15 Minutes With… Kat Crawford, CEO of Skyward Apps
By Michelle Pelletier Marshall, Women in Agribusiness Media (February 15, 2022)
Through the years, HighQuest Partners as a company – and its events, Global AgInvesting, AgTech Nexus, Women in Agribusiness Summit, and Organic & Non-GMO Forum – have addressed the latest and greatest in technology on the farm. And while this has always been met with excitement, the same questions have arisen: Have the farmers tried this? Does it make it harder for them to do their job or easier? Is it too costly? Has it proven out?
Today, we profile a company, Skyward Apps, and its CEO Katherine (Kat) Crawford, whose mission is to ensure data-driven applications for those adopting digital technologies and solutions work smarter and help their businesses grow faster with relative ease of use. Founded in 2011, Maryland-based Skyward is regarded as an expert in building and connecting precision agriculture web and mobile applications, from pilots and prototypes to digital platforms that aggregate and integrate big data. Combining and layering data sets from different platforms allows a three-dimensional view to what used to be flat.
The agtech company has provided precision agtech solutions to the likes of Syngenta, Nutrien, Proagrica, Beeswax Dyson Farming, Boumatic, and more.
For Crawford’s part, she has been with the company since 2013 and was named CEO in July 2021. Her vision with setting strategic goals, leading day-to-day operations and managing relationships with clients and external partners are imperative to Skyward’s core values to live honestly, work collaboratively, respond attentively, innovate continually, and think flexibly.
We caught up with Crawford in her office last week.
1). If you had to describe Skyward’s potential to disrupt the ag marketplace in about 250 words, what would you say?
I’d say we are in the right place at the right time for an industry that needs technology and data to create a more sustainable future.
We have been in business for more than a decade, and during this time, we have seen precision ag mature and progress in its ability to extract more value per acre. But its full potential won’t be realized until the many systems, platforms, and applications that connect the industry are all interoperable.
Right now, agriculture’s digital ecosystem is like the interstate highway system before its completion. We still don’t have the digital on-ramps and off-ramps that allow data to move, merge, and get to where it needs to go, yet data is the key to building individual and collective value and the source of future disruption.
As software engineers, our role is not to disrupt the market, but to empower it. Skyward brings uncommon knowledge of the agriculture landscape to technical challenges, which allows our clients to innovate faster and with fewer failures.
It’s no small feat to transform staggering amounts of data into meaningful insights. Each technology comes with its own file formats, business logic, and protocols. Making them work together is made more complex by the unique nature of agriculture with its embedded technologies for connected systems, machines, and devices.
It’s a bit daunting to think of the magnitude of the technology challenges ahead, but it’s an exciting time to be in agriculture. Everyone wants to do work that is meaningful, impactful, and makes a difference. We have the good fortune to do so.
2). Armed with data, farmers can see the world in three dimensions, creating myriad opportunities to layer data from different systems on top of each other. What examples do you have of agribusinesses using Skyward’s data tools to this end?
No two farms are alike. Different soil, weather, irrigation, pest infestations, and crop disease can mean the difference between a high yield and huge losses. Farmers have always had to weigh these factors, but web and mobile applications now offer in-depth data analytics to inform their decisions.
For example, the applications we develop for seed advisors, agronomists, and product teams might merge multiple data sources to see what would not be evident with separate data sets, such as soil makeup to determine ideal seeding rates and crop inputs. With enough historical data, farmers and advisors can compare crop performance to identify patterns and trends.
Interactive precision maps have become a standard and indispensable tool to visualize the staggering amount of quantitative farm data. Depending on what a grower needs to know, we may start with a satellite view as a base map and build layers on top that reveal previously unseen features and changes in attributes, such as crop growth.
These maps can transform data into colored patterns or shapes, with each attribute assigned a distinct color to indicate soil textures or vegetation density, for example. Heat maps can show yield results in a green to red spectrum to indicate good and poor areas of growth. Some examples can be seen in our case studies or by request.
3). An agtech discussion is not complete without talk of sustainability, carbon sequestration, and climate-smart agriculture. How do Skyward’s products and expertise align with these pervasive goals in the ag sector?
In agtech, data means collecting everything. The temperature of the air as you plant, the moisture of the kernel as you harvest, the exact coordinate of each weed you find, how long your fleets are idle…. Agriculture’s potential and sustainability are built on current data.
Carbon sequestration will multiply the need for new and valid data by an order of magnitude. First, everyone needs to agree on what to monitor and how to measure it, which is no small feat. For example, at what point in time should soil carbon be measured, at what intervals, and in which locations? Should we collect data from soil or from absolute, or total, emissions? How can we prove that lower emissions are due to carbon programs and wouldn’t have happened anyway? This is a microcosm of the questions that need answers.
While precision ag has evolved and matured over the past two decades, carbon capture is the wild wild west. There is not yet a consensus around standards, practices, and technologies. Skyward cut its teeth on precision ag a decade ago, and we hope to apply our deep well of knowledge to help clients fashion sustainable solutions in the decade ahead.
4). Many of our readers are investors looking for the latest game-changing innovations and opportunities in the sector. What, if any, are the investment options with Skyward?
That’s an interesting question that merits more than one answer.
Investors look for opportunities to fill an unmet need in the marketplace. They want to see the potential for high growth, a competitive advantage, and the ability to scale. They want to know how much domain knowledge you have and that your people have the skills and experience to deliver what you’ve promised.
That’s what clients who invest in us expect. We are the private capital that gives them the ability to scale and gain that early mover advantage, as this market waits for no one.
When clients retain us, they are investing in talent who can give form to their ideas, whether it’s an application prototype, a business intelligence platform, or a deceptively simple interface that masks a staggering amount of data.
Agribusiness investors would do well to look at the capital pouring in to connect electronic health records across providers and medical facilities. Interoperability is an unmet opportunity in agriculture that lowers operational complexity. It is key to frictionless operations, and there’s enormous value in that.
It’s become cliché to say good investors invest in people rather than ideas, but that’s why it’s cliché and why clients invest in us.
5). We also have a large reader base who are women in agribusiness, thanks to our parent company hosting the Women in Agribusiness Summit series. What advice can you provide to them about moving up the ladder, as you did from project manager to CEO?
Long before I was a project manager, I was a high school English teacher. Let me tell you, there is no better management training. It taught me how to lead a team, motivate people, and manage conflicts. It stretched my creative thinking and organizational skills. Above all, it proved that success can start with a nontraditional career path.
Sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone to evolve your skills. It’s not always easy, but it is a learning experience, and I have learned something every time I have taken that risk.
To move up the ladder, my best advice is to surround yourself with good people. No one climbs to the top by themselves. The chief reason Skyward has been able to grow is the highly competent and collaborative people who work here. I love to share my knowledge, and it encourages the rest of the team to do the same.
As a woman in male-dominated fields, at some point you may encounter preconceptions about your ability before you have a chance to prove your value. Give it your all. People will take notice. Be authentic. Don’t try to be someone you are not.
And be ready to drink a beer, hop in a combine for a ride-along, or go to a baseball game. When someone gave me that advice, I was a bit put off, but the reality is that you must get to know the culture of the industry. It helps build relationships and rapport.
One last note. I am thrilled to see an increase in women in agriculture. There has been a significant increase in women farmers to women in senior management positions in agribusiness. In the past year, our work has expanded internationally, giving me the opportunity to collaborate with digital teams in multiple countries with different cultures. It has been a tremendous experience in understanding agriculture and sustainability on a global scale.
Learn more about Skyward Apps at skywardapps.com.