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Phil Van Etten. (Pollen Systems Photo)

Keith McCall and Phil Van Etten are teaming up again in a familiar way.

McCall, founder of Seattle-area startup Pollen Systems, is bringing on Van Etten to be CEO of his early-stage vineyard monitoring company.

This is familiar territory for the long-time business pals. McCall previously founded Azaleos, a Seattle email management startup that launched in 2004. He hired Van Etten to be CEO two years later. In 2010, Avanade acquired the company for $106 million.

Now he’s passing the chief executive torch off again to Van Etten, who was most recently CEO at Montreal-based Netmail.

Van Etten was already close to Pollen Systems after becoming an advisory board member last year. But as the company picked up traction, McCall wanted his former colleague to take the CEO reins.

Keith McCall.

“Phil’s ability to scale businesses globally has been proven multiple times with excellent exits for investors,” McCall told GeekWire. “His unique combination of talents in business, marketing, sales, finance, and operational execution makes him the optimal leader for Pollen Systems as we grow.”

The wine industry is new to Van Etten, but he’s confident about the opportunity in front of Pollen Systems.

“A lot of startups kind of sputter,” he said. “This one has a lot of potential to take off.”

Pollen Systems is developing a technology platform made up of drones, sensors, and swaths of data that helps winemakers quickly assess vineyards and analyze for crop growth, over or under watering, and the presence of pests or diseases. The idea is to create a more efficient survey process than walking the fields and gathering information manually.

“Vineyards are always looking for ways to increase yield and reduce irrigation cost,” said Van Etten, who has past leadership experience at more than 10 startups.

A sample photo collected by Pollen Systems using multi-spectral image sensors that can detect healthy and unhealthy vegetation. (Pollen Systems Photo)

Van Etten added that both Azaleos and Pollen Systems have a lot of similarities despite being in completely different industries.

“Both companies reduce cost and leverage data and analytics to make a better solution,” he said, adding that he and McCall are “very aware of what it will take to build [Pollen Systems.]”

McCall will stay on as founder and chief technology officer — the same role he held at Azaleos, when Van Etten became CEO of that startup.

McCall will help the company apply machine learning technology to integrate automation into the vineyard analysis process, using its growing database of agricultural content.

Pollen Systems has raised $500,000. It has about a dozen customers — four in Chile, and the rest in Washington. There are more than 350 wine grape growers in the state, tending more than 55,000 acres of vineyards, according to the Washington State Wine Commission.

The company is also exploring other customer segments, such as berry and wheat farmers.

This is McCall’s third startup. He also founded Enroute Systems Corp., which helped retailers with shipping and was bought by Pitney Bowes in January 2016.

Read more about Pollen Systems in a recent Startup Spotlight.

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