Hélène Iven: “Agriculture is at the center of politics”
Hélène Iven, the CEO and co-founder of Digit Soil, wants to make agriculture more sustainable. Her startup offers farmers a tool to analyze their soil and get customized recommendations on what fertilizer to use, how much, and when. This will help farmers use their resources more efficiently and reduce pollution. The rest of us also need to get on board, if we want to push past the years of turmoil ahead of us.
Farming is personal: it’s about the food we choose to eat. It’s also political: the war in Ukraine, for example, has increased fertilizer prices significantly. Furthermore, nitrogen fertilizers emit greenhouse gasses and pollute rivers, while phosphorus is sourced from increasingly finite mines. All this means that we, as a society, need to be more mindful of how we use fertilizers in the future, Hélène explains.
Right now, we don’t use fertilizers efficiently. Many people think that the soil in farmers’ fields is just a mass of minerals and dead bugs, but in fact it’s buzzing with life. This life is unique and changing: the selection of microbes and enzymes varies from field to field and from season to season, depending on past fertilizer use and weather conditions. Knowing how to manage such fickle material requires experience and intuition, and still the result is at best an approximation.
The ETH spin-off Digit Soil wants to change this. Their product, currently in development and planned for mass-market launch in 2024, is a soil health sensor unit coupled with a mobile app. Farmers collect a sample of their soil, place it into the sensor for analysis, and then find the results in the app, along with customized recommendations for managing the field. These recommendations are based on the measured soil composition, but also on the local weather forecast. Digit Soil uses machine learning to process all the chemical and environmental data and pair them with climate models.
Customized analysis and guidance saves money and protects the environment from excessive chemicals. Hélène says that her company’s product offers much more detailed information than what’s currently available even at laboratories. And Digit Soil promises convenience: farmers can use the analyzer onsite instead of having to send samples to a laboratory and wait for the results.
“Farmers are daily problem solvers”
Hélène is an agronomist by education, and her studies included time working on a farm. Hélène also did the legwork to get to know farmers across the country as part of her company’s market research. In her case, the legwork was very tangible: she visited farms on her bicycle. Even if the farmers were surprised by the young woman and her two wheels, they always invited her into the office and ended up having great conversations.
As a young, petite woman with an engineering degree from a top-notch university, Hélène might not be someone you expect to see at a farm. Which would reveal your bias: Hélène says she feels more at home on a farmyard than at a startup event. Farmers are very open to new ideas; these ideas just need to help them solve their real, daily problems, Hélène explains. Farmers have very little patience for snake oil.
Hélène admits farmers are often considered stubborn, but a lot of the time they simply know better, because they have already tried it all. A farm is very much like a startup, Hélène explains. The owners need to know how to grow their crops and take care of their animals, but they also need expertise in weather forecasting, sales, accounting, people management, and much more. In the end, farming is about producing food for humans, and the producers are passionate about their purpose. They are also close to nature as their daily work environment and income source. Farmers care deeply about what happens to the world around them.
“Technology is just heartless machines; we need people to save the future”
Hélène doesn’t sugarcoat her prognosis for the next ten years: she believes there will be more conflict, more poverty, more crime, more environmental damages and, as a result, more instability. She doesn't believe in an eco-revolution that will miraculously save us all. She does, however, call for optimism and action. She calls for social change.
Change is already underway, Hélène points out. Look at the biodiversity in cities gained through guerilla gardening; look at the awareness of the benefits of lower meat consumption; look at the increased popularity of locally sourced, seasonal produce. Hélène and her company work on a technological solution, but in the end it’s humans who need to make the right decisions to save the future. Hélène believes we’re moving in the right direction.
This article is partially based on this podcast episode.