Irvine farm technology company may set up operations center in Bakersfield

·4 min read

Sep. 22—An ag-tech startup based in Irvine is considering establishing an operational center in Bakersfield in coordination with city government.

M8 Systems, founded by the executive credited with inventing cashier-less retail stores for Amazon, proposes to locally engineer, assemble, test and sell automated irrigation systems that would use sensors and control systems to help farmers use water more efficiently.

No agreement has been finalized to bring the company to Bakersfield, but founder and CEO Max Safai said he hopes to employ six people in the city by the end of this year. By the end of 2024, he said, nearly 20 M8 workers could be working locally — three-quarters or more of its workforce — even as the company's headquarters would remain in Irvine.

"We want to have a close relationship with the city of Bakersfield, and we also want to be where the action is in the Central Valley," Safai said.

Director Paul M. Saldaña of Bakersfield's Economic and Community Development Department said companies like M8 are "exactly the type of innovative companies that we'd like to see come to Bakersfield." He pointed to a $150,000 deal the city recently struck to attract another tech startup, North Carolina battery company SineWatts Inc.

"There are a number of innovative companies that we continue to have conversations with and we hope ... to see similar opportunities in the very near future," Saldaña said. He said the city might offer a financial incentive to M8.

Safai said M8 started in March 2019 after avocado farmers he knows in San Diego County expressed concern about rising irrigation costs. After some tinkering, he performed two "proofs of concept" in his garage that demonstrated the viability of a system to measure water use precisely, detect leaks and then turn off valves as appropriate before issuing a digital alert that a problem has been found.

The idea now is to combine irrigation-control equipment — new or already installed in ag fields — with satellite and drone imagery, weather information and cloud-data technology in what Safai called a new application of "smart ag."

M8's system would sense changing conditions, including potentially adverse events such as wind that could waste irrigation water, and make automated suggestions around the clock to save farmers money. Any water leaks would automatically result in pressure shutoffs to specific pipes, along with the transmission of text messages to nearby farmworkers. The system would take into account soil status, relative humidity and temperature readings.

The company's biggest test yet is expected to take place during the next two weeks as M8 brings 23 San Diego County farmers online to test out the system. Safai said the company is also negotiating its first large investment of outside money.

While orchards would benefit, Safai said the best application of the technology might be row crops such as the carrots grown in and around Kern. He noted the Central Valley produces revenues of about $17 billion per year, or about a quarter of the U.S. food supply.

"This is a very big market for us," he said.

It will be important to show M8's customers they company is responsive to their concerns and near enough to do something about them quickly, Safai said. For that reason, he hopes to find a local home for not only product assembly and testing but also procurement, logistics and repairs ready within 24 hours. There will need to be local electrical engineering and mechanical engineering labs, as well as an area for working with fluid flow technology.

A small presence would remain in Irvine to perform tasks such as software engineering, human resources management, some sales and finance, partly to serve customers in San Diego County.

Eventually the company may lease its products to farmers, as a way of helping them fix their costs, but Safai said the initial plan is to sell the systems directly to farmers and charge them for the company's data plan.

Safai noted he has come to Bakersfield to meet with people about the proposal to set up a local operation. Once here, he found the people he met were "amazingly wonderful, motivated people."