In this episode of Hardware to Save a Planet, Dylan is joined by Devon Wright, Co-Founder and CEO of Lumo, a California-based Agtech company providing an irrigation system that offers a wireless, cloud-managed water valve network, enabling growers to conserve groundwater while improving crop quality and reducing overhead costs.
Devon has a successful startup and exit behind him and is an advisor and investor in many more. He has raised just over two million as pre-seed capital for Lumo. He is a frequent speaker on entrepreneurship and tech, and has written articles on irrigation that have been featured in Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Bloomberg.
If you want to discover more about smart irrigation and conserving groundwater, check the key takeaways of this episode or the transcript below.
- 07:00 – 10:15 – The Seeds of an Idea – The idea for Lumo took seed when Devon moved from Canada, a water-surplus geography, to California, which is a water-scarce state. Devon wanted to find the most efficient way to irrigate his orchard, which began his journey of developing an automated, self-monitoring and sustained device to irrigate land at scale with minimum groundwater extraction.
- 11:30 – 15:40 – Seen and Unforeseen Challenges – The device was conceived as a series of computerized valves and pipes spread throughout the fields. The system had cloud connectivity and gave real-time visibility on system health variables like pressure in the valve and the system downstream. This would inform the user of anticipated breakdowns due to gophers chewing up the pipes and unforeseen issues where a tractor could cut the lines. With a healthy system at hand, the farmer just flicked a switch to irrigate the fields efficiently.
- 20:40 – 27:27 – Climate Change and Impact on Groundwater Reserves – Climate change impacts the sustainability of groundwater reserves. Warmer winters mean there’s less snow that would melt in summers, and river levels would go down. That means less water for domestic consumption and irrigation and hence higher groundwater extraction to meet needs. Since seventy percent of extracted groundwater is used for irrigation, a ten to twenty percent saving here would be a big step towards sustainability.
- 41:45 – 43:30 – To Have an Impact on Climate Change Start by Thinking and Acting Locally – Devon shares his insight that the road map for making visible changes lies in starting locally and, once successful, then spreading the effort to a state and national level. Too often, while addressing climate change, we try to solve the big problem first instead of breaking it up into smaller parts that can be tackled locally. The problem with trying to solve the big problem lies in minimal observable gains, which leads to effort fatigue. Sustainability pivots around reducing, reusing, and recycling. Start the sustainability cycle by reducing at a local level.
Dylan: Hello, and welcome to Hardware to save a planet. I’m excited to talk with Devon Wright, today CEO and Cofounder of Lumo, about what he and his team are doing to help the agriculture industry use water more sustainably. This is a big deal because many parts of the world are experiencing a water crisis that is only getting worse with climate change. A couple quick stats just to put that into perspective. The United Nations have predicted that by 2030, our water consumption will exceed sustainable supplies by 40%. That’s just in seven years. 70% of water used globally is for agriculture. So that kind of tells us where we need to be focused. That also means the water crisis could easily turn into a food crisis if we can’t figure out a way to produce food with less water. Of course, we also need to stop climate change itself, which is exacerbating this problem. But what Devon is doing with Lumo is giving us tools to be more resilient to the changes that are already happening. Now, what I’ve learned about Devon so far is that unlike a lot of our guests, he doesn’t necessarily have a super deep technical background or history working in climate. But he is a successful entrepreneur with diverse skills and interests, including at least farming and music. Dev and I found your album on Spotify, and maybe we’ll play a couple of clips after the edit, but I was groovin’ to it this morning. It was awesome.
Dylan: He has a lot of passion for solving problems he sees in the world, which is how Lumo came about. He’s also an advisor to other startups and a father of two young children, so he must have a crazy amount of energy. Devon, thanks a lot for taking the time out of all of that to join us on the show today. Really appreciate it.
Devon: Thank you so much for having me. Dylan, this is an awesome podcast. I appreciate you making time.
Dylan: So maybe to start, I know you sold your previous startup to Yelp in 2017, actually. I’d love to hear what led up to that and then how we get from there to this new company focused on AG tech.
Devon: Sure. Yeah. Well, you mentioned the music career thing. That was short. Reasonably short lived, but it was the inspiration for the first business.
Devon: That’s kind of how I’ve always found problems to work on and build businesses around, I guess, is just looking at problems that I have and then diving into them and seeing if I can fix them because I’m definitely not one to sit on a problem and wait for someone else to fix it. So, 2012, we had a band, me and my partners, and we were playing live shows, and we were feeling really frustrated that we couldn’t really connect with our live fans. It felt kind of weird because at the time, smartphones were coming out and Twitter and all these things were coming out, and Facebook was well on its way online. It felt like you could connect with everyone so easily, and yet you’d go to play a live show and you’d have 100 or 200 people in front of you that are fans of your music, and you were unable to really ever make a meaningful relationship. The show would end and they would just go out the door, and you’d be like, oh, you’re a business too. You’re trying to build relationships and you’re trying to market your stuff. And it just always felt like a missed opportunity. So we started to ask the question of like, well, how do we connect with these people in a room? How can we actually start to connect with people face to face, not just on social networks? How can we actually really use our mobile phones to connect with the people all around us in businesses that we’re in every day? That led to us figuring out that, well, the WiFi network was totally unutilized, and yet there were all these mobile phones in there trying to connect to WiFi. What if we just hacked the routers in the buildings where we were playing music and made it so that in order to sign on to the WiFi, a splash page would come up and you’d put in your email or your phone number to get on the WiFi? And then that would be like a lead page and splash page, almost. We hacked a little router and we would take it to all the shows we would play. It was working. We would go on the stage and tell everyone, hey, if you want to stay in touch with us, just sign on to the WiFi with your email, your phone number, and we’ll reach out. So we started to build this lead list, and it started to work to promote our shows and our music. One of the venues that we had a relationship with stopped us one day and watched what we were doing. They were like, what is this thing? When we explained it to him, he said, this is crazy. We have the very same problem. I don’t think you should sell this to bands. You guys have no money, but you could sell it to the venues, because we’re all trying to connect with our fans as well, and our customers as well. We hate that we have to pay all these online apps money to advertise to our own customers. What if we could use your tool to turn our WiFi traffic into real rich leads and engagement? So I took his advice. I also took a little money from him. It was a guy named Nav Sanga. Yeah, he was my first investor, and then he helped me build the business. And then fast forward to 2017, and we ended up selling it to Yelp. We closed something like 3500 locations or 4000 locations or something and had a good run going. And Yelp was a great partner for us to see the vision of connecting people to great local businesses and help us kind of scale it up. So it felt like a good opportunity, and we took it, and that’s how we got at least that’s how I got to California. But I’ll pause there before I can talk about what you need from there.
Dylan: No, that’s awesome. How’s the band doing?
Devon: We no longer make music, but my old band partner’s an investor in this new business, Lumo. So still but still going along, still laughing at our tunes every so often.
Dylan: Okay, nice. And have you always been entrepreneurial, or was this kind of your first foray into starting something like that?
Devon: Yeah, always. I was always the kid doing weird things at school and trying to sell it to the other kids or trading snacks at lunch, see if I can get better snacks than I started with. And I was always after something, and I loved to tinker, and I think that’s kind of followed me around.
Dylan: Cool. So selling that and that company Turnstile sold that to Yelp in 2017, that brought you to California, to the Bay Area, right?
Dylan: So what happened after that to get you to Lumo?
Devon: Yeah. Well, I forgot to mention I’m Canadian. I’m from just outside of Toronto, so I grew up there. I started the first company there. I only moved to California when I was 30, so I had no idea water was limited to anyone. Canada has so much fresh water. It’s terrible to say, but when you’re a kid, your hoses are on, your sprinklers are running, you don’t even think about it. There’s all these lakes and stuff. You just never think about it. And so it was particularly shocking to me to move to a place where there was drought, catastrophic drought, and where I actually moved out of the Bay Area within the first couple of years. And I moved into rural California, a little town called Occidental. It’s kind of on the outskirts of wine country, and we’re all groundwater. My house is groundwater, my whole community is groundwater, and we’re a little agricultural community, and the whole agriculture community uses groundwater. So it was really in my face how severe things get when groundwater is overused or when the rivers and such start getting limited. My community really felt it. I personally felt it. I have a little orchard on my property that I planted and was irrigating. And so that was my first goal, was if I’m going to have this orchard, let me try to find some tools that might help me be a better steward of the groundwater. That I have. And so I looked about in the market and I was just like, whoa, there’s not a lot. And the things that are here, it seemed reasonably limited. And so I started to tinker with like, well, could I build something that was better? I called it the Nest of irrigation at the time. I have a nest in my house and I’ve got a decently automated smart home situation. And I just started to realize, it’s funny that we have all these tools for IoT and smart homes for our homes, and yet when it comes to the most important, precious resource we have, it seemed like we were a bit behind. So yeah, I just figured, hell, I’ll dive in and see what’s out there. And that’s how at least I discovered the problem.
Dylan: Did you find other companies or people that were trying to solve the problem and just not executing well, or why do you think you weren’t able to find something that did the right thing?
Devon: Well, I think a couple of things. So I tried some of the incumbents and I think they were very expensive and very complex for setting up their controller. For the most part, the incumbents, they sell you a thing called a controller, which you’re supposed to plug your valves into and maybe a flow meter and maybe solar panel and maybe a soil sensor. And there’s a lot of wiring that needs to go on. And like, my orchard is a few hundred feet from my house. I’m not going to trench a bunch of wire into my vineyard and then try to trench wires between all my valves. They’re all distributed through the field. So it’s kind of like that model just seemed really dated, like something that you might use for your home irrigation or something like in your garden. But once you try to apply that same controller model at scale in a farmer field, it just kind of breaks down. It wasn’t very easy to use or really cost effective. And then also there just wasn’t really good. I don’t think a lot of the incumbents had very good cloud management capabilities or mobile capabilities. So there was a lot to be like I said, you have a Nest and you get used to this. Like plug it on your wall, press one button, it’s paired to your phone, all of a sudden you’re connected. Now you can see it from everywhere. The mobile app is beautiful. This whole user experience was just so modern. It felt like some of the incumbents, like, naturally those incumbents do, right, they make a lot of money selling lots of other stuff. They’re not necessarily like, hyper-focused on how do I make this legacy problem of irrigation control kind of how do I obsess about it until it’s perfect? They’re not doing that. Nothing against them either. Amazing companies. Toro, one of my favorite companies, owns URIL. They have really healthy business in a lot of other areas, maybe not necessarily focused on that. That was one part and then the other part was I kind of mentioned like there are some really good residential companies I think that are doing irrigation residential that were quite inspiring. Like I’ll call out orbit. I think they do really great work. They’ve just been acquired by Huskovarda I think is how you say the name, a big European company. But they had some really cool stuff, I think at the residential level that was a little inspirational. But again, residential is a little easier to set up IoT because you’ve got dedicated power all around the house, you’ve got WiFi all around the house. The distances we’re talking about communicating between valves might be a few hundred feet at most, maybe less than 25 to get a signal from your garage to your garden. Maybe it’s a handful of steps.
Dylan: It almost sounds like you started out just looking for something to help your kind of home orchard set up but ended up realizing there’s an opportunity for a company here. Is that right or were you looking to start a company in space?
Devon: No, that’s totally right. Yeah, for the first year of tinkering on it and it was really just a passion project of my own and I didn’t quite know that it would ever turn into a company. I had a little hunch maybe this is, but to be honest I actually at first thought I don’t want to be able to tell how many people are going to buy this thing? I didn’t realize, I don’t think I’d even really fully appreciated the zeitgeist that was changing around. Like this water thing is getting bad and we really need to fix it. And it was partly when I met all the farmers who started to realize, whoa, they feel underserved. So that’s clearly a TAM that’s large and could be useful. But I also started to learn and research more about just policy in general and from the very highest levels of government and how they are reacting to the current water environment. And there’s a lot of attention with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, for example. A lot of policy that’s really putting change, the tides of change in the air for farmers and for the AG community and for the water users in the state to really start being more thoughtful about how we’re tracking. Water use and how we’re becoming more efficient and calculated about applying water, detecting leaks and other potential issues, becoming more efficient with irrigation so that we’re not so hungry for power and emissions. I just started to realize, holy shit, this isn’t just like a bottoms up. It was getting exciting meeting all the farmers but then like tops down you think, jeez, there’s a potential here for a big wave of change around the law and around policy and around the incentives that growers have to really reinvest in their systems. I think that’s when I got really fired up and said okay, that’s what you want. I think when you want to start a business you want to know that there’s as many big forces outside of you that can come as a wave and push you along because that makes your life a lot easier if they show up. And I was starting to see those things so that was really exciting and motivated us to really go into it.
Dylan: So it’d be helpful for me to maybe just understand the problem the farmers are having. So I’m picturing a vineyard or an orchard with a bunch of irrigation lines watering all their plants and we’re talking about what your product is addressing. Is this problem of, is it mostly about unidentified leaks or can you help illustrate that?
Devon: Yeah, it’s a few things. So the first most important word I’ll call out is accountability. Valve accountability, network irrigation system accountability and what I mean by that is the valves that are out there today, the pieces of an irrigation system that are out there today. So the flow meter which gives you information on how much water you’re using and the rate at which you’re using it. The valve which allows you to turn on and off the water, the pressure sensor which allows you to sense the health of the pump and the network for potential leaks and so on. All of these tend to be very distributed and very dumb analog to some extent. They’re very simple devices and so like I said, there are some controller solutions that try to allow you to buy a bunch of those components and connect them all. But as you can already tell that becomes very challenging to do when you have to buy all the components separately so none of the vendors are accountable to one another. You have to wire them all separately, you have to calibrate them all and then you buy all this upfront and there’s no real ongoing support in my opinion, for a lot of those businesses. So what do you do? You’re kind of stuck with a bunch of remote valves and other things that are out in the field and you basically have to make sure that they work. So there’s no accountability from any of those pieces of the system to give you confidence that they’re working well. And so then what happens is as a farmer, you have two problems. One is you manually have to turn on and off your valves for the most part. So you walk around the field or drive around your fields turning on and off valves to get water running and then you gotta watch your watch and go back out 8 hours later and turn it off when the water is supposed to be done. Even if you want to automate that process. And you put a little controller on a valve and you can control it from the cloud and you say turn it on and turn off. 8 hours later you have this accountability problem because you’re afraid. What if I open the valve and I’m not there to see it? And it just so happens that a gopher has chewed through the first line in my crop of my drip line. And now because no one’s there turning the valve on, no one knows. And I just gush 100,000 gallons of water over 10 hours into my field which happens all the time. I mean this is like if you ask any farmer and you show a picture of a gopher and a picture of a drift line they’ll just laugh right away. Yes, happens all the fucking time. Like standard, right? The birds peck them, the coyotes go get them. It’s water, 110 degree weather. They’re going to find it, they’re going to chew it, tractors run it over. Like things happen all the time. This was the biggest insight when I was working as an irrigator because when I first thought about what the problem irrigators have I thought well it’s probably automation. If we can just automate everything we can help them eliminate labor and there’s an obvious ROI. But I very quickly realized no this isn’t just an automation game. These people could automate valves if that’s all they wanted. But they’re very worried about doing that and not having visibility into how those valves and how the network is performing. Because if there’s any problem they need to turn that water off and fix it. We’re talking about huge volumes of water flowing through these fields. So there’s got to be accountability. So that’s kind of where Lumo said look, what we have to do is reinvent the valve. There is no getting away from this. It makes the job much harder. But what we have to do is imagine a device that lives in the field that can not only be automated remotely but before even that can provide real time visibility into the health of the network. What is the pressure going on in that valve and in the system downstream from the valve? Is it appropriate for what you would expect or do you see high or low pressure which would mean leaks or clogs? What’s the flow rate going through that valve? Is it what you’d expect with 2000 vines down field from the valve each with one gallon emitter that has a particular theoretical flow rate you would expect. And if it’s very high, well you might have a broken line and you should turn the valve off and you should send someone to go see it. And so we realized if you really want to make farming irrigation efficient for these specialty crops using the drip irrigation systems you’re going to have to reimagine the valve. And we have to build one that has Internet connectivity, that has the appropriate sensors and that has a computer and a brain built into it so that there’s some sense of AI that you can build to detect leaks better and better and to start learning when to irrigate more, to be the most efficient with power and so on. That’s what Lumo does. Really? We are, we’re a smart valve that has grown to be something more than just a valve. It incorporates a lot of really critical components of the irrigation system and brings it to the cloud so that a farmer can manage all that remotely and feel really confident that they’re doing it in a way that’s accountable and sustainable.
Dylan: And how much water can be saved by addressing all those problems? Is it a big chunk?
Devon: I think so, yeah. I’d say it’s easiest to just, what if you could irrigate at night instead of the day. What you could do if you have automated runs with leak detection so that you can turn off the run if no one’s awake to fix it, just doing that would save 15% of water through a vapor transpiration, right? It’s 15% more efficient to irrigate at night than during the day. So that’s a real simple quick win. And what if you, instead of estimating how much water is out there, how much water comes out of a valve when you run it for 7 hours? What if you could just program exactly how much water you want to come out of the valve? If you ask a farmer that, they’re going to say yeah, that’d be great because I almost always intentionally over irrigate. Because you never know. If you’re just timing your valves, you say okay, there’s 1000 trees down the line. Each one has one gallon an hour emitter. I want six gallons on each tree, I should run it for 6 hours. But what if the lines aren’t perfect? What if there’s a problem or if it takes a while for the lines to fill, I’ll run it for seven or 8 hours and then hell, I’ll be better to a little over irrigate than under irrigate. So they all are over irrigating, probably ten to 15% intentionally. And they would tell you if I could irrigate precise amounts of volume, I would do it. That would save me water, it would save me pump time. I would love to do that. So that’s another way you could save another 10-15 percent. And then finally the obvious one is leak detection. There’s catastrophic leaks happening on farms all the time. Working as an irrigator, I think the second thing that blew my mind the most was how frequently you are seeing leaks or breaks or even sometimes catastrophic problems. Like a tractor had run over a main line that no one noticed. And you just woke up the next day and an automated valve was running for 6 hours. And you look and the tanks are empty and it’s like, holy crap, that was 50,000 or 100,000 gallons in a field. Not only is that bad for the crop, there goes a bunch of water. And if your groundwater pump is only feeding that tank 10,000 gallons a day, it could take a long time to recharge and run another irrigation. I mean, this is catastrophic potential loss. So it’s hard for me to estimate what that is. But if there’s been better research done in the residential and the industrial space, or let’s call the water utilities space, I’ve read papers that estimate as much as 30% to 40% of LA’s water is lost to leaks and utility pipes. And so could you maybe say that maybe about how much water could be lost in a very similar system of an irrigation network? Maybe? I don’t know if it’s exactly that, but it’s not zero and it’s material when the problem happens, right? Because we’re talking about a big volume. So just those three alone, I think you really can imagine some big double digit savings.
Dylan: It’d be helpful for me. I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but I don’t really understand the water problem. So I remember from kindergarten there’s a certain amount of water on the globe and no water has ever been added or removed from Earth, right? So is it just that our demand for water is increasing as population increases and we’re eating more food and that kind of thing? Or is there something happening with climate change that’s changing the distribution of water that’s exacerbating this problem? I don’t know. Do you have a perspective on that or can you help me understand that a little better?
Devon: Yeah, for sure. I will not start by saying I know the water, I understand the water thing either. It’s an incredibly complex ecosystem and there’s different ways of understanding water use. And so by no means having me answer this question. I want you to think I’m the expert on all of it. But there is increasing demand, right? So that’s obviously a big part of it. But then there’s this other component of timing. So what climate is affecting is when waters are pulled into the sky when they fall as precipitation, and then what that means for how they get stored. So, for example, in California we may have similar amounts of water year to year but if 15 million acre feet of it gets stored in snow in the Sierras and slowly melts through the summer when we need water withdrawals for growing that’s a pretty cool natural irrigation system that works really well to help balance supply and demand. It gives you this consistent flow of water throughout the season that gets pulled through, not only goes into groundwater that we can use for later years or gets pulled through water rights that people have for surface water rights into the big irrigation systems or from rivers. But if all of that precipitation gets shifted because we have a, say, a warmer winter or what have you, it doesn’t get stored as snow. It actually just melts as runoff right out of the gate. Or it just doesn’t even freeze, and it just falls on the mountain and rushes through the rivers. First off, you have flood events, and then all of that water just makes its way to the ocean on month one of the year. So 15 million acre feet doesn’t end up in the Sierras anymore, it ends up in the ocean. And now it’s got all salination, and you can’t pull it. You can’t use it for growing. And so your groundwater is depleted because the farmers start to pull on groundwater more to try to make up for the lower flows from the Sierra. The state might cut off their water rights. The junior water rights fellows will get nothing, and senior water rights might get something. But all of a sudden, people start to panic about water availability, and then they start to pull on the ground, and it just exacerbates the problem, right? Fresno, for example, shrinks when you pull too much water from it, and that permanently reduces how much water you can store in the ground. So water is a good canary in the coal mine, I’d say, unlike what’s happening when climate changes. And like you said, there are ways to increase supply. There are ways. Desalination technology is one. Pulling water from the atmosphere is another. But they tend to be very power hungry, and they’re still pretty early. And they also can’t produce anywhere near the volumes of 15 million acre feet that you could get from an appropriate snowfall that’s timed appropriately or maybe more traditionally in the Sierra. So efficiency around how we use the limited water resources we have and I’ll say the more variable water resources that we have, it makes it really important.
Dylan: I find this a lot in my conversations with people in the climate space . The best thing to do is reduce consumption, reduce the demand in the first place. It’s like recycling the whole classic, like, reduce recycle in that priority order, right? It’s a lot better to just reduce what we’re producing in the first place than get better at recycling. It sounds like the same is true here. And you’re focused on reducing, which makes a lot of sense. You wrote an article about how solving the water problem specifically can help leaders support us, kind of rally support around addressing climate change is kind of similar to what you just said. Like, it’s this very visible, immediate problem. And I thought that was really interesting. Can you explain that a little bit more?
Devon: Water gives us a chance to show people that we can make a positive impact in their community that they can see, touch and feel. And by doing so, you can energize them to get really excited about sustainability in other areas that are harder to touch and feel and harder to control completely. Because you can always point back to, like, I know it might be hard with carbon. I know it might still seem long. Out. But look, our efforts together are removing plastics from the beach. You can see it on your local beach. They’re removing groundwater pumping at a really high clip and you can see your wells and rivers refilling. You can look at your flow meter and feel that you’re actually using less power and water and you’re saving more money and you’re feeling really great about sustainability. So let’s keep rallying, let’s keep the winds going. Let’s apply that energy to things that are more difficult to wrap our hands around. So I think that my point is we need to have a bit more of a strategy around how we can motivate for the long haul people around sustainability and show wins so that we can channel that into other bigger potential issues like things like carbon management.
Dylan: Right? Yeah, that makes sense. It’s local, it’s right in front of you. It’s tangible. The results are near term, whereas sometimes climate change, carbon removal is so abstract and invisible it’s hard to kind of rally behind it. I want to make sure I understand just at least at a high level sort of your business model. So you have these smart connected valves. Is your plan to sell hardware to farmers or a service or data or what does that look like?
Devon: It’d be both. Yeah, I think both. It’s hardware and software at the moment. We sell the hardware because it costs us money to make the thing. We want the farmer to own it if they want. We’d like them to feel like they have ownership. If they don’t want to work with us in the future, they can kick us out. You can use that thing in manual mode and it’ll turn on and off and you can just use it like a valve. But we really want to earn their trust and earn their business by providing an amazing software that connects to that valve and then gives you that real time diagnostic, that real time control, so that you can do the precision irrigation. You can do the leak detection and you can do all that automation and feel really good about what that valve and that hardware has to offer. So we sell the hardware up front and then we sell an annual recurring fee that gives you a seat to control or as many seats as you want to control your valve. One time fee for the hardware and then an annual recurring fee for the valve. And each valve has its own recurring fee and obviously we reduce the fee per valve as you scale.
Dylan: I don’t know how far along you are in kind of the commercial launch, but what’s the reception been like? Are people excited about this? Are they nervous about new technology? Do you see that as a barrier?
Devon: I think they’re excited, yeah. Yeah. We feel we are early but we’ve kind of got demand for we’re only making 250 of these next year because as you know, in hardware, you want to get it right. You don’t want to have mistakes and ship 10,000 units and find a mistake or a bug and then it’s hardware, it lives in the world. You’re going to drive around and pick them all up in a truck. It can be pretty catastrophic and it’s money you’ve spent up front. So we’re trying to move slowly, partly to make sure we’re being thoughtful about how we go to market and build the best possible product, but also so that we can stay super close to the customers as they use it. This will be our second season. We did a few pilots this previous growing season, but this will be our first season with about 15 growers, some of the biggest in California really using our product. And so what a blessing to be able to if you can stay close to them and watch. These are some of the best vineyards in the world. They’re producing some of the highest dollars per ton of any agricultural product on the planet. These people, 20 years of experience in viticulture and water and irrigation management, these people know what they’re doing. So we actually want to intentionally stay small and hand pick those kinds of growers so that I can literally sit in the fields with them and watch. How do you use this valve? Okay, use the software. What are you looking for? What are you doing differently? What’s missing? So that we can just nail it. And this season is kind of putting the icing on the cake of what I think is already a really good solution. So, one, if the growers that are using it love it, they can scale it to their many thousands of other acres. But two, the feedback we get from them can rapidly be built into the product so that we know we have a world class device on our hands, which should really pay off for scale in following years. So all that to say is the demand. We’ve limited the supply intentionally. I think we could have sold more units, but the demand has been great enough that we’ve been able to get some really good growers signed up. And I think I just put out a piece of PR on LinkedIn about some of the early signups we got. Crimson came in, they were there as an IWCA Silver member. So they’re going to be piloting with us. Pine Ridge, Napa Valley. We got Sproutwood, which is just one of the most sustainable brands I’ve ever seen. You check their website if you get a chance. They’ve been leading the charge for unsustainability and AG for 30 or 40 years. Price Boheme. Like some of these folks, our limit was like, we want them to not only be really high quality, but show a very public commitment to sustainability so that we know they put their money where their mouth is. Institutionally so that we can learn from that and build that in the product. And that’s been awesome. So, yeah, we think we won’t have a problem filling up the 250 valve demand. And then, like I said, we’re going to turn off the sales hat for a little bit and just focus on learning, learning, learning, iterating, iterating, iterating and making it great. Before we go V Two and some.
Dylan: Of your early customer or is it sounds like I really have a sustainability kind of mission, but as I understand it, even if a farmer doesn’t care about climate change or the water problem, is there just sort of a financial and operational reason to adopt this too.
Devon: Totally. Actually our objective with pricing and ROI calculation was that it has to be able to pay for itself based on just labor savings and energy savings alone. Like the bottom line, you need to know that in year one, if Lumo does what it says it’s going to do, you’re saving enough labor and enough energy that you’re feeling good about this. And then the gravy is, well, think of all this great sustainability and the water that you’re saving and yeah, the data you’re collecting and the reporting that you’re getting to do and automate all that there is. So that was intentional because as you said, I think every farmer has been blowing my mind about how much they care about sustainability. And it shouldn’t blow your mind. I mean these are people who work with the Earth, so they for the most part really care about the sustainability of their soil and of their ecosystem and of their community and of their way of life. So it hasn’t been hard to get them to get fired up about the sustainability benefit and frankly to get us excited about it. But they have financial realities and they can’t just say, yeah, saving water is going to make everyone else happy. So I’m going to spend all this money and do it. It’s going to have to make the operation more efficient. So we knew that we had to make that ROI reality in our product or else we’d have a pretty tough time going to market in my opinion.
Dylan: And I know you’re very familiar with kinds of software development and building companies and things. What has been something you’ve learned about hardware development in this process that you didn’t expect?
Devon: Well, I wouldn’t say I learned this because it sounds really obvious, but I totally underestimated it and that’s that software you ship quickly because you can just like, oh whoopsies, wrong line of code, change it and it goes back to how you wanted it. Not with hardware. You have to be very committed to doing it the right way the first time. My partner, Henry Helene is the guy who taught us this. He kicks our ass because me and my partner John, there’s three of us, me, John, we’re both software guys and then Henry, who’s hardware. Hardware, hardware. Like old school hardware too. He was golden friggin like metal pipes. He was inventing metal pipes like 40 years ago, guys. He just rips us apart every time. John and I are just like, oh, we’ll just buy that ship. It’s cheap and it’ll just get us started and we’ll order 100 of those and we’ll just get it going and once it’s good, we’ll just do it again. He is always just like, that conversation ends really soon. And then he forces back to the drawing board around like, no. What is the end state? Like, who do you want to be three years from now, four years from now, five years from now? Because the choices you make today are going to start to handcuff you and put you on rails toward an outcome and you need to be clear about who you want to be and you need to invest more upfront in being right and being high quality. Because if you do that every time, you’re going to reduce your risk down the line and you’re going to get to your bigger vision faster.
Dylan: Where in the hardware are you innovating and where are you kind of as opposed to using things that are sort of off the shelf? Is there a part that’s particularly challenging about what you’re doing from a hardware perspective?
Devon: I’d say one of the big ones is just telecommunication. How do you get all these valves to be online all the time? So there’s like a meshing problem at scale and we’re talking about big scales. Like they’re not uncommon for valves to be three, four in a three acre, four acre block, another 700 or 800 ft. away from another valve. So what sorts of telemetry can you use to communicate between valves at that kind of a distance? Can you mesh them? How do you get them to sleep and wake up at cycles that are power-hung? Efficient enough that you’re able to keep the batteries alive on these things that often need eight and nine hour run cycles while still being responsive enough that if there is a problem or there is a choice being made by the farmer, they can be awake and hear the choice and solve it themselves. So there’s a lot of that stuff. It’s not that that’s particularly unique, but when you’re talking about it’s all solar powered, there’s no hard wiring. It’s all huge distances up to 1000 ft. at a time without any really solid connectivity. There’s a lot of innovation that has to happen at that level just to make sure this thing is reliable. That’s one area, I guess you’d call that like the firmware and hardware area. The other would be in what I call the wetware. Right? So that’s the valve itself, the actual valve and flow meter and pressure sensor and things that are built into the pipe, things that get wet. And that’s a fun area to innovate on. Actually, there’s little things we’ve been doing around how the device gets set up or how you could remove the electronics components very simply to make an exchange very easy should you ever need to service the device. There’s things around how we are innovating around how you would control the flow meter or the flow adjuster. On the top right, there’s some really cool UX innovations where, again, Henry’s is such a beauty, where he’s seen this a million times. He’s like, you will take for granted the littlest thing, but if you make the installer’s job a little bit easier, that can be the make or break between this thing getting in the fields and this thing being abandoned. Or if you make a tamper proof in a way that they’ve never seen before and get rid of a tiny headache that bothers every one of them, you could actually differentiate yourself on something as simple as your tamper proofness. So don’t obsess too much about the things that are just sexy, like the telemetry and the meshing, because everyone has to solve those problems and sometimes it blinders you from looking at some of the wetware stuff and get really creative around just a user experience in the field and the way that the valve handles. So, again, he’s been really helpful there and there’s been some fun innovations there that I’m excited to get out into the market.
Dylan: That’s awesome. Thinking about the future a little bit, where do you see kind of what’s the end game or sort of steady state vision for Lumo? I don’t know if it’s five or ten years out.
Devon: Yeah, well, I’m actually hoping it’s a way out because the big picture is what I see or I wouldn’t call it a steady state. I hope we never get to a steady state, but I want to get a lot of valves out there and become a standard for irrigation valves and flow meters, because I really believe in the value of the data. That might have been like I said, I think that might have been where I finally realized, like, whoa, this is a big opportunity. If we get this right, we’re not only going to be a big business that sells because we’ve sold a lot of valves and a large subscription base, we could be a big business because we might be sitting on a very unique data asset around where water is being used in the agricultural setting, which is the largest setting for water usage in the world. So what I’m saying there is like what if all of our data, what if we become ubiquitous and where every farmer could use us to trade water rights amongst themselves because our valve would be validating. How much water has been used precisely on a particular crop, which is information needed for water rights reporting and use and diversion reporting. What if we could create that record in real time and compare it to the water rights a farmer has and say, hey, Mr. Farmer, you’re on pace to only use 70% of your water rights this year. You’re going to have a 30% excess. And our other user, Mrs. Farmer down the lane, she’s like pacing to go over. She’s using a lot of water and would love to buy your excesses from you, pair them and make an exchange, making a transaction. I think there’s value in that sort of thinking. It’s like, how could we not only build the smart infrastructure to empower the farmers to be better at water efficiency at the local level, but what if that smart infrastructure could start to become connected, empowering communities to start becoming more efficient with how they’re allocating water at the macro level? That, to me, is like a very exciting problem unsolved today. And it’s holding back a lot of people from participating in the water trading world and water pricing world and building better water markets, to me, is a no brainer for building more efficient allocations of where we put that water and how we use it. And so, yeah, I think smart infrastructure has a huge role to play in that, and I want to be one of the biggest players in it. So we kind of can’t get there very fast by the nature of needing to scale, but also by the fact that it’s going to require policy change. And that just means many cycles of trying to figure out how to help influence the policy and legislative conversation to evolve the water law and the water world to maybe encourage more of that thinking. But I think it’s going in that direction. I think policymakers I’ve spoken to seem very eager to continue to innovate on water policy and they know what needs to happen, and I’d love to be a company that could play a part in that.
Dylan: Yeah, well, and it sounds like given the way you describe, kind of the current status quo of equipment and data availability and stuff, they’re probably limited in their ability to get there by what kind of data they have available.
Devon: Oh, yeah, I’ve heard estimates from people in the very high levels of making these decisions that up to 85% of all agricultural withdrawals are estimates. Estimates from satellite imagery, estimates from pump data, electricity usage, things that are totally not accurate enough to be useful for what I’m talking about in terms of market creation and really understanding who’s got surplus and who’s being good with conservation and so on. And I think they’re all hungry for it. I think that data could itself be valuable, let alone applications of the data.
Dylan: Yeah, it’s crazy, like you said, for such a valuable resource. That’s where we’re at today. A few closing questions. How optimistic or pessimistic are you about the future of our planet and why?
Devon: I like to be really optimistic. We actually almost wrote a blog post about this. We haven’t put it out yet. So I have some ideas on it, but I tend to be really optimistic. The reason is there’s many reasons. In fact, that’s why we didn’t put the post out. There’s too many reasons to be optimistic. For water, for example, we’ve done almost nothing, really, in any material way, at least in the west, to really think of a sustainable water policy, because our intention was to not have a sustainable water policy. Our intention was literally to have almost no real framework so that everyone had an incentive to move here and use up all the water and grow the crops, to attract more population, to grow the cities and grow the industries. And so it worked, right? We have the most wealth, we sit in one of the wealthiest regions of the entire planet in just 140 years. It worked to do its job. Is it still going to work going forward? Is that sustainable? Not at all. But the nice thing is we didn’t create a bunch of policies that turned us into something unsustainable. It was a lack of policies. And humans are so good at it when they finally say, like, we got a problem, let’s get together and figure it out. It’s messy and dirty and it sometimes looks like a war, but it tends to come out the other side. Quite in my opinion. We’ve been good at finding solutions when we put our minds to it. And so just looking at water, for example, you feel optimistic and you can kind of look at that with things like carbon emissions. Like we had a policy of just like drill it, burn it, grow. And it worked. I mean, it made the people of the globe the wealthiest they’ve ever been, maybe arguably the most peaceful they have ever been. There’s all sorts of problems still, but we’re making progress, we’re evolving and billions of people are being lifted out of poverty. But it’s hitting a limit now where I think people are starting to go, whoa, if we keep up with that trajectory, it’s too much. We have to make changes. So what are the new policies, the new innovations that we can make that can get us out of that? And a great one. Like a great fusion, for example, is such a great outcome where you look at that and you go like, if fusion becomes widely adopted 50 years from now, and that replaces all these fossil fuels, the story we tell ourselves about the energy journey we went on isn’t going to be like, oh, no, we’re all dead. We’re going to die. I can’t believe we had carbon, we’re going to go that was a messy, disgusting, but necessary energy choice to get to where we are now, where we have more clean energy and a really wonderful source of clean energy. And that will probably introduce new problems and we’ll have to think about it. But I see this, I kind of look at things and I think you’re making progress. It’s hard sometimes to look at the dirty beaches or the polluted cities and not think like, wow, it’s the end of the world. Like, what have we done? I just believe that we’ve got upside down.
Dylan: What’s one other company or individual addressing climate change that you’re inspired by?
Devon: Tony Fidel is the guy I chose. There’s a lot of people out there doing great work, but I think he just did so much to kind of get us started and move us along with Nest. And now to kind of turn his attention to the fund that he’s built collectively and uses a lot of energy and resources to just accelerate the community, particularly with his hardware skill. Right. Because I really believe that we cannot do this without really getting a new appreciation for hardware. We’re not going to solve the big climate issues by just writing code in the cloud. We’re going to need to reimagine infrastructure. We’re going to need to reimagine user experiences in the real world and have a fellow who’s accomplished with that level of expertise and commitment to quality that has brought us all these amazing devices, including Nest, which has itself been a driver of sustainability. Like, he’s a winner and I’m glad he’s there and I try to look up to him and stay close to what he’s writing because we need more of that. So hopefully it rubs off on me.
Dylan: Awesome. Can you share some advice for someone not working in climate tech today who wants to do something to help?Devon: Yeah, definitely. Don’t let your imposter syndrome get you because I had it. Like, why the hell am I starting Luma? Who the hell am I? I don’t know. I’m not even a farmer. I come from a water rich place. Like I said, I left my sprinklers on. Like, who the hell am I? But look, who are you to not do anything about it? Like, you live in a community you yourself consume, assuming that you live in any reasonably developed lifestyle. Like, you are consuming a lot of the resources that are creating the challenges that we live with. Do your best to put your effort into it. If you legitimately care about it and you have passion for it, bring that passion to the first and second and 10th in a millionth conversation that you have. And it’s going to people are going to see it and they’re going to say, all right, who’s this idiot who doesn’t know anything about climate but is saying that they give shit and wants to try? I’ll talk to them for 20 minutes and then you’re going to learn a little bit and you’re going to get one more introduction and it’s going to cascade and keep being humble and keep bringing up that passion and just go out and start talking to people. And sooner than later, after the 100th conversation, you’re going to be like, whoa, 20 of those people actually want to support me, either by making other introductions or maybe making investments or maybe giving you a job or whatever it is. You’ll be so surprised at the goodwill of people, because people in the climate community, the one thing they all have in common is, like, they just care about this planet and want to make an effort. And if you say that that’s how you think, you just fit in right away, and they’re going to do their best to get you a stepping stone. So, yeah, put away the imposter syndrome. Don’t listen to anyone who says, oh, you don’t know enough about it. You don’t have a fit. Get out of here. Because I don’t think that’s how this community goes. If you’re legitimately in this community, then you hear people loud and clear who express real concern and commitment, and you try to help, and they will. So just do it. Keep doing it every day, and before you know it, within a year, you’ll be where you want to be. Awesome.