholders tie the digital payments technology to their bank accounts, reports the Wall Street Journal. The new service could be introduced by February. As usual, no one’s talking, but the launch would dramatically expand Apple Pay’s market presence given booming iPhone sales in China. (Wall Street Journal)

Alphabet will charge ‘moonshot’ bets for corporate services. Starting next year, projects such as Google Life Sciences and Google X will be accountable for justifying technology services, marketing expenses, and recruiting costs, reports the Wall Street Journal. This isn’t unexpected: it’s one big reason the umbrella Alphabet organization was created. But it puts pressure on these groups to prove they can pay for themselves. (Wall Street Journal)

Dell scrambles to fix unintended security flaw. The vulnerability, found on some of its notebook and desktop computers, comes in the form of a digital certificate that makes it possible for hackers to hijack an Internet connection and lead someone to an insecure Web site. Dell is removing the certificate from new machines and helping existing owners eliminate it on their own. (Fortune)

Microsoft loses ground on gender diversity. The software giant blames layoffs for reversing its progress: women now make up 26.8% of its workforce, compared with 29% when it last disclosed its diversity numbers in 2014. Apparently, the phone division where most of the cuts occurred (originally acquired from Nokia) was more gender-diverse than Microsoft’s workplace as a whole. On a brighter note, the company made progress along both racial and gender lines when it comes to senior management. (Computerworld)

Carl Icahn wants to shake up the Xerox board. The activist shareholder disclosed Monday that he owns a 7.1% stake in the struggling printer and copier company, second only to institutional investor Vanguard Group. CEO Ursula Burns launched a strategic review of Xerox in late October. Its shares have lost 22% of their value this year. (Reuters)

Window 10 outpaces previous adoption rates. At least half of all big companies will start using the new operating system by January 2017, thanks in large part to Microsoft’s free upgrade policy. Most big corporate migrations should be finished by 2019, predicts research firm Gartner. (eWeek)

Beware this point-of-sale security scheme. Retailers, restaurants, hotels and other businesses highly dependent on POS technology are taking proactive measures to thwart a sophisticated new malware threat. The approach relies heavily on encrypted software embedded deep into POS systems—and very difficult to detect. (New York Times)


Google: May we recommend this cloud app?

There’s a pretty simple motivation behind Google’s recent decision to endorse certain business applications—just eight out of the more than 750 existing choices found on its expansive marketplace of software built to complement Google Apps for Work.

It’s this: the growing number of small and midsize businesses want to migrate their entire technology operation to cloud applications. That requires far more than email, cloud file storage, spreadsheets, collaboration, and other productivity applications, said Rahul Sood, managing director of Google Apps for Work.

“We are picking applications that people are looking for. We are picking categories that are adjacent, where integration with Google Apps is super important,” Sood told Fortune during an interview about the company’s new “Recommended for Google Apps” program revealed in early November. Read more about the first eight apps to be blessed with a recommendation under Google’s new program.


You won’t have to pay to register your drone by Jonathan Vanian

Alibaba founder Jack Ma may be thinking about a Bezos-style media acquisition by Mathew Ingram

7 smart kitchen devices to make Thanksgiving smarter
by Stacey Higgingbotham

How video games are helping New Orleans rebuild by John Gaudiosi

Hotel apps promise to upgrade your stay by Christopher Null

European food delivery startup Deliveroo raises $100 million by Kia Kokalitcheva

Hot cloud security startup aims to win over banks by Robert Hackett

To grow, mobile operators must look beyond phones
by Stacey Higginbotham


Progress in 15-year-old mobile phone radiation case. The engineer who sued Motorola over the health risks of cellular communications technology died from his brain tumor in 2003. His lawsuit—and dozens like it—are slowing making their way through the U.S. legal system. (New York Times)

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Heather Clancy: