Last spring, as the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic triggered disruptions and demand imbalances throughout the global food supply chain, Gro Intelligence founder and CEO Sara Menker found herself worried about another crisis: a Biblical plague of locusts that had descended on Africa, threatening already stressed farming communities.
Predictive models from Gro’s agricultural intelligence platform, powered by artificial intelligence, suggested the extent of aid needed for the region was far more than what the United Nations was trying to organize. The startup, which splits its headquarters between New York and Nairobi, Kenya, stepped in to help more than 40 nonprofits, governments and others mobilize pest control resources where they were most urgently needed for containment. By January, more than 3.95 million acres of land had been protected through these combined efforts, enough to feed 21 million people for a year.
Successes such as this that give Menker confidence in humankind’s ability to find solutions to address climate change. "We have the ability to see around the corner in unprecedented ways," she said in an interview last week during the fifth annual Credit Suisse Global Women’s Financial Forum. "We have the ability to move faster, solve problems faster."
Gro Intelligence was founded in 2014 when Menker — born and raised in Ethiopia — left her job as a vice president at Morgan Stanley to turn her passion for improving food security into a solution. She self-funded the company, with the first outside backing coming from former bosses. The startup announced its $85 million Series B round in January, led by Intel Capital and Africa Internet Ventures.
Menker, part of the VERGE 21 keynote program Oct. 27, started Gro Intelligence after becoming obsessed about food security issues and the "complex interrelationships between earth’s ecology and economic outcomes." With the frenzy of corporate concern over climate action, she cautions there’s a lot of work still to be done in "untangling" the related but dissimilar goals of reducing carbon emissions and planning for climate risk. Yes, Gro Intelligence is obviously a useful platform for food and beverage companies that need to better understand the sustainability of the global food supply. But it also is being used by organizations trying to better understand broader climate risks.
As an example, Menker notes that an investment in hydropower may, on the face of it, seem a good bet. But if the power plant is planned for a region threatened by future droughts, it’s not a good investment. Corporations need to become more sophisticated about distinguishing between the two and understanding their increasingly complex relationship. "Both are equally important, but they are very different," she said.
Menker is not a techie, and she considers that perspective to be a "gift" in her role as an AI founder. From the beginning, she has prioritized hiring domain experts who have the "human intelligence" to create smarter, more ethical data models.
Gro Intelligence uses AI in two specific ways: it uses neural networks to take in data and map that knowledge; from there it builds the algorithms underlying its predictive models. She advises companies hoping to make deep use of AI to consider: "Do you have the right domain experts in-house that actually understand what this data means? That understand the biological rules that govern how a crop grows. Or that studied atmospheric science and have the ability to interpret the outcome of one lab from another lab, because that is the data that gets automated."
As of the January fund-raise, the Gro Intelligence platform integrated more than 40,000 data sets and 650 trillion data points.
Menker was previously a commodities trader. That experience helped shape her outlook as a climate tech startup founder who doesn’t represent the typical entrepreneur funded by many Silicon Valley firms. As a Black woman, with no technology experience and a team based in Kenya, Menker says some potential initial investors were skeptical. Her ability not to take that doubt personally helped her persevere, something anyone in the climate movement can probably relate to. "When you’re a trader, you win some, you lose some. There are good stretches, there are horrible stretches. You build this thick skin."
The other thing that gives Menker optimism that addressing climate change is still "solvable" is the availability of a growing array of climate tech solutions and the will of the younger generation to act. "They live life with a sense of urgency and have the will to change it," she said.