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How Artificial Intelligence Can Help Feed the World

September 17, 2019, 8:42 PM UTC

Since the agricultural revolution millennia ago, farmers have worked with their hands. Now, the next agricultural revolution might work with artificial intelligence.

That’s the vision of Sara Menker, a former Wall Street trader who left her lucrative job at 29 years old to start Gro Intelligence, a software platform for agricultural data and analytics. The company harvests large amounts of data from a variety of sources—weather stations, government agencies, trade organizations, to name a few—and processes it into a “language that normalizes all of it” for companies to build predictive models around agriculture.

“One of the things we realized is that agriculture is not just four or five crops,” Menker said Tuesday at the Fortune Most Powerful Women International Summit in Toronto. “It’s tens of thousands of different crops, animals. It’s this big system that’s messy and interconnected.

“Once we stitch it together it gives us a certain amount of visibility in the world,” Menker added, saying the data collection can allow companies to forecast or predict trends that drive supply and demand of agricultural products.

The startup has raised more than $40 million in venture funding from investors including Data Collective and TPG Growth.

Menker said Gro’s platform is especially useful given how much agriculture is present throughout daily life. “There’s this very famous quote that says eating is an agricultural act. I realized living is an agricultural act, because often times you wake in the morning and you don’t appreciate you’re waking up to cotton sheets. That’s an agricultural act. You use a bar of soap that’s used some form of extracted oils from some plant that’s embedded in it. So everything we do involves it, and we don’t understand it.”

Menker said Gro works with everyone but farmers, surprisingly. Clients include seed sellers, banks, insurance companies, consumer packaged goods companies, wholesalers and retailers of fresh produce.

It’s Menker’s hope that these analytics can streamline the farming business while bringing down the cost of goods to everyday consumers. “If our goal is to drive up the productivity of farmers, if our goal is to drive down the price of food and make it more equitable,” she said, “then we must be able to price and transfer risk way more efficiently.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated Gro Intellience had raised more than $20 million. The correct figure is $40 million.