In the race to develop technological solutions to farmers’ biggest problems, the agricultural industry has long benefitted from innovators of every size. This type of transformation takes a village. From the traditional manufacturing giants with well-known brands and big budgets to the scrappy startups that disrupt the industry’s expectations and challenge the pace of innovation, there’s a place for everyone in the effort to help farmers thrive.
Some of the industry’s greatest successes have come from strategic partnerships that offer the best of both worlds. Raven Industries has experienced this success firsthand. As a company that bridges the gap between its affiliations with startups and its relationships with larger original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), Raven Industries has been both the established leader and the partner looking to scale. Nick Langerock, Raven Industries’ Global Product Marketing Leader, explains how these experiences can work to make the industry stronger overall.
“I think both types of companies are needed to advance the industry and get it where it needs to go because each has different tactics to bring products and solutions to market,” says Langerock, who grew up on a farm in rural South Dakota and witnessed firsthand the ways the industry has grown and changed over time. “Startups typically have aggressive approaches to solve very specific solutions in very specific markets. They often deliver value in areas that have been overlooked or have not been prioritized by others in the industry. They are very focused on solving a specific customer problem and bring a solution to that underserved niche market.”
On the other side, OEMs are experts in advancing and scaling technologies. Langerock uses harvest as an example. A farmer approaches the harvest season differently across North America, and very differently in regions throughout South America, Europe and the rest of the world. OEMs, Langerock says, can help identify opportunities to bring commercially viable harvesting solutions to more places and expand the product’s functionality to meet more people’s needs. When both sides collaborate, solutions often get to market faster.
In another scenario, companies may encounter specialized technologies from multiple startups and integrate them into one powerful technology or solution. This was the case when Raven Industries began working with DOT Technology Corp. and SmartAg, both pioneers in autonomous solutions. Raven saw an opportunity to create a scalable autonomous tech stack that could be adapted to multiple platforms, and acquired both companies. Within 18 months, Raven was able to integrate the strengths of each partner along with their core connectivity and control technologies. This strategy took these already-advanced solutions to the next level and became the industry’s first autonomous solutions launched under the Raven Autonomy brand.
On the other side of the equation, Raven Industries has also played the role of the smaller company that benefits from a larger corporation’s investment. CNH Industrial, a multinational equipment and services company, completed its acquisition of Raven Industries in late November 2021. Langerock says the change in ownership has been incredibly positive.
“They've really allowed us to be Raven,” he says. “CNHi wants to utilize the technologies that we have as a Raven organization, but they also know that we must continue to operate independently for us to be successful going forward. The part that has been just phenomenal for Raven is that they have really given us the ability to scale our vision and bring solutions to markets we weren’t in before.”
“Raven has been very fortunate to be a company that has been growing over the years, but CNH Industrial provided that next-level investment that we wouldn’t have made internally,” Langerock continues. “Now, as a part of CNH Industrial, we’re able to go out and attract the masses of engineers that we need to solve these other problems. It allows us to bring in some of the core dependencies of the technology that we were relying on externally before. Now, we can develop them internally. So, joining CNH Industrial will allow us to scale our depth and breadth of products.”
While Raven Industries has had success collaborating with different companies, not every partnership is likely to be a seamless experience. One thing Langerock believes companies should pay attention to when attempting to collaborate is how best to leverage each side’s strengths.
“The biggest challenge is distraction,” he says. “There is a lot of content out there that feed this. As a technology company, we have a vision, and we are trying toachieve certain results. When you have startups in the marketplace working on these niche functions, is that a distraction? Are you allowing it to be a distraction? Or are you using that to help bridge the gap and better understand what our customers want in that specific application? I think we’re all still trying to understand how best to leverage one another.”
Langerock notes that choosing the right partners can be a tricky balance. Not all startups want to be built up and sold off, he says. Some would prefer to become their own organizations and use a partner’s investment to further advance their existing technologies.
“Our focus is on finding the right partners who bring the right technologies to our customers in the right way,” Langerock says. “We need to understand which technologies are going to be viable in the future. There are a lot of untold stories that we just don't know yet. For example, in autonomy, there are a lot of different ways to attack weed pressure. There's mechanical, electrification, chemicals to name a few.. And I’m not saying that there's going to be just one winner, but how does that all fold in to be part of a portfolio that our customers can understand and use? We don’t want to confuse the marketplace. Instead, we need to educate the marketplace together.”
Langerock believes that the greatest successes will come from continuing to keep the farmer top of mind. The industry is certainly making progress, but there’s more work to be done.
“Our customers can’t afford to buy everything, so how do we invest in our technologies collectively to offer solutions that are good for them?” Langerock asks. “I think that’s our biggest challenge, and I don’t know if we have it figured out yet. There’s a lot of research and development going on to solve a lot of different problems, and the industry has a couple of years to figure out how to work together to ensure we’re not just competing with one another but are collectively working toward creating value for our customers.”
Langerock says one of the best ways to achieve this goal is to bring farmers to the table and invite them to join the conversation. After all, the farmers are the true experts of what they need. It becomes the industry’s job to let them know what’s available and what’s coming down the pike.
“I continue to advocate for our customers to lean in and learn as much as they can about what’s out there today because honestly, we have extremely smart people in the organizations across the industry that are developing these technologies, but we really need our customer’s perspective,” Langerock says. “The more our customers know about all the different opportunities, the more guidance that they can provide to our organizations to develop the solutions they need to be more productive and responsible. Keeping our customers close will benefit all of us, and by doing that, I think we will continue to unlock value together for years to come.”
Pictures @Raven Industries