Seattle startup and U.S. universities land $3.77M USDA grant to develop AI tech for indoor farming

The Koidra team in Vietnam, where its second office is located. (Koidra Photo)

The news: Seattle-based indoor agriculture startup Koidra will share a $3.77 million research grant with Ohio State University, Rutgers University, Cornell University and the University of Arizona. The four-year grant was awarded to Ohio State University by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Koidra will lead the core of the project. The grant is unique for its academic-industry collaboration, said Koidra officials.

The tech: Founder Kenneth Tran was a principal applied scientist for Microsoft Research for more than seven years before he launched Koidra in 2020. He’s applying model-based reinforcement learning, which is a subdomain of machine learning, to the challenge of improving indoor farming. Reinforcement learning is focused on real-time decision making and optimization.

Using this technology, Koidra has twice won the international Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge, a contest held at the Netherlands’ prestigious Wageningen University & Research.

In the four-month-long contest, the Koidra team used its software to remotely adjust greenhouse parameters such as lighting, ventilation, heating, irrigation, fogging and blackout screens to grow superior heads of lettuce.

The funding: Koidra previously raised a $4.5 million seed round earlier this year. The new grant will allow the company to work with university experts to continue developing and validating of data- and model-driven decision making to improve produce growth.

Agtech is an increasingly hot space for venture capital. Last year agtech companies raised $10.9 billion worldwide in more than 900 deals, according to research from PitchBook.

The why: In its pitch to the USDA, the team noted that the U.S. has a limited pool of experienced growers and local technology in the area of controlled environment agriculture or CEA.

“CEA technology development by domestic R&D capacity in the U.S. largely lags behind,” the researchers wrote. “Historically, new technologies have been imported from the Netherlands, the world leader in CEA. This heavy dependence on overseas technologies in a rapidly expanding industry creates unbalanced accessibility and affordability.”

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Editor’s note: Story was updated to clarify the partnership between Koidra and the universities.

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