Ag Drone Maker Adds Staff, Raises $1M

An Oregon BEST Success Story

A year ago, Oregon BEST and the Portland Development Commission invested $150,000 in a fledgling Oregon startup that was designing a fixed-wing drone for use in agriculture and forestry. The funding supported a collaboration with researchers at Oregon State University to test the technology and help speed commercialization.

Today, HoneyComb Corp. has grown from its three founders to 17 full-time employees. The startup has also raised $1 million in funding and attracted the attention of John Deere and Case-New Holland dealerships across the country that are interested in distributing the autonomous, airborne technology that can save farmers time, money and resources.

"Two years ago, when we said we were designing drones for use in agriculture, most people thought we were crazy," said Ryan Jenson, CEO of HoneyComb. "And just last year, people were still skeptical about drones, and there wasn't much awareness about using them in agriculture. In fact, it was basically only Oregon BEST who believed in us and saw the potential early on, so kudos to them."

HoneyComb drone in case on truck tailgateBut the skepticism and lack of awareness has shifted dramatically in the past year as the agriculture sector sees the benefits of using drones to gather data on irrigation coverage, fertilizer efficacy, weed control, livestock monitoring and other agricultural issues that can consume labor and time when done using traditional methods.

President Obama recently mentioned agriculture as one of the big growth areas for drones, most farmers and growers have now heard about agricultural drones, and farm equipment dealers are interested, Jenson said.

"It's just been a complete transformation from last year," said Jenson, whose company has hired 14 people in software development, engineering, manufacturing, sales and marketing, and administration in the last year. "I wouldn't be surprised if we double in size next year, given the growing awareness and acceptance of drones, and the regulatory work being done by the FAA."

The Federal Aviation Administration is currently finalizing regulations and rulemaking that will make it much easier for companies like HoneyComb to get their technology into the air and to the marketplace.

HoneyComb agricultural drone"The FAA work is really, really encouraging, because this basically sets the stage for agriculture to be the first major growth area in the country for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs), other than the film industry," Jenson said.

HoneyComb is one of just five main UAS companies competing for the agriculture market. The others all use multi-rotor drones that can hover, but can only cover tens of acres on a single flight, compared to HoneyComb's fixed-wing technology that can photograph and collect data on more than 800 acres at a time.

"What we're developing are work tools for use on the farm," Jenson said. "Multi-rotor drones are cooler from a visual perspective, because they can hover and move around in interesting ways. But you'd have to deploy one a dozen times to cover the same amount of acreage we can in a single flight. When you're doing real work, it's often a rather boring looking kind of tool that goes out and does its thing and comes back."

The HoneyComb technology is anything but boring. It's complicated, innovative, and based on a deep understanding of agriculture and what growers and farmers and foresters need. Jenson and the company's other two founders come from ag or rural backgrounds, so they've been at ease talking to farmers starting in the early days of product development.

HoneyComb agricultural droneJenson said the Oregon BEST funding was well timed to speed early development of the technology, but it also has served as a "stamp of approval" that investors like to see.

"The Oregon BEST funding came when there was a lot of skepticism in the investment arena," Jenson said. "If you mentioned drones in general, people said, 'Okay, I get that.' But if you said drones and agriculture, it was like, 'Uh, we don't understand what that means. How do those go together?' So having an institution like Oregon BEST look at what we were proposing and say, 'We think there's something there' has really helped us with the investment community because they see that someone else believes in what we're doing."

The collaboration with Oregon State University, also allowed the company to test fly its drones in areas restricted to use by public institutions only, which gave HoneyComb an added advantage.

In addition to raising $1 million last year, the company has been contacted by a growing number John Deere and Case-New Holland dealerships across the country about setting up sales and distribution of its technology. With as many as 9,000 dealerships nationwide, the potential to grow sales is significant.

"This is why I say that at this time next year, this should be quite a story, because the distribution will be in place, the awareness will be in place, the technology will be in place, and some of the FAA regulations will be in place, so it's really a perfect story with everything coming together very fast."

It's also a story that Oregon BEST is proud to be playing a role in, helping a startup help farmers and foresters save resources like water and fertilizer and fuel. And helping create good jobs in Oregon's growing cleantech economy.