By Eric Peterson | Oct 21, 2019
Greenhouse monitoring systems
Greenberg grew up in an orchid-growing family in Northern California, so he's essentially been in R&D for iUNU his entire life. "Imagine if the only way to measure anything was with your eyes," he says. "That's how it was in our industry."
To keep a better eye on plants today, iUNU's LUNA system uses autonomous robotic cameras mounted on rails to monitor greenhouses 24/7 with AI-driven computer vision. "We built it around infrastructure," says Greenberg.
The cameras take multiple passes over every plant every day and LUNA's AI platform utilizes imagery analysis to deliver a wide range of actionable data to the grow team via a smartphone app. The system covers inventory tracking, plant health, and other variables. Greenberg says LUNA is species-agnostic and can be used by greenhouse growers of produce, flowers, and cannabis.
After moving to Seattle and attending the University of Washington, Greenberg worked for Amazon and consulted prior to iUNU. Four years of R&D later, LUNA's first greenhouse installation came in August 2017.
Greenberg describes "a lot of mistakes, a lot of learning" along the way. "It turns out one of the hardest places to put robotics is in a greenhouse with high humidity fluctuations and high temperature fluctuations, and a lot of dirt and a lot of water."
The biggest greenhouses can realize the most returns from LUNA. Greenberg points out that the largest operations can cover millions of square feet, so it's not unheard of to lose thousands of plants for one reason or another due to lack of monitoring.
While LUNA is plant-agnostic -- early adopters span 85 species -- it requires buy-in from growers. "We can grow any vertical, any type of crop well," says Greenberg. "It's more a mindset than it is a type of grower. Technology without change in process is worthless. . . . You have to want to use it."
Ultimately, he adds, it's about productivity. "It focuses your attention where it's needed most as a grower." As it's not uncommon for employees at big greenhouses to walk 10 of 15 miles in a day's work looking for problems to solve (as opposed to actually solving problems), "You want to maximize the talent."
The market and use case varies from crop to crop. "There are less tomato growers, but they're way larger," says Greenberg. "There are a lot of cannabis growers, but they're way smaller." He says horticulture is "the tweener between the cannabis fragmentation and the produce segment."
Since the launch, LUNA has been installed at greenhouses in "soon-to-be nine states," notes Greenberg. The company continually is adding capabilities to the system, including a forecasting module in 2018. "It was incredibly accurate," he says.
iUNU shares in the efficiencies and increased revenue with a unique variable pricing model. The company offers installations, but some growers opt to install LUNA on their own. "If we don't do what we say we're going to do, out customers don't have to pay us," says Greenberg. "It's all about partnering and aligning incentives."
Demand is strong, he adds, as iUNU has a four-month backlog as of late 2019. "We've been growing a lot quarter over quarter. Year over year, it's a stupid number."
Investors staked the company with $7.5 million in 2018, and Greenberg says the company has plans to pursue a Series A in 2020.
The company takes its name from the ancient Egyptian city of light (now known as Heliopolis), while the system takes itn name for the Moon in Latin. Combine the two, and you've got a 24/7, lights-out business model. "LUNA's watching day and night," muses Greenberg.
Agriculture has barely scratched the surface when it comes to tech, he adds. "There's a lot to be learned from manufacturing. To ignore that would be foolish," says Greenberg. Farmers recently "went from handwritten on tablets to handwritten on paper. Then with the advent of Xcel, it added some value, but now it's time to move entirely off papyrus and paper."
Challenges: "The company challenge is the industry challenge: getting people to be more open to change," says Greenberg. "The challenge is that education side."
Opportunities: Greenberg cites an opportunity "to give power back to the grower" at greenhouses of all sizes.
That can involve scale; low margins provide another incentive. "The larger they are, the more they're attracted to it, because of the more value they can drive to the bottom line," he notes.
He points to greenhouse "clusters" in Ohio, California, Arizona, and the Carolinas in the U.S. and Ontario and British Columbia in Canada as key target markets. "We call them 'clustomers,'" he laughs.
Despite the fragmentation, greenhouse-grown cannabis represents an intriguing opportunity for iUNU. "Growth in the industry is going to require rigor and improvement of both cost and yield," says Greenberg. "There's some margin today that probably won't exist five years from now. The ability to help them build out those processes and hone their growing protocols, that's the type of early-adopter mindset we look for in our cannabis customers."
Needs: Growth in the greenhouse industry. Greenberg says it probably accounts for less than 1 percent or less of all agriculture in the U.S., but has a lot of potential. "Increasing the GDP of the greenhouse and grow room industry is incredibly important to us," he notes.
iUNU also needs partners in the form of agronomists, consultants, and integrators. "It's a win/win/win for everybody," he says.