Australian Agtech startup, BioScout, is leading the world in monitoring and preventing crop disease. As well as potentially reducing crop waste, and costs and usage of chemicals, in the developed world, this technology has the potential to make a significant difference to food self-sufficiency and famine prevention across the developing world.
It was born from the PhD work of CEO Lewis Collins. He tells us how it all came about and how this unique Australian innovation is helping farmers, and growing towards something that can help vulnerable nations prevent famine.
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In a nutshell what is BioScout?
BioScout is a world-first airborne-disease tracking system that centres on fully autonomous monitoring units that are equipped with a comprehensive suite of environmental sensors.
The technology uses computer vision and robotics to analyse the samples captured. That is backed up by unique data modelling and artificial intelligence (AI) to track the spread of diseases on farms. This provides growers and agronomists with real-time, location and disease-specific information.
BioScout can pick up spores in the air often a number of weeks before symptoms show in the crop, in time to deploy measures to protect the crop, efficiently and effectively; saving yield and reducing chemical use.
What inspired you to develop your idea?
I understood that crop diseases, in particular Stripe Rust, cause famines across the world, including in Africa, the Middle East, India, and now even parts of Europe.
Once a mould-based disease has penetrated a crop it cannot be stopped. ‘Prophylactic’ measures can be employed to protect a crop. However, existing monitoring methods, such as they are, are slow, inaccurate and not scalable. Farmers have had ‘spore traps’ since the 1950s but it is a manual process to analyse slides, that makes it expensive and also inaccurate; when you’re counting manually under a microscope the variance can be + or – 60 per cent!
All that means is there is no real way to detect disease on crops early enough to do something about it, so spraying is done repeatedly with farmers having to rely on intuition and weather patterns to determine if the ‘time is right’.
Inefficient at best, or too late to protect their crop.
I wanted to use my PhD to do something about that.
How have your priorities changed compared to when you first started?
The original idea was for BioScout units to be drone-based.
I knew it was important to have a complete picture of disease risk at field-level. When I started I was showing farmers a prototype that was on the back of a drone so they could cover a lot of ground. Then at the end of the day the unit was taken back to base where the data was downloaded and analysed.
It was clear I had identified a key issue, and people were keen for a solution, but they just didn’t have the time to be out flying a drone to be collecting the samples, so we were getting knocked back.
One grower finally said to me ‘can you just stick it on a pole’. It was a turning point moment. Our units can now operate for years on end with zero human intervention.
We’ve also broadened our market. We started with grain crops, but there is a huge range of crops that have mould-based diseases.
In particular we have moved into the wine industry. Some years, and the last few La Nina years are a good example, 70 per cent of a wine crop can be lost to mould. If those vines can be protected effectively, then you are potentially looking at millions of dollars more wine per vineyard. We are also doing trials for a range of other crops, including strawberries and spices.
What challenges did you have to overcome at the beginning of your journey?
The biggest challenge at the start was money, probably like all startups. When we started in 2017 we had a very short time to get it off the ground and not a lot of money. As I said, we then had to radically change the ‘delivery’ of our idea. The money that farmer gave us to develop the box-on-a-stick idea saved us.
Aligned with this was the fact that we were trying to sell a product that wasn’t ready. That did mean we could turn on a dime when the idea changed, but it also meant that customers had to understand they were taking a leap of faith and trusting us to produce a product.
How has the company itself evolved since the start?
We started with a small group of naïve, but aspiring microbiologists, engineers and computer geeks. We now have in the region of 14 people, many of whom are in quality assurance for the production of the units. We also have a small sales team.
Our funding is still heavily grant-based, but we have support of the VC’s now too.
What are you working on now?
The focus now is commercialising the manufacturing. The $3 million in funding we have just raised means we can move into ‘design for manufacture’.
Up until now it would take up to 60 hours to 3D print a unit; we have a 3D printer that has been printing solidly every day for four years! We have had field-deployed 20 prototypes in two years. The manufacturing we are just putting in place has meant 25 units have been produced in two weeks. We are hoping to deploy 100 units in the next six months.
What entrepreneurial tricks have you discovered to keep you focused?
When we started thought we had a good idea and we were excited. But we weren’t thinking in real life, we weren’t commercially minded we were still ‘in the lab’. It’s important to learn to keep it simple, and to not spend money on developing ideas that people won’t pay money for; the ‘fail early, fail fast’ concept. Our idea, of being drone-based, was too sophisticated.
What advice would you give to someone who is trying to become an entrepreneur?
Commercialisation was the key change for me. When you are doing a PhD it is all about accuracy and methodologies and results, feedback is a tiny part of the process.
Getting it into the real world meant the metrics changed. It was no longer about being perfect, it was about going beyond what they had already. For us, it became product reliability, redundancy and remote de-bugging.
As an entrepreneur it’s also about customer experience. Humble engagement with customers was important.
And, knowing you are doing something that is proving its use case gives you what you and your team need to go on. Our team has gone from two to 14, our churn in people and customers has been negative, and we are all happy.
How do you see your company evolving over the next 10 years?
As we go forward and increase the number of units, and the range of crops and diseases, then we will be in the realm of data modelling that will enable prevention in a much bigger way.
The product has huge potential, beyond what we might have imagined at the start. When we started analysing the data from the units we realised that we are picking up a huge range of ‘other things’, not just mould spores. We pick up pollen levels for instance, imagine having a warning system for asthmatics!
Ultimately we want to be roll this out across the world.