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UC-Davis Spins Off Irrigation Technology Start-Up

Tom Shapland

Tom Shapland (Univ of California, Davis)

19 March 2015. A graduate student in agriculture at University of California in Davis turned his research on irrigation technology into a new enterprise addressing the chronic drought conditions facing that state’s farmers. Tom Shapland started Tule Technologies Inc. in January 2014 that licensed his research measuring agricultural water use from the university.

Tule (pronounced tool-ee) provides growers with real-time measures of water use in their fields, a critical issue given California’s continuous drought conditions, now entering their fourth year. UC-Davis issued a report in July 2014 indicating that water availability is about one-third less than normal, the largest reduction the state has ever seen. The drought is estimated to cost California $22 billion in 2014, with a loss of more than 17,000 full- and part-time jobs. California’s Central Valley, one of the world’s leading agriculture regions, has been particularly hard hit.

Shapland, who received his doctorate in 2012 from UC-Davis’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, studied the turbulent exchange of energy and water vapor between crops and the atmosphere. With Davis faculty Andrew McElrone, Rick Snyder, and Kyaw Tha Paw U, Shapland designed a technology that monitors evapotranspiration in the fields, a combination of evaporation of water from the land surface and transpiration, or release of water from plant leaves. Their discoveries advanced the state of the art by making it possible to economically monitor much larger areas and provide instantaneous measurements of actual water use.

UC-Davis licensed the discoveries to Tule Technologies for commercialization. Tule, based in San Francisco, received seed funding and help with business formation at Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley incubator for high-tech start-ups. Twice a year, Y Combinator invests $120,000 in target companies and provides 3 months of training and mentoring to get the new enterprises off the ground. Tule was in one of Y Combinator’s 2014 classes.

For farmers in California today, closer monitoring of water is essential for a successful growing season. “Irrigation is the most important decision a farmer makes,” says Shapland in a university statement. “Irrigation, more than any other factor, is going to influence how much yield — how much produce — they get from their field and the quality of that produce.”

Tule leases sensors for $1, 500 each for a growing season, that can each monitor evapotranspiration in an area as large as 10 acres. The real-time water measurements provided by sensors enable growers to accurately gauge the amount of irrigation needed to replace the water lost. In addition, Tule’s system offers immediate water replacement calculations and forecasts for the upcoming week.

The company says it now has some 60 customers leasing 250 sensors, with 90 percent of the installations in California’s wine country. With new groundwater legislation in California putting more water-management demands on growers, however, Shapland expects the customer base to grow into other crops, and the company to grow with it. Tule’s current staff of 5 is now hiring software engineers at 6-figure salaries.

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