“Finding Triple Win Scenarios”
With a growing population and climate change, it’s more important than ever for
farmers to be able to grow as much food as possible as efficiently as possible.
Fortunately, there are startups like Hydrosat that are trying to make that job a
little easier for them. As its name implies, Hydrosat uses satellite data to
help farmers, agribusinesses, and government agencies with important insights
that can lead to more food being produced with less water while also cutting
down on electricity and climate change contributors.
Hydrosat CEO and co-founder Pieter Fossel recently joined startup coach Roland
Siebelink on the Midstage Startup Momentum Podcast. Pieter explained the
positive impact Hydrosat can potentially have on the world and a variety of
other topics about Hydrosat’s startup journey:
- How Hydrosat is able to address food security and climate change at the same time.
- The importance of solving a customer’s problem while building a product over time.
- Being able to find short-term success while maintaining a long-term vision.
- How to work with big distributors without giving up leverage.
- How Hydrosat has given both distributors and end users something new.
Roland Siebelink: Hello and welcome to the Midstage Startup Momentum
Podcast. My name is Roland Siebelink and I’m a coach, ally, and advisor to many
of the fastest-growing mid-stage startups in the world. I have today with
me, Pieter Fossel, who is the co-founder and CEO of Hydrosat.
Hello, Pieter. How are you today?
Pieter Fossel: Hi. Great, Roland. How are you?
Roland Siebelink: Very good. We’re talking across the continent here. I’m in
San Francisco today and Peter is in DC. What’s the weather like there?
Pieter Fossel: Well, it’s a beautiful spring day in DC. We get one perfect
month of weather per year and then it gets really hot. We’re in that wonderful
Roland Siebelink: And you’re choosing to spend it sitting inside doing
Pieter Fossel: That’s right. But there’s no place I’d rather be than talking
Roland Siebelink: It’s a great honor to have you, Pieter. As always, the
first question is, what does Hydrosat do? Who does it serve? And what impact are
you making in the world?
Pieter Fossel: Just real quick, upfront - Hydrosat, we are a geospatial
analytics company focused on food security, environment and agriculture. We take
satellite data temperature of the earth from satellites and provide value-added
insights to farmers, agribusiness companies, government agencies, all related to
water stress and agriculture.
Us humans, we’ve always been pretty good at figuring things out, mostly by trial
and error. And there was some really smart group of people in Mesopotamia about
8,000 years ago that figured out if you harness water to cultivate crops, you
could actually grow food, and you could stay in one place, and you didn’t have
to move around following wildlife - this hunter-gatherer societies that we had
Irrigation entered the scene in human history about 8,000 years ago.
Unfortunately, there were no podcasts back then. We were probably writing on
stone tablets, but some anthropologists will call me foul on that one. We don’t
have those early entrepreneurs - those early irrigation entrepreneurs - on
record. But what they did was extraordinary, and it changed the course of human
history and those impacts are being felt reverberating today for all of us
because what it allowed us to do as a species was settle from villages into
towns and grow cities, all because we were able to produce more food, a surplus
of food on a more limited amount of land by harnessing water, by harnessing
And we fast forward to today, we’re left as a society - we’re much bigger now, 8
billion people is the population of the planet and growing quite rapidly. But we
have the same amount of land on earth as we did 8,000 years ago. We have the
same amount of fresh water as we did 8,000 years ago. But we have 8 billion
people to feed. And so, the same problem persists today as it did then, which is
how can we grow more food more efficiently? How can we grow more food on the
same amount of land given our freshwater resources?
And that’s a big challenge. It’s one of the biggest challenges of the 21st
century. It’s a fundamental enabler for growth. And it intersects with one of
the other biggest challenges of the 21st century, which is climate change.
Because the supply of fresh water and arable land is under threat from extreme
weather events such as drought, major storm systems that are having a bigger
impact and a more frequent impact than they ever have before. We have on the
demand side, a growing population on the supply side, we have constraints around
climate change that are making this equation really tough to solve. What we are
doing - in a very small but we hope to have a large impact - what we’re doing in
our own way at Hydrosat is we’re providing better information. We’re providing
better insights so that more food can be grown with less water, empowered by
How we do that is we use the temperature of the surface of the Earth. We measure
the surface temperature of crops, fields, and forests from space. And from there
we get the moisture content. How healthy and happy these plants are. And we use
that as the basis for our field management insights that we deliver to growers
to help empower them with the best possible information to grow more food with
less water. In many cases, less water means less pumping, which is a big
And it turns out, around the world, most pumps in agriculture and most center
pivot irrigation systems are often run on diesel generators. Less water means
less electricity and less electricity means less diesel fuel, which is a major
cost driver in a lot of places for food production and obviously also a
contributor to climate change. With better data, we’re helping farmers to make
better decisions about their food production. And it’s really those decisions
that add up over millions of hectares across the world into a big impact and
also a big market opportunity for Hydrosat.
Roland Siebelink: Excellent. Okay. Let’s move back a little bit into the
history of just the company now. What made you guys start Hydrosat? What was
your context? Were you educated in this field? Was this a family thing? How did
you land in this?
Pieter Fossel: That’s a great question. Every founder has their own journey.
I’d always been interested in water issues. I spent a lot of time growing up in
the western United States, in the Rockies. This is an area without a lot of
fresh water to put it quite simply. When you are driving around, on both sides
of the road, you’re going to see fields with center pivot irrigation systems
growing hay or alfalfa or potatoes. But without irrigation, there’s no food
production, not at scale. That was always just part of the landscape when I was
I went to school in Washington DC. Washington DC is a major hub for aerospace
for probably pretty obvious reasons - NASA’s here, the Pentagon is based down
the road. And that added the sat to the hydro. I spent several years working in
management consulting for space companies, for companies that built launch
vehicles, that built satellites, that did remote sensing and earth observation
work. That’s the field that Hydrosat was really born out of.
One of our clients was NASA. My co-founder and I were at NASA and we were
talking to the engineer that developed this thermal infrared sensor that went on
NASA’s Landsat satellite. This is a $850 million satellite - really exquisite,
very impressive, capable piece of human engineering that NASA put up. And it’s
still one of the best sources of data available to us when we’re looking at the
environment, when we’re looking at water stress in the environment, it comes
from this NASA system.
What the engineer showed us - he did a demo in the lab for us - he had one of
these sensors in the lab and there were two house plants, and they both were
identical. These are the kind of plants that your grandma might have. And they
looked the same to me. They’re both green, they’ve got leaves, it all checks
out. But we could look at the screen and see what the thermal camera is seeing.
And you could see that these plants were not the same at all. One was nice and
cool and so it had this blue color to it. And the other one had all these red
and yellow splotches all over it because it was significantly hotter. And it
turns out that that was the plant that he had not been watering and the other
plant he had been taking really good care of.
These two plants that look identical to you and I from the naked eye are having
a completely different life experience. And as a result, they’re going to have a
completely different trajectory in their growth. But you can’t tell the
difference unless you look at their temperature. And so, that was a real a-ha
moment for us, for my co-founder, Royce and I. We said, “Okay, great.” NASA’s
got this great satellite, almost a billion dollars. There’s only a couple of
them. They only pass over every spot on earth once, twice a month at best. What
if we took this same sensor, put it on a fleet of commercial, small satellite
platforms, and got the same data that NASA’s getting but in higher resolution
every single day. What kind of impact could we have for farmers, for
agribusinesses, for insurance companies? And what kind of impact could we have
for government users too? All of the groups that really care about water stress
and agriculture care about irrigation, care about food security. Some of these
really, really big issues that are issues for society but also have a huge
economic impact as well.
Roland Siebelink: How far is the product along? It’s clear the vision is
really compelling. Are you in the planning stage? Have you been launching this?
Is the network up and running? Have you perfected the product? Where are we at
Pieter Fossel: Great question. What we did was we realized at core we are an
information company. We’ve got satellite in the name, and yes, we are launching
satellites. We have the first two of our own satellites that are going to launch
next year on SpaceX Falcon Nine rockets.
In any event, our customers don’t care that the data comes from satellites. They
just want insights on their fields. They just want to be able to grow better. We
actually started first with a software product. At core, we’re an information
company. We built over the last couple of years a software product that we have
in the hands of commercial users, agribusiness companies, and farmers. And it
leverages all of the existing satellite data that we have access to from NASA,
from the European Space Agency, that’s processed and analyzed in a unique way to
provide insights to farmers. We’ve actually already been doing the thing without
our own satellites, which is the reverse approach of a lot of space companies
whereas, “Hey, let’s go launch our satellite and then we’ll go find customers.”
We started with the customer problem that we were looking to solve, which is
irrigation management, water stress, and agriculture. And so, we built a tool
that addressed and solved that problem. And then we’re adding our own data to
it, and that data will make it work a lot better. It will make it a lot more
scalable and will provide even more value to our customers.
If you want to build a car, you want to deliver transportation, you don’t build
a car that’s got two wheels and then build one that’s got three wheels. You
start with a skateboard. You want to get from point A to point B, give them a
skateboard, then give them a scooter, then give them a bicycle, a motorcycle,
and finally give them a car. Solve the customer’s needs, and that’s what we’ve
done with our software-first approach, which is we’ve been trying to solve the
customer problem. We’ve continuously been improving that over the last several
Roland Siebelink: And you’ve been able to attract customers already. You
mentioned that you’ve had traction with agriculture companies and farmers as
well. How have you decided on your core customer target group and has that
changed over the years?
Pieter Fossel: That’s a great question. It has changed a bit just because
every company, you have a long-term vision and you want to meet that vision.
But you don’t want to start by trying to sell to every farmer in the world.
That’s a very difficult business model. You can work up to it. We have I think a
unique go-to-market strategy there. But we actually started with government
customers. For us, they were the early adopters. Our very first customers -
paying customers - were the US government and the European Space Agency. We were
fortunate early - even before we closed our first seed round of funding - to
have these government contracts where we were providing data to the government
on these same issues -environmental monitoring, water stress, and agriculture.
They were our early customers.
Then we started working with agribusinesses. Companies that weren’t farming
directly, but they were buying potatoes from hundreds of different farms in
their region where they were sourcing. And so, they cared a lot about the farm
practices that were going on in the supply chain. That was the next phase of the
Roland Siebelink: Can you talk a little bit about how you find your
customers at this stage? It’s probably still a little bit of an early stage for
you guys. Is it primarily inbound? People showing an interest? What is the way
in which you reach your customers?
Pieter Fossel: That’s a great question. I’d say it’s a combination of
inbound. We obviously do marketing, we speak at conferences, we publish
research, and Tweets, and we go on podcasts like this. People do find us and
come and ask us about our products because it resonates with a lot of people.
Certainly, inbound leads have led to some great business opportunities. But then
also, we have a traditional B2B sales approach. In our industry, to have maximum
impact in agriculture, there’s a very known set of large multinational
agribusiness companies that touch a lot of farmers all over the world. And so,
we’ve targeted those companies. And we’ve been very fortunate to have started
working with a handful of them. And it’s those companies that have brought us to
a lot of places.
Roland Siebelink: Many founders - also the ones that have been on this
podcast - mentioned that there’s some hesitancy in their company around working
with big distributors like some of these big agribusiness companies that you
mentioned primarily because they fear being in a bad negotiation position and
having to give up all their margin to work with these folks. Can you share
something of your experience in that matter? Has that even come up yet? What is
the model to make it interesting for distributors to work with you guys?
Pieter Fossel: Absolutely. That’s a great question. I think that is probably
at play for most technology companies selling B2B or through distributors in
most places in the world. That’s certainly a dynamic that we’re all very
familiar with. What we look for are what I call triple-win scenarios, where it’s
really a win-win-win and a no-brainer for everybody. Those scenarios are where
the distributor has an opportunity to offer something their customer - to the
end customer, in this case, the farmer - that otherwise is not part of their
offering but gives them an opportunity to have more touch points with their
customer, to provide a new level of value, differentiated value to their
And that helps the distributor compete because every company that we would
conceivably work with, they have five to 10 major competitors globally. And
these are big global companies, distributors of farm equipment, distributors of
seed, of fertilizer, of crop protection. But a lot of them don’t have software
tools. They don’t have geospatial insights to offer. We’re giving them something
new that they can bring to their customers - their farm customers - that add
additional value. That’s an attractive proposition for them.
For the farm customer - the end user - they’re getting something of value
because they see the potential to increase their yield per hectare or per acre,
which is more money in their pocket. It has an ROI for them while also reducing
some of their input costs. Farming is not a high-margin business. It’s a really
tough business in a lot of places. If they see an opportunity to reduce their
electricity bill because they’re not pumping and running their pivots as much
because they’re not using as much water, and they’re having a greater harvest at
the end of the season, then that’s a win for them.
And so, what we look for are those triple win situations where Hydrosat is able
to provide our insights, our product, the partner is able to provide something
new to their end customer that adds value, and then that farmer gets a new tool
in their pocket to allow them to essentially make more money, grow more food,
have lower input costs. And all the while, our hope long-term at scale is that
this also reduces water use, reduces electricity use in agriculture, which will
ultimately be good for everybody.
Roland Siebelink: For those listeners that have made it to the end of the
podcast, thank you. Pieter, what can they help Hydrosat with? What are you
looking for in terms of help from our listeners? Looking to hire, looking for
new contacts, whatever it is. And where can they find out more?
Pieter Fossel: Yeah. Absolutely. If you’d like to join us on our mission -
whether you’d like to join our team or help us along our way to help the planet
grow more food with less water - you can find us online: Hydrosat.com or on
LinkedIn or Twitter. We’re always looking to connect with people because I think
a lot of people share our mission and I think we have a fun way of going about
it that I think a lot of your listeners might be excited about. We’d love all
the help we can get.
Roland Siebelink: Are there particular job profiles you’re looking for at
Pieter Fossel: Yeah, absolutely. We’re always looking for software
engineers, for data scientists. Increasingly for our satellite business, we’re
also looking for engineers with experience building satellite systems. But
product marketing, sales; it really is a whole company effort. We recently
announced our Series A funding round just a couple of weeks ago. All that means
is we’ve got a whole new set of challenges that we’re really excited to tackle,
and the stakes are higher, and the opportunities are greater. We’re looking to
expand the team and continue to grow.
Roland Siebelink: Is your hiring strategy primarily DC or are you also
looking for remote workers?
Pieter Fossel: Yeah, that’s a great question. We actually have two centers
of gravity. One in the US and then one in Europe. Half of our company is based
in Europe. We primarily hire in Europe, in our offices. But then also
Roland Siebelink: Where are the offices in Europe?
Pieter Fossel: The main one is in Luxembourg. But we’re also opening an
office in the Netherlands as well, which is a great agriculture center of
excellence. It’s had a lot of experience with water and irrigation, moving water
around. But in the US, we’re based in DC. We have an office in San Diego. But we
are hiring distributed as well. We’re looking for the best possible people to
join us. We have employees in Vancouver, Canada, in New Zealand, and of course,
in DC and California and Europe. We are looking for the best people, wherever
Roland Siebelink: Just be aware that if you do apply for a remote position,
they can see exactly what you’re doing with their satellites, so be careful.
Pieter Fossel: No, we just look at the plants.
Roland Siebelink: If the plants are too green, you must not be spending
enough time on work. We can keep it at that, I guess.
Okay. Awesome. Well, this was an amazing interview. Pieter Fossel, the
co-founder and CEO of Hydrosat. Thank you so much for your time.
Pieter Fossel: Great, Roland. Thank you very much. Appreciate having me on.
Roland Siebelink talks all things tech startup and bring you interviews with
tech cofounders across the world.