Where technology meets potatoes

A start-up that uses technology to optimise potato harvests has won the right to represent Australia and New Zealand in IBM's first SmartCamp in China.

All the finalists who were in the running to represent Australia and New Zealand at the IBM Smartcamp in China. From left to right; Dr Mark Reed, Chief Executive Officer, InterfereX; Mike Nermutt, Managing Director, Asdeqlabs; Vikram Sharma, Founder and CEO, Quintessence Labs; David Bartlett, Chairman and Director, Asdeqlabs; The winner, Jane Hill, Chief Executive of CropLogic; Bruce Taper, Director, Kinesis and David Holden, Associate Director, Kinesis. Photo by Nate Cochrane. 

A technology to ward off global food shortages and improve the profitability of Australian farms is off to China to represent Australia and New Zealand in this region’s first IBM SmartCamp for budding start-ups.

CropLogic spun out of the New Zealand Institute of Plant and Food Research science into farm efficiency. It has customers in Australia and US consumer agribusiness, ConAgra - a McDonald's supplier. It beat out 100 start-ups whose solutions were used by NASA and others which sought to go head-to-head with Google and Microsoft for the top honour.

IBM's SmartCamp is a global programme that takes place in 23 countries, seeking the best ideas and entrepreneurs developing solutions that dovetailed with Big Blue's "Smarter Planet" mantra. Candidates were judged by sector experts from the CSIRO, Australian Computer Society, Australian Information Industry Association, NBN Co, universities and venture capitalists on the strength of their technology, go-to-market strategy, team members and addressable market opportunity.

CropLogic chief executive officer Jane Hill said it focused on high-value potato farming – the fourth largest crop in the world accounting for 500,000 hectares in the Asia-Pacific and US – but its science extended to wheat, maize and other crops such as grapes.

The cloud decision-support tool helped farmers forecast a crop’s needs based on soil quality and other factors, increasing highly efficient operations by 1 per cent a year and up to 20 per cent in the first year for less efficient crops, she said.

“It’s estimated that by 2020, four billion people will depend on the potato” as a staple of their diets, Hill told the SmartCamp Kickstart gathering in Sydney last week. Hill acknowledged that the massive scale of the opportunity for the company was likely a key factor in its success on the day.

“Two significant pain points for processors are increasing overall yield and the high variability of yield and getting credible sustainability data from the growers - and the grower needs to yield more using less."

Growers were caught in a bind - use too much water and fertiliser and lose contracts with processors on environmental grounds, but use too little and they were "leaving dollars in the ground" as yields shrank, she said. The industry's goal was to lift productivity by 20 per cent and cut water use and pollution in half over the next five to 10 years.

CropLogic’s expert system crunched data gathered from wirelessly connected ground and moisture sensors, rain gauges, and publicly available datasets and programming interfaces such as those provided by the Bureau of Meteorology, she said. And it would inform its future predictions from inputs it learned or which were entered by the farmer.

The data ran through a simulation based on 20 years of research to provide the farmer with a daily situation report each morning before they headed into the field. This was supplemented by real-time reports delivered on email over 3G wireless networks to handheld devices for extraordinary situations, she said.

"Every day, field by field, we get the data, interpret and run simulations using the results to provide insights and allowing clients to make decisions on irrigation (and) fertiliser," she said.

Australian solutions that made it to the final five included a quantum encryption system sold to NASA and Jet Propulsion Labs in California (Quintessence Labs), a radio-modelling cloud system for mobile phone small cells (InterfereX), climate modelling software (Kinesis), and a cloud enterprise software suite founded by the former Premier of Tasmania, David Bartlett (AsdeqLabs).

Before announcing the winner, IBM Australia and New Zealand managing director Andrew Stevens said the resources boom was waning and that Australia must adopt smarter ideas to be competitive

"We’re enjoying a boom in Australia that is around natural resources and yet the future when that boom ends will be about a developed-resources world," Stevens said. "Natural resources, as significant as (they are), makes up only six per cent of the assets in the Australian economy."

Global IBM officials told Technology Spectator they were impressed by the depth and strength of Australian entrants in the programme and Stevens said he expected at least another of the finalists to join CropLogic in Beijing later this year when the remaining two unallocated berths in the region were handed down.