‘Decision ag’ startup Laconik wins $383K Accelerating Commercialisation grant

Updated: May 22, 2019

Charlie Gunningham | Startup News

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Darren Hughes and Wayne Pluske are perhaps the most determined co-founders you are ever likely to meet. After meeting 120 potential investors, they have now secured investment and matched it with a government grant …

As many of us appreciate (and experience), finding the right investor in your early stage tech project in Western Australia can be especially hard. WA is a state more used to investing in mines, commercial property and ASX companies.

A good dose of self-belief, persistence and conviction can serve founders well, and in the CERI-based agtech startup Laconik, the founders have shown this in spades.

In my job for the federal government’s Accelerating Commercialisation program, I get to meet many entrepreneurs and innovators, often several a day. Rarely do I meet people with the resolute approach of Laconik’s two co-founders Darren Hughes and Wayne Pluske, and that’s also why I’m very glad they won the recent backing of the program I work for, and also landed the support of a Singaporean VC firm.

“Raising capital was difficult but we have a clear purpose at Laconik, ‘to create smart solutions to improve fertiliser decisions globally’, and that kept us motivated,” Darren Hughes told Startup News. “My advice for any founder of an early stage startup is to adopt a growth mindset, apply grit and just keep going. As H. Jackson Brown said: ‘Never give up on what you really want to do. The person with big dreams is more powerful than the person with all the facts’.” Darren Hughes

Not only is their funding story noteworthy, so is their tech and the massive customer problem they are attacking.

The One Lever

The 25,000 broad acre farms in Australia (wheat, barley, canola) are very much at the whims of the weather as to how much yield (and hence revenue) their crops will return each year.

There’s not much the farmer can do to influence yield once the crops are in the ground. They have one lever to pull that can increase margins, and they can pull it maybe once or twice a year. And that lever is nitrogen fertiliser, or ‘N’.

N does not come cheap. It can add up to 20% of a typical wheat farmer’s costs, and getting the ‘N decision’ right is big business.

The typical Aussie wheat farm is 5,000 hectares or so, and current practice is to take site-specific soil or plant samples which take too long to turnaround and then need to be somehow extrapolated to the rest of the paddock and farm.

Otherwise, the farmer mainly uses past experience, gut feel and a bit of pure guesswork to determine how much N to spread.

Moreover, most farmers spread the same amount of N across all their paddocks. If they hit the perfect amount for any part of their farm, it is more through luck than judgement. As they say, a broken clock is correct twice a day.

Invariably, farmers will either put on too much (costly waste of input) or too little (costly loss of revenue), and they won’t be taking into account known yield variations around a paddock.

Darren and Wayne outside their CERI offices in Nedlands

Coiled Spring

Laconik provides a way of combining years of yield data from farmers’ own paddocks with rainfall data and crop responsiveness to N to determine what each 0.1 hectare piece of the paddock actually needs.

Most farms these days are equipped with sprayers and top dressers that can vary N rates. They just haven’t had the wherewith-all to use this concept until now.

“There are tremendous opportunities in agriculture and having the support of the Australian Government and a global VC is a testament to this,” Wayne Pluske told Startup News. “The grant will allow Laconik to evaluate and refine the technology for the Australian market with full commercial release in 2020. Australia grows 20 million hectares of wheat, barley and canola every year. Globally, 300 million hectares of wheat, barley and canola are grown, plus 200 million hectares of corn which the technology could be used on.” Wayne Pluske

Based in CERI in Nedlands, Darren and Wayne have decades of experience in the industry. Darren is a fourth generation WA farmer, has worked in startups before, held technical positions and GM roles in the grain growers industry. Wayne has 25 years’ experience providing advice to farmers on fertiliser use, has developed many of the fertiliser recommendation methods currently in use, been an owner and MD of agribusinesses and an independent consultant.

Last year, their tech was trialled across various paddocks and showed an amazing 20x return for the farmer (as in $1 invested in the Laconik product brought the farmer an extra $20 profit).

Laconik has also snared some highly effective advisors and with a serious backer behind them, plus the government grant, are looking to commercialise their invention over the coming year.

The upcoming season will see their technology trialled over 20 sites around the country. If these trials go well, Laconik’s can-do attitude and grit should ensure this startup is on its way.

Laconik was the only WA grantee of the recent tranche of 15 winners across the country. Over the past 18 months, nine WA companies have won a collective $4.6M worth of matched Accelerating Commercialisation grants, meaning over $9M has been invested. The full list of 390 grantees can be accessed here.

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