Ep. 28: A Look Into TeleSense with Naeem Zafar
Have any of you figured out how to time this crazy market? No? How about knowing when your grain is physically ready to sell? That one we can figure out. In episode 28 of Precision Points, we talked with Naeem Zafar, CEO of TeleSense, about how to monitor your grain so you know when it needs to be sold. He walks us through how he has built a career out of solving problems and how TeleSense is doing just that for farmers.
Naeem uses his electrical engineering background to create companies, starting by identifying an unmet need. For farmers, managing grain comes with several potential problems. First, the world population is expected to exponentially grow, while farmland won’t see those same increases. Second, the quality of grain never improves after it is harvested. TeleSense uses sensors in the grain to help growers constantly monitor and use that data to better market their crops.
Naeem describes TeleSense as a data company that uses sensors to collect data on grain. Then, through machine learning, that data is used to make algorithms to give you insights into your post-harvest grain business. These insights prove to be valuable for both your bottom line and your safety.
“If you have a lot of moisture and store it in a hot area, you're going to have mold because grain is a living, breathing commodity. If you store corn at 20% moisture and 90 degrees Fahrenheit, you've got a week before problems will happen. So, what do you do?” Naeem asked. “You want to dry it down. But here's a problem. What used to be 1,000 pounds now is 940 pounds. You've just lost money. So, wait a minute. I don't want to lose money. So, I want to dry, but not too much. We'll have all this, this difficult question of drying, weight, value and quality metric.”
To keep it simple to use, the grower gets notifications from their app when it is time to make changes to their grain management. These are prescriptive insights based on your operations’ data, taking into consideration all of the variables that impact your post-harvest grain quality. This should help you improve your overall management, extending the life and quality of your crop, while also alerting you when it may be time to sell before you lose too much quality.
All that being said, TeleSense can also improve your overall safety. Unfortunately, people die every year in grain related accidents. Often, they are trying to manage the grain in a way the sensors could aid. TeleSense has a new product that senses the wind from your fans and can determine vital measurements like moisture, CO2 or pest detection. Technology and data such as this may eliminate the need to climb into a bin or on a pile.
It was a pleasure to talk with Naeem; he has great analogies and makes the technology very accessible. Be sure to tune into our full episode, and check out TeleSense.com for more information. I know we just got our 2021 crop planted, but now is a great time to reach out to the TeleSense team if you’re interested in learning more about their products for this harvest season.
Have you used grain sensors? Leave a review here.
Host: Morgan Seger
Guest: Naeem Zafar
Welcome to Precision Points: An Ag Tech Podcast where we plant seeds of innovation to inspire informed decisions about precision technology and its impact for growers like you. We explore precision ag tools and technology from the soil to the sky, with your host Morgan Seger.
Morgan Seger (00:21):
Welcome back to Precision Points: An ag tech podcast from precisionagreviews.com. I'm your host Morgan Seger, and in each episode, we strive to bring you unbiased ag tech information and ideas. Today on the show, I'm joined by Naeem Zafar from TeleSense. Now, TeleSense is a company that's new to me, but basically what they do is use sensors to monitor your grain to help you reduce spoilage, avoid hotspots, know when to turn on and off the fans, and also help you know when to sell.
Morgan Seger (00:53):
Naeem is a very interesting person. He is an electrical engineer, a professor, an author, and has started several different companies. And so, in this interview, we talk not only about what TeleSense is, but how to solve problems and some of the things that he's looking at when he's trying to create a new company. And then from there, we talk about all of the grain storage maintenance and then safety and how these sensors can help you be more efficient on your operation. So, I hope you enjoy this interview with Naeem.
Morgan Seger (01:25):
Welcome back to Precision Points. Today, I am joined by Naeem Zafar from TeleSense. We're just getting to meet over Zoom. Could you start us off by telling some of your background and history?
Naeem Zafar (01:37):
Sure. I'm an electrical engineer. I came to the U.S. to study electrical engineering at Brown University on the East Coast, did my graduate school at the University of Minnesota, came to Silicon Valley... This is my seventh company. So, we've built many companies, the last company was in mobile security. We sold that to Oracle.
Morgan Seger (01:57):
What draws you to an idea? Or how do you decide this will really solve a problem when you're trying to get these companies started?
Naeem Zafar (02:05):
You start by studying, is there an unmet need? Every company exists in the world to solve some unmet need, even Twitter. People wanted to express themselves, and have a easy, convenient way for people to follow. And Twitter came to exist. So, you start by identifying a unmet need and then [inaudible 00:02:28] look at enough people who need this. And third thing you look at is competitive landscape. How hard would it be for you to be unique and different and succeed? So, if you can answer those three questions, you have a shot at it. Then you look at yourself. Why us? Why now? What's unique about us that we can pursue this? So, actually, I'm a professor also at UC Berkeley, University of California, Berkeley and Northeastern. So, I teach this and I'd written books on this topic. So, this topic is close to my heart.
Morgan Seger (02:56):
That's incredible. And you really get to practice what you preach by also working with this. So, what were some of those questions or unmet needs that sparked TeleSense?
Naeem Zafar (03:08):
So, three things. One, you realize the world population is expected [inaudible 00:03:17] between now and 2015, from 7.2 billion to 9.1. The arable land where we grow food is not going up 26%. Something got to give. Number two, grain never improves in quality once harvested. It's going to go down. Three months from now, one month from now, will it get spoilage, mold, bugs? What can go wrong? So, you don't know. You get, "Hmm. Doesn't smell too moldy. Should be all right." That's what your grandfather farmer used to do. Guess fact is that, if you can get continuous data, make algorithms to give you insights into your whole post-harvest grain business, you can make better decisions. You can improve your financial outcome. So, what we're trying to do is... We're a data company. We collect data on stored grain and grain in transport, which can help you run your business better, make a little bit more profit, and waste less grain. So, this is all good for society, good for us.
Morgan Seger (04:24):
Yeah. So, you're really answering, like you said, a couple of different questions or problems they had. How exactly does TeleSense collect that data?
Naeem Zafar (04:34):
Yes. Right. So, what impacts the quality of grain? What happens is that, the temperature you store makes a huge difference. If you have a lot of moisture and storing in a hot area, you're going to have mold because grain is a living, breathing commodity. If you store corn at 20% moisture and 90 degree Fahrenheit, you've got a week before problems will happen. So, what do you do? You want to dry it down. But here's a problem. What used to be a thousand pounds now is a 940 pounds. You've just lost money. So, wait a minute. I don't want to lose money. So, I want to dry, but not too much. We'll have all this, this difficult question of drying, weight, value and quality metric. So, what we do is, we collect data on temperature, carbon dioxide, and other parameters.
Naeem Zafar (05:21):
We then give you prescriptive insights, what to do. Let's take an example. So, grain is sitting there and you have fan running to push the air through the bins. But the forecast it's going to rain for the next two days. Should you keep running the fan? That's not good. When do you turn them off? When do you turn them back on? Well, that depends on a bunch of factors. What's the the moisture of the grain inside and moisture of the... We make those decisions for the farmer, for the grower, based on whole bunch of data we collecting on the weather station, what's inside the grain, and telling you what to do. So, what the farmer wants to get is a text message. Turn on the fan on bin number 17 for eight hours, starting at midnight. He can deal with that. That's what is specific, because we have done all the thinking.
Morgan Seger (06:08):
And I like how it's... You don't need the feedback. There's science behind, what is the best environment and how is that environment impacted? I know a lot of what we do in agriculture is like, "Well, depending on your soil type or depending on your type of equipment..." It changes our recommendations, where this seems a little bit more scientific and straightforward. But we still have that element-
Naeem Zafar (06:30):
[crosstalk 00:06:30] That's right. I'm going to-
Morgan Seger (06:31):
... of storage. I was wondering if you could kind of talk us through what type of storage your equipment works in or how that impacts the data that you're collecting?
Naeem Zafar (06:43):
Absolutely. I will, but then let me just even state one thing before that answer. So, if you look, I can oversimplify, there are three buckets. The first bucket is what to plant, what's in the nitrogen [inaudible 00:06:58], how's the soil quality, what would work where... So, agronomist is trying to figure that out. We don't do that. The second bucket is... I plant it. How do I maximize my yield and reduce the disease and all that's to do with that? The third bucket is, after I've harvested, how do I maximize the value of that grain post harvest? That's what we do. So, [inaudible 00:07:22] it's a $13 billion problem in the modern world. Worldwide it's $71 billion problem, huge problem. The spoilage rates can be as little as half a percent in Europe, but it could be as much as 14% in Brazil, 22% in Africa, 30% in India.
Naeem Zafar (07:40):
So, there's are a lot of spoilage that happens and forms mold. You end up blending it out. That's why so many people have various food allergies, because thats what's being fed to them. So, how do we do that? We [inaudible 00:07:54] temperature, moisture and carbon dioxide sensors in the bins. And they wirelessly send the data using wireless technology. So, it's very simple. We have a spear. The spear has multiple sensors in the shaft. There's a ball which has all the electronic. You stick it in, in a barge, in a ground pile. So, once we have data from multiple sensors. Then in the analytics software, we can make sense out of it and tell you what could be happening, when it could happen, what not to do. So, that's why we're dealing with... Grain transport in vertical silos, we have product for that. We have a product for ground piles, the spears. We have a product for silo bags, which are one time use tubes. Could be a football... We have a product for barges or rail cars. So, these are all different use cases of storing and transporting grain. And we have a product for each one of those use cases. Cargill and ADM and CHS in GrainCorp are using this product today. So, we have over 10,000 sensors deployed with 400 customers today.
Morgan Seger (09:04):
Yeah, I noticed on some of the materials you have put out, it says that this helps you make better grain selling decisions. How does the data you're collecting impact when people should sell?
Naeem Zafar (09:17):
So, look at the quality of your ground pile or quality of your bin and we... With machine learning, we begin to realize what rate of deterioration is happening, what is the... So, then we can begin to predict, with the machine learning model, how many days before it goes from number two yellow corn to number three yellow corn. And then when you take it out, we check what are slightly off. We keep improving the algorithms. So, over some time with machine learning, algorithm gets smarter and smarter. So, by observing the current condition-
Morgan Seger (09:50):
Okay. So, when you are at grain storage, through traditional... In a bin or in a pile, I'm guessing you're measuring the same things. Does that change when you're looking at the transportation period?
Naeem Zafar (10:05):
Short answer is no... what matters quality the grain is the moisture level and the temperature. Because what happens is, if there is a biological activity starts some part of the grain [inaudible 00:10:20] warmer and warmer and hotter and hotter and bigger and bigger, could be combustion. So, you hear about the fires in the silos and other places or... So, that's the problem you're trying to prevent in addition to predicting the quality, when the best time to sell it. If you knew, take a stupid example, that something in your fridge is going to be bad after six days, you'll make a decision to eat it or sell it or do something. But sometime you don't know, and you go to fridge like, "What the heck." That's what we do. We predict when it'll go bad so you can eat it-
Morgan Seger (10:58):
There you go-
Naeem Zafar (10:58):
... or sell it.
Morgan Seger (10:59):
That makes lot of sense. Now, when you were talking about machine learning, how big is that network that you're pulling off of, and do different geographies, where you have these sensors, all impact the way that that device kind of learns and predicts the future of that grain?
Naeem Zafar (11:16):
So, the models get more and more sophisticated, and it learns about different regions, different grain types, given storage conditions, and all of them get factored in. So, in the beginning you're saying okay... Going back to the fridge example, I'm putting in milk when it's going to be not so good. But then you begin to realize, "Well, what else is in the fridge? The fridge [inaudible 00:11:39] is mostly empty. Those other conditions begin to have a impact also, how that milk will be stored. So, we apply the same concept to grain. So, there are multiple as you get sort of [inaudible 00:11:53] factors have to be... For example, how many broken kernels do you have? 1%, half a percent... That will tell you how much spoilage can you expect. Who knew... Other foreign odd material in the grain when you stored it... All have a different impact on the quality of the grain. So, as algorithm gets sophisticated [crosstalk 00:12:16]-
Morgan Seger (12:15):
Yep. That makes a lot of sense. One thing that I saw you talking about on Facebook the other day, and I think is really important for a lot of our listeners is around bin safety. What is TeleSense doing that helps improve bin safety for growers?
Naeem Zafar (12:32):
Bin safety is a very important point farmers die every year. A lot of time, this happens because they have to climb on a grain pile or in a grain bin to break up the crud. So, our point is this, [inaudible 00:12:48] it's telling you the data. You don't have to climb and jeopardize yourself. So, one of the new product we have is, as fans are pushing the air through the grain mass, we listen to the wind. I think there was a Bob Dylan song like that. So, you listen to the wind, the air coming out of the grain mass, because it carries information with it. It will tell you how much moisture there was, how much CO2... If there was a pest, they see 400 parts per million to 600 to 800 to a thousand. So, you don't have to look inside to know what's going on, just like your doctor says, "Ah," and somehow he figures out. It's kind of like that.
Morgan Seger (13:32):
Gotcha. How do pest impact the way that wind is moving or the way we listen to the wind?
Naeem Zafar (13:38):
So, once you realize the temperature is rising and moisture is there, then you can do fumigation or you can... If there's a hotspot developing, you empty the bin, break the hotspot and reload the bin to address the grain. There's a lot of science. So, basically we are applying some advanced science to it. Then really finding some good use cases.
Morgan Seger (14:04):
Yeah. I like this a lot. So, if someone is considering putting up grain storage... And this is maybe a selfish question, because this is something we haven't done yet, but it's kind of on our minds lately, where would you suggest they start monitoring that or what would be the process if they wanted to work with tele sense?
Naeem Zafar (14:24):
Not complicated. They can simply... They can tell us that, "Look, we are setting up a bin." So, firstname.lastname@example.org and we will send you some brochures, how it works. Some of the products are pretty simple like building online store. You can buy a spear like six other spears, stick them in. They're already on and sending data. So, you can start seeing data on your cell phone. So, whole thing is make it simple. You can install them yourself. So, we also have people in Midwest and Minnesota, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Iowa, Nebraska. So, we can also come help you. It is pretty simple. Some of the product has magnetic feed. You slap them in, they get attached to the fan, attached to the bin, and start sending data.
Morgan Seger (15:11):
Awesome. Well, you make it sound really simple. And then there's-
Naeem Zafar (15:14):
Yeah. So, it's nothing.
Morgan Seger (15:14):
... an app interface then where you can access all of that data and those decision kind of aids.
Naeem Zafar (15:20):
There's a whole mobile apps and web app. You can do all that.
Morgan Seger (15:25):
Okay, great. So, if someone's interested in learning more and following along with your work, where would you suggest they go?
Naeem Zafar (15:33):
I think they go to telesense.com or send us an email at email@example.com and we'll learn what kind of storage they have and how can we help them. It should be easy. We make it easy.
Morgan Seger (15:46):
Very good. Very good. So, one question that I like to ask all of our guests that are on is, what's one technology that you're most excited about and it can be in or out of agriculture or something you're already doing, but I would love with your experience to hear what is one thing you're most excited about?
Naeem Zafar (16:04):
I think the one thing I'm excited about is robotics because after many years of slow, incremental improvement, now, things are... And there's a shortage of labor in many countries, especially as aging population... There's a huge shortage of labor in Japan and Italy and many European countries. U.S. is not so bad, but still there's some areas. So, robotics is really going to save us. Now, what's the use cases? Well, it could be a whole bunch. It could be as much as a [inaudible 00:16:38] hotel. No human should have to do this. And robots are now getting very specialized just to do that. Two, picking up your strawberries or picking up your harvest thing... But think about another thing, which is very prevalent in Japan and China because of the aging population, many of these old people who are unable to take care of them, how do you need labor?
Naeem Zafar (17:03):
So, robots will be helpful in caring for the seniors, making them go to bathroom, assist them in other ways. So, I think the way we manufacture products like cars, factories to driving trucks, things across the country. So, this robotics, I think, will be very exciting in the next 20 years. You'll see all kinds of manifestation, which will be very compelling, especially in agriculture. Agriculture is a area where labor cost is the highest. And predictability of labor... So, if more robotics can assist the growers, it will give them more predictabilities and a better quality. Imagine for example, flipping burgers in McDonald's. It's pretty repetitive. Doing that much more efficiently and bringing the cost down so that the food could be served with a slightly less cost and is more persistent, and nobody's spitting in my burger. I like that.
Morgan Seger (18:05):
Yeah. And the flip side is the opportunity, then, that people who had roles like that have to kind of level up in some other area or figure out, maybe, a passion or something. It may free more people up away from those kind of continuous jobs to explore something else, which, I think, could be really powerful for our entire-
Naeem Zafar (18:34):
You're absolutely right. If you talk about long-term trends, you'll see a lot of these jobs which will be taken up by AI. Remember what happened to all the travel agents. You don't see them. They used to be on every corner 20 years ago. This thing will happen also to accountants, to less complicated simplified legal profession, like you're buying a house and doing all the paperwork. Pretty standard stuff, nothing changes. All that will be automated through AI. The trend I see, and I'm an optimistic person, so you can blame me, a trend of de-urbanization. When more people will live in tribes and smaller communities and have more time to socialize, grow locally, eat locally, interact with each other, dance by the fireplace and not have to work 40 hours a week and make the same money because everybody will be more specialists in something they do. So, imagine a world where you work 25 hours a day, you live in a rural community, but you have all the access to internet, to all the facilities and entertainment. You grow locally, the food is not grown, it's organic and you have to spend a lot more time with each other. That's the future I see. It's possible. Let's make it so.
Morgan Seger (19:47):
Yeah. I like the sounds of that, for sure. Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I appreciate your perspective, and we'll be sure to link out to Precision Points if anyone's interested in learning more. I know we're releasing this at the beginning of the growing season, which seems like kind of an odd time, when we're talking about grain storage, but wanted to kind of set people up and get their wheels turning before we get back into those fields to harvest.
Naeem Zafar (20:12):
Thank you, Morgan. All this is very important because as the planting season is starting, but so is the barge and rail transport... It's pretty active right now, so relevant. But starting August, September, October, that's when the storage season will start. So, it is good to make people aware of it now.
Morgan Seger (20:30):
Yep. Well, I appreciate your time. Thank you so much for joining me.
Naeem Zafar (20:33):
Thank you Morgan. See you soon.
Morgan Seger (20:35):
Thanks for tuning in to another episode of Precision Points. We are so grateful that you take the time to spend with us every episode, and we would love to hear your feedback. You can always leave us a rating or review wherever you get your podcast, or you can go to precisionagreviews.com and comment on our show notes. We love hearing your feedback. While you're there, be sure to check out our grower sourced reviews or leave a review of your own. Let's grow together.
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Host: Morgan Seger
Morgan Seger grew up on a small farm in northwest Ohio before studying agriculture at The Ohio State University. She spent 10 years working with ag retail – specifically in ag tech – prior to hosting the Precision Points Podcast. She lives and farms in western Ohio with her husband Ben and their four children. Morgan has her own blog, Heart and Soil, where she talks about her experience farming, gardening, and raising her family.
Guest: Naeem Zafar
Naeem Zafar is a 7x entrepreneur and 5x startup CEO. He currently serves as the cofounder and CEO for TeleSense, an IOT (Internet of Things) company creating real-time wireless sensing and predictive analytics solutions for the stored grain industry. Prior to starting TeleSense, he was the CEO of Bitzer Mobile, an enterprise security and mobility company that was acquired by Oracle in November 2013.
Naeem started his first company at the age of 26 (XCAT, a hardware accelerator company), and soon moved to Silicon Valley. At this point, he is practically a Silicon Valley native, having founded, invested in, and advised 30+ companies. He teaches courses on entrepreneurship at University of California Berkeley & Northeastern University. He has authored six books, with topics ranging from conducting market research and seeking the right funding to successful ways to start a business.