Leading a startup ‘dictates a life of agony and pain,’ but it suits CropX’s CEO
Tomer Tzach’s Netanya-based firm is a developer of sensors that let farmers gauge the conditions of their soil and irrigate and fertilize accordingly
Tomer Tzach, the CEO of CropX, which developed a system that helps farmers increase yields and save money, says with a smile that being the CEO of a startup “dictates a life of agony and pain,” but that he wouldn’t want to do anything else.
Born in Israel but raised in the US, where his father was studying for his PhD, Tzach, 46, returned to Israel for his military service and became a pilot in the air force, flying transport aircraft for seven years. He studied computer science at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and worked at Intel Corporation as a software developer for four years. He then worked at the Israeli VC fund Eurofund before deciding he wanted to be on the other side of the equation, the startup side.
He joined ViewScore, a startup in distress that he eventually turned around and sold “for not much money,” and then co-founded Clixie, a multinational e-commerce platform focusing on jewelry that he sold to a large diamond manufacturer.
CropX, founded in 2014, developed a hardware and software system that uses the power of big data, machine learning and cloud technology to boost agricultural output. The hardware part of the system is mushroom-like sensors that are installed in the ground by the farmers themselves, who are guided in their placement by CropX’s mobile app.
Once installed, the sensors automatically collect data on the soil — e.g., moisture, salinity and temperature — and send it to the cloud, which gives the farmers real-time actionable information via the app. This gives the fields a “voice,” the company says, and helps farmers set out optimal irrigation, fertilization and other plans for their fields, so they can save on water, fertilizer and energy while conserving resources and protecting the environment. The firm says it aims to become the “autopilot of the farm.”
CropX’s investors include leaders such as Finistere Ventures; Innovation Endeavors, the venture capital firm co-founded by former executive chairman of Google Eric Schmidt; GreenSoil Investments, OurCrowd and Germin8 Ventures.
Tzach drives his three children to school every morning and uses the time it takes him to get from the school to work for conference calls. He travels abroad about once a month; he has no time for the gym but loves to build things out of wood every now and then, including a climbing wall in his home and a tree house for his children.
How did you end up at CropX?
Working at the VC fund was an inflection point in my career. I got exposed to the world of innovation. I’d work till 10 p.m., and I had so much fun I would have done it for free because I got exposed to so many different technologies and entrepreneurs. After a few years I realized I wanted to be like them. So, after four years at the fund I left and joined a startup that ran out of money. I turned it around and sold it, but not for so much money.
Then I founded my own e-commerce company – it was an online diamond jewelry store which had five very good years. I sold the main brand to a diamond manufacturer and that is when I was headhunted for CropX.
The CropX product is a mix of software and hardware, and I liked that. It allowed me to transition into the real world from the virtual online world of the internet. The firm also had very well-known investors like Innovation Endeavors, Google’s Eric Schmidt’s fund, and Bosch. Investors are key in driving a company forward and that’s what drew me into the company.
How is the company doing?
The firm has raised $11 million in a Series A round and is now raising Series B.
We started selling 1.5 years ago in the US. In 2018 we started international sales, like Australia, where water is expensive. We only now started sales in Israel and Europe, in countries such as Spain and Italy.
We have done experiments in the US, backed by third parties, to prove the value of our product. We have shown that our product saves 40% of water and increases yield by 10%. You can’t manage what you don’t measure and that’s where CropX comes in. If you over-irrigate you waste water and hurt your crop — potatoes, for example, can rot if there is too much water. Over-irrigation causes plants to have weak roots.
Who are your competitors?
CropX developed a farm management platform. We provide action items and insights that originate from connecting the dots between above-ground data layers like satellite, etc. with our proprietary real-time soil data. So we complete other platforms that provide insights based solely on above-ground data. CropX essentially developed a new data layer that originates from content that no one else has.
What customers are you targeting?
Businesses. Multinationals. Fertilizer companies, seed-manufacturing companies, irrigation companies, ag-retailers who sell tools to farmers and more. We even have municipalities in the US that use our produce for water treatment facilities.
What challenges do you face?
Being a CEO in a startup is very demanding. It dictates a life of agony and pain. I work 24/7, harder than any of my friends and colleagues, but wouldn’t want anything different. The ability to make an impact is very important for me. While I worked at a VC I felt frustration at the lack of ability to truly influence a company. Being in the driver’s seat is key for me.
What does your day look like?
I wake up at 6 a.m. and when my three children are ready for school, drop them off. Then I drive some 45 minutes from my home in Zichron Yaakov to the office in Netanya. I plan work-related phone calls for my time in the car — both to work and on my way back, where I catch people in the US. Car time is efficient time for me.
I don’t have a typical day. Now I am traveling to raise money which requires extensive international travel, so I travel abroad almost once a week.
During the time I am in Israel I have external meetings with investors, shareholders and potential customers. Then I meet with employees, all which leaves me zero time for my inbox. I don’t have time for gym. I go home, put the kids to bed, and then between 9:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. I deal with emails.
What makes you mad?
Many times you meet investors who are unresponsive, or, because they are the ones that have the money, they act in a disrespectful manner. I don’t appreciate that. Investors can say no, but the process should be managed in a professional manner. Some don’t do that.
What are the main challenges you face?
Fundraising, market penetration and sales. Also our product is a mix of hardware and software, and hardware can be challenging because issues with hardware can take time to fix. But once you get it right it becomes a huge asset, a barrier to entry and a differentiator.
What advice can you give to other entrepreneurs?
Never give up. Persist.
What are your hobbies?
Snowboarding and woodcraft. For example, I built a sauna in my home, a climbing wall, and a tree house for my children.
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