Malaysian agritech drone solutions provider, Poladrone, announced today that it raised US$4.29 million (RM18 million) in a seed funding round. Led by Wavemaker Partners, other investors included the Malaysian Technology Development Corporation (MTDC), ZB Capital Limited, and some angel investors.
Founded by Cheong Jin Xi (JX) in 2016, Poladrone leveraged the lack of players in the agricultural sector early on. Since then, more competitors have joined the fray, yet Poladrone has remained focused on developing its drones in the agritech space as JX believes that this industry still has many under-addressed pain points.
Armed with a fresh bag of funds, Poladrone intends to scale its dronetech operations in Malaysia.
The potential of drones in agritech
Over the years, the use of dronetech in Malaysia has become very closely correlated to agritech, with an increasing number of players cropping up to develop the sector too.
With Poladrone’s operations and developments mainly based in this sector, JX told Vulcan Post that leveraging agritech early on gave the company a head start in understanding the market’s dynamics.
“[It’s] an industry that has a huge market potential yet is extremely challenging to commercialise technology [in] due to the low margins, unskilled workforce, over-reliance on foreign labour, internet connectivity, road accessibility, and many other factors,” JX elaborated.
As such, the learnings from multiple trials with their clients have aligned the team’s focus, so instead of worrying about competitors, they’re focusing on getting the unit economics right.
For example, developing a product that’s reliable and building an ecosystem via accessible service centres to make it sustainable for clients to rely on in the long run.
Meet the drones replacing on-ground workforces
With its eyes set on the agricultural sector, Poladrone has made advancements with its tech via innovations like Oryctes, which was launched in August 2020.
Oryctes is named after the rhinoceros beetle, a pest known to be dangerous to oil palm crops and capable of reducing fruit yield by up to 25%.
To reduce losses that could add up to an estimated RM40.25 billion, frequent pesticide spraying is required to maintain plant health. However, the usage of knapsack sprayers and tractors are both labour-intensive and detrimental to workers’ health when breathing in the chemicals.
Additionally, the labour shortage caused by the pandemic posed the need for drones that could replace human labour, and Oryctes was developed to do exactly that.
Using Real-Time Kinematics (RTK) positioning, on-edge AI and custom nozzle setups, Oryctes spot-sprays with centimetre-level precision, making it a useful tool in oil palm crops.
According to JX, oil palm plantations that have adopted Oryctes within the past year have reported:
- An improved labour efficiency by 5 times (replacing 5 foreign low-skilled workers with 1 high-skilled local drone pilot);
- A 20% reduction in operational costs (by replacing human sprayers);
- Proper documentation for pesticide usage records to comply with environment sustainability;
- Reduced human exposure to harmful chemicals;
- Consistent measurement for pest damage control;
- Unaffected operations no matter the terrain (by replacing manual workforce and tractors that perform inconsistently due to ground conditions).
To add, Poladrone also offers its Mist Drone (Mobile Intelligent Sustainable Tech). It’s a spraying drone that disperses wide-area chemical coverage, most ideal for blanket spraying in large open field crops such as paddy fields.
But you still need a workforce to service the drones
Since the startup’s drones are all manufactured locally, services like customisation and drone maintenance will be supported at Poladrone’s service centres.
Just like serving your car periodically, the centres are meant to ensure the drones can perform at their highest quality at all times. If they work as intended, users can have peace of mind when using the tech in their daily spraying workflows.
Currently with a newly established centre in Kluang, Johor, the service centres aim to provide service support, scheduled maintenance, and spare parts replacement.
“Next up, we are opening up a centre in Alor Setar, Kedah to serve the northern markets followed by Teluk Intan, Bintulu, Tawau, with a target of 10 locations by the end of 2022,” said JX.
With ambitious expansion plans comes a need to also scale up its workforce, and Poladrone intends to channel its US$4.29 million seed funding into doing so.
“There are two primary reasons for us raising our seed round. The first, to build a world-class team to further improve and optimise our solutions for the industry. The second, to allow us to quickly scale our operations and set up service centres (both in Malaysia and regionally),” JX explained.
As a profitable company, JX shared that Poladrone had no urgent intentions for fundraising and were content with growing organically.
But with the quick adoption rates of their dronetech solutions amidst the pandemic, Poladrone was faced with the need to quadruple its team. In under a year, Poladrone has gone from having a headcount of 20 to over 80 to cope with demands.
“As such, it is almost a responsibility for us to scale up our operations to bring the benefits offered by our technology to more people, faster. This was one of the main drivers of us deciding to fundraise,” JX said.
Next destination: Indonesia
At the moment, Poladrone already has a presence in Thailand, and is now eyeing expansion to Indonesia as most of the company’s solutions are customised for the oil palm industry.
JX stated that Indonesia has the largest planted area for oil palm in the world that’s even ahead of Malaysia, giving Poladrone a huge market potential there.
Since the launch of Oryctes, the Poladrone team has even received requests from plantations in Indonesia and purchase orders from large estates. “However, we have not shipped any of our products as we are not confident to provide after-sales support without first establishing an office in Indonesia,” JX confided.
Therefore, JX’s decision to first focus on strengthening their market presence and offerings in Malaysia is a smart move, instead of ambitiously expanding without a strong foundation.
- You can learn more about Poladrone here.
- You can read more Agritech-related articles we’ve covered here.
Featured Image Credit: Cheong Jin Xi, founder of Poladrone