Start-up of the Week: The magical veggie garden of tomorrow

.”Your sneak preview of the future” is the slogan of Innovation Origins, and that’s just what we will highlight with our Start-up of the Week column. Over the past few days, five start-ups of the day have been featured and on Saturday we will choose the week’s winner.

Innovation Origins presents a Start-up of the Day each weekday

We shall consider various issues such as sustainability, developmental phase, practical application, simplicity, originality and to what extent they are in line with the Sustainable Development Goals of UNESCO. They will all pass by here and at the end of the week, the Start-Up of the Week will be announced.

 

Vienna Textile Lab – Colorful microbial microfibres

Giving clothes a bit of color has been done for thousands of years. Dyes from nature has been used for this ever since prehistoric times. Yet these had their limitations and that meant that certain colours were very difficult to come by. Purple is a good example. Have you ever noticed that this colour can’t be found on any country’s national flag? That”s because purple dyes used to be very expensive. Synthetic dyes came on the market in the 19th century and solved that problem.

Vienna Textile Lab is really going to where it originally all started – back to nature. Another discovery was made in the 19th century: the existence of bacteria. These microorganisms can be an organic and sustainable method for dyeing textiles. The disadvantage of synthetic substances is that they are bad for your health and the environment. And the beauty of this Austrian textile dye is that it is based on an entirely organic process.

Energy Floor – Streets made of solar cells

This Rotterdam team came up with a groundbreaking innovation in 2010. A sustainable dance floor that could generate its own energy using the kinetic energy of dancing partygoers. They collaborated with artist Daan Roosengaarde and this resulted in a luminescent interactive floor. This was world news at the time and the floor was actually in place.

The principles behind this dance floor are still very much alive ten years later; it’ s just morphed into a street tile now. The kinetic energy has been replaced by solar energy, so that anywhere where there are streets, small power stations can be installed. Which means charging stations for electric cars might no longer be necessary. The Energy Floor also monitors traffic flow so that everyone can see exactly where there is available parking space. Any other advantages? A lot of street lighting is switched on when nobody is around. Such a waste! Lastly, it just looks really cool.

Revibe – Electricity out of thin air

On railways, construction sites and in heavy industry, colossuses of machines are in constant motion. These movements cause friction and friction equals energy. However, this energy is still being completely wasted at the moment, even though it could also be used to generate electricity. This is the main starting point underlying the Swedish start-up Revibe. They have developed a compact module that serves as a kind of mini-generator for where there is a lot of kinetic energy present.

The advantages are obvious. Equipment that uses this start-up’s technology no longer need a battery or a power cable! And on top of that, it might be the cleanest form of electricity generation ever. The patented battery is very easy to mount on a vibrating surface and then goes ahead and does the job all by itself. And not insignificantly, the electricity can even be stored so that you can use it to do things like make coffee or something similar.

Spaceflow – The e-VVE and landlord

Homeowners’ associations usually have a rather old-fashioned baby-boomer image. Tenants’ contact with their neighbours or with the manager of an apartment complex tends to happen on an inefficient and decentralised basis. This ought to change; that’s what they thought at the Czech start-up Spaceflow. They developed an app specifically for tenants of residential complexes that was designed to take over all communication concerning residential and communal areas. Think of it as a kind of Facebook, but only meant for people who are part of your building complex.

Through the app you can get in touch with neighbours, request repairs, read service announcements and give feedback. There is no need either for separate keys for the communal areas. The app can also be configured for specific situations in a modular way for property managers.

In theory, the app could even replace your house key. So if you lose your phone, you’ll immediately lose your house key as well. Want to make it even more disastrous? In the event you pay for everything via Apple Pay, you would strike out three times in a row then.

Grow X – Vertically grown top quality vegetables

Human beings have been growing crops horizontally for some 7,000 years now. And as this past century has seen us all of a sudden doing just about EVERYTHING differently, we’re also now seeing a trend with vertical gardens and fields. Why vertical? It’s a bit of the same principle behind skyscrapers; they take up less space and are efficient. Vertical gardens have been around for some time already, but now there are also vertical vegetable gardens. Grow X is an example: they grow high-end vegetables for the more luxurious segment of the market.

Fresh vegetables that are grown in their own region are of great importance to the best restaurants. This is what distinguishes them from the hospitality industry where imported or canned vegetables are on the menu. Entrepreneurs can choose from around fifty organically grown mini vegetables offered by Grow X. The advantage of these mini varieties is that their taste is more concentrated than conventional varieties. Grow X is nowadays a regular supplier to the leading Dutch restaurants.

The fact that the Netherlands is internationally known as a major innovator in the horticultural sector has been confirmed once again by this start-up. It is even not commonly known in The Netherlands that our small country is the second largest food producer in the whole world. And this is not per square metre or per capita. No, this is in absolute numbers. Innovation and efficiency are the magic words here and Grow X is an excellent example of this. It is such an excellent example that we have crowned this ambitious start-up from Zeeland Start-up of the Week!

Start-up of the Day: From football analysis to crop counting with a drone

Drone die wordt ingezet bij het tellen van gewassen

Drone analysis offers several drone applications for the agricultural and horticultural sector. So far, crop counting has been the most important feature. This is linked to an app for convenient access to all data read-outs.

CEO Roy Monissen (24) explains the services of Drone analysis.

What prompted the use of drones for crop counting?

It basically started with an assignment for our sports management study. That entailed using a drone to carry out a football analysis from the most perfect perspective. That’s why we followed Sparta’s training courses given by Alex Pastoor, the trainer at the time. How pressure is exerted, and by whom, and what happens when there is a lull in the play. However, this couldn’t be followed up because of the strict rules and regulations.

As I live in the Boskoop tree breeding area, I was asked whether we could be of any help there. Spotting plant diseases turned out to be problematic because there are so many of them and they are tricky to discern. With its own specially developed software, the drone proved to be far more useful for counting plants.

What is Drone analysis busy with in the main?

Our focus is on counting plants. Counting them by hand can prove unreliable. A grower doesn’t get a realistic picture of their crop when faced with unreliable data. It is also valuable information for account managers, customers and the tax authorities. Potential crop loss is detected in good time with this data and consequently there’s the option of replanting.

We guarantee margins of error of no more than two percent with the help of the artificial intelligence which is processed inside the drone. We use a combination of both our own and international software. The technology is adaptive in order to be able to identify plants properly. We are now working on an app to help growers keep everything well-organized.

Aside from all of that, we are able to create comprehensive aerial maps which can be used to efficiently subdivide a nursery. And our images can also be used for marketing and promotion purposes.

Do similar companies operate in the same way as you do?

We aim to distinguish ourselves by being able to tailor everything to the customer. Our service may vary accordingly. For example, does a customer want a map of the layout on a weekly or monthly basis? We work entirely to measure.

How has the response been so far?

There’s quite a bit of scepticism. This data-oriented approach is something that older entrepreneurs in particular sometimes need to get used to. Generally, everyone likes it. But it takes a while before that leads to a meeting or an actual assignment. Furthermore, it ought to be pointed out that the data always remains at the disposal of the owner. As such, we always have to handle the data with the utmost care and and make sure that we can be depended upon.

Sebastiaan van Adrichem en Roy Monissen van start-up Drone analysis
Sebastiaan van Adrichem and Roy Monissen from Drone analysis

What has been the biggest obstacle so far?

Apart from the fact the we are fairly unknown as a company, it can be the case that some plants are planted so uniformly and densely that there is almost no way to differentiate between them. They’re as thick as a forest then.

What has been the main highlight so far?

We have managed to attract renowned companies and gain the trust of a reputable horticultural institute like Naktuinbouw. When it comes to the latter, we are, of course, obliged to agree to the non-disclosure of any results.

What are your expectations for the coming year?

We plan to further expand our crop counting services and are working on making sure that the app can be used effectively.

Where will Drone analysis be in five years’ time?

In five years’ time, we will be an important player in agriculture and horticulture when it comes to agricultural data analysis. A company that is fully geared towards helping growers with a variety of sophisticated tools. Consider, for example, the systematic counting of plants, spatial planning. As well as the app itself, which allows everything at a plant nursery to be seen in a clear and concise manner at a glance. We can also incorporate the other tools we have on offer into this.

Read moreStart-up of the Day: From football analysis to crop counting with a drone

Demand-driven agriculture- the solution for more sustainable farming?

We should all be self-sufficient by 2050. With that idea in mind, Simone and Arend Koekkoek have launched Campus Almkerk. They bought a secluded farm in 2016 and completely rebuilt it. No gas connections anymore, instead solar panels on the roof. It is a place where people can go for advice on sustainable building, housing and agriculture. There are also a number of companies housed there who are working on these issues. 2blueconomy, for instance. A company that supplies energy-saving products for the home, such as a shower that collects heat from shower water and uses it elsewhere in a house. And Pixelfarming, where customers digitally lease agricultural crops. Each ‘pixel’ patch measures 10 by 10 centimeters. People can choose what they want to grow and then design their own garden. No need to sow, harvest and keep track of the land yourself, a robot does all of that. From time to time you even get sent photos of how your crop is doing.

Old ways on the way out

“We believe that current farming methods are on the way out. Farmers are more concerned about which crop yields the most per hectare of land. Yet today’s monoculture is depleting the soil,” says Simone Koekkoek. Her husband adds to this: “Then there are all those other steps in the supply chain before anything ends up on a plate.” The Koekkoek couple are aiming to remove these steps by delivering directly to consumers and allowing them to choose for themselves what they want to grow. Pixelfarming does not use any pesticides and customers get the full harvest. Including all the products and by-products that are not commonly used in the industry.

“Spinach flowers, for example. A restaurant that we supply hardly uses them. When I arrived there once to deliver some spinach that had flowered, they were really enthusiastic. ‘Oh, we’re going to fry those flowers!’ they said immediately. It’s good for the sake of creativity, and it makes people to think about what’s available,” Simone explains.

According to her, the demands of the industry have made us too used to seeing vegetables look a certain way. Beets are between 80 and 110 grams, everything outside of that can’t be found in supermarkets.” While that same restaurant is really delighted with tiny-sized beets. We have forgotten where vegetables come from. This is how we aim to get people to think more consciously about it all.”

Invention is not innovation

Arend believes that technology is used in agriculture in the wrong way: “We have been able to grow crops for a very long time, there’s nothing new about that. Every time I invent a better or faster piece of machinery that can harvest more efficiently, I don’t call it an innovation. It only becomes that when we start using these new technologies to do things in a completely different way.”

According to him, demand-driven agriculture is one such system innovation. “This allows you to use agricultural land much more efficiently.  You are able to grow local produce. And you only grow what people actually need. This has a much smaller impact on the environment.”

“You often hear that the agricultural sector needs to make more use of data and that this data needs to be shared. I am in favor of this as long as it is done in the right way. I think it is very important that farmers find out in the first place what the real added value of data is for them. Just forwarding data streams is pointless,” says Koekkoek. Simone adds to what he said: “It’s a shame that farmers only use these drones or satellite images for determining when and where they should use fertilizer. They only do something with that data once a year that way. Surely a lot more could be gleaned from that?”

Hunting snails with a robot

Koekkoek also believes that agricultural machinery should have many more different uses. He compares it to the very first IBM PCs: “Before those computers, companies had to take their entire bookkeeping to an accountant in order to have them audited. With the advent of computers, they were able to do this themselves. But it also meant that they were able to dispense with typewriters too. They just put a floppy disc in and then the device delivered whatever they needed right there and then. That’s what’s lacking in agriculture at the moment.”

Pixelfarming’s autonomous agricultural robot is trying to perform these multiple tasks. The robot has a battery of sensors. And it has special heads that can be used in several ways. “You can use it to sow, harvest and also track and measure the land. Without the need for separate machines. We are able to design these in consultation with farmers, even when they have specific requirements.”

“You can even play games with our robot too,” laughs Koekkoek. Students who were working on a project about the agriculture of the future developed a game where players used the robot to deal with snails or weeds. ” This sort of thing just kind of happens here. So, that’s how you could look after a crop while playing a game. How cool is that! We need this kind of experimentation so we can view agriculture in a different way.”

Air filter for more pigs?

He has his doubts when it comes to the farmers who in the past few weeks have dragged their tractors out of their barns and driven en masse to The Hague (or their provincial town hall). “I don’t want to lump farmers all together. There are also farmers who do think about how they will leave the planet for the next generation,” says Koekkoek. “But the fact that something has to change has been as clear as a bell for twenty years now. Many farmers have ignored this. They were busy scaling up and increasing their profits. Pig farmers who buy a subsidized air filter for some more pigs – that’s not really a solution, is it?”

The couple believes that it may not be a problem at all if unsustainable agricultural practices were cleaned up. “The farmers who have been working on sustainability for a long time, have grown far less rapidly and have not made enough money. But they do keep an eye on the future of the planet. You can give these other groups money for sustainability projects, but does that change anything? It is not a choice, but a necessity. Let them feel it, maybe they’ll become more creative then. We also turned off the gas supply from one day to the next, so you have to find another way.”

EU research into the use of fields, manure and forests aims to restore the environment

In the next five years, Europe has to invest in developing systems that measure and explain as to why some agricultural crops are growing well or others aren’t. That is the opinion of advisors from the European Commission. They want to know how European forests are being used by consumers. As well as what conditions farms need in order to be able to produce in an optimal, circular way. One of the aims is to ensure that less waste is released into the environment.

In a nutshell, this is the result of a discussion between scientific advisors about planning research paid for by the European innovation fund Horizon. This is how they will try to conserve nature and available water. This should also prevent a further depletion of biodiversity in forests and agricultural areas.

Sensors in fields

Agricultural engineer Helena Gomez Macpherson of the Association for Sustainable Agriculture IAS-CSIC in Spain said that the EU must invest in research into a more efficient use of water in crop cultivation. This is to prevent dehydration and soil acidification.

There are sensors on the market that farmers can use in their fields. They may use these to gauge how their crops are growing. However, Gomez notes that farmers won’t find out why their crops are progressing or not with these sensors. Subsequently, farmers sometimes do not know if problems are due to a lack of irrigation or an excess. Nor do they know what state the soil is in or what the effect of fertilization is having on the environment around their fields. Because this is not the type of information that the sensors pass on. It is possible that they are not taking appropriate measures as a result.

Intelligent fertilization systems

If farmers were to be provided with intelligent irrigation and fertilization systems which use sensors that are also affordable and accurate, (which she considers not to be the case at the moment), that would save them a lot of money. In her opinion, existing sensors do not do this. This would require European research funding from the Horizon Fund, which has a budget of around €100 billion.

Water use during dry periods

The aim is that the environment will improve because farmers will be able to use water and manure much more precisely and sparingly. They will be better able to determine which crops are thriving well in their fields and which ones aren’t. This should also alleviate the burden on the environment.

Climate change, (whereby certain areas in southern Spain, for example, are extremely dry in summer), makes research into environmentally friendly and effective cultivation methods absolutely vital, says Gomez.

Greater use of forests by city-dwellers

The problems are very different when it comes to forestry, as one of the recommendations made by the German professor Georg Winkel from the European Forest Institute (EFI) has shown. He sees a shift in the use of forests, which accounts for some 33 percent of European woodlands. Cities have become more closely involved with forests than in the past. As an example, there is a trend in Germany towards kindergartens in the woods, he explains. Known as ‘Waldkindergarten‘, there are now around 2000 of these as far as he is aware of. Plus there are more and more cultural activities that take place in the forests, such as funerals. If it is up to him, there will be research into how Europeans would most like to use their forests, what the advantages and disadvantages are, and how we can protect them.

Biodiversity under pressure

Albeit to a lesser extent than in agriculture, Winkel states that there is a clear trend that biodiversity in forests is also coming under pressure. He also wants European scientists to work with forest scientists on other continents, such as China, in order to exchange knowledge like this. Forests in the EU are not the only ones. As far as Winkel is concerned, a policy will be put in place to deal with products on the market which are linked to the loss of tropical forests outside of Europe.

Less soy from South America

One way to become less dependent on cattle feed such as soy from the US and South America is to reuse nutrients in agriculture that would otherwise become waste, according to Ghent professor Erik Meers, who specializes in bio-regeneration. In this context, he is focused on research into methods which will turn farming in the EU into a circular industry.

Manure as a source of energy

An example that he gave was the direct use of fresh manure for energy production. That way, the farmer avoids, among other things, the build-up of manure and the release of nitrogen into the soil. This is beneficial to the environment. Moreover, the European farmer saves money on energy because they then become an energy producer themselves.

Start-up of the day: artsy engineer aims to conquer the world with a creative approach to water

Tijmen Dekkers van Deltae met de nieuwe wateropslag Delta X

Deltae Innovation Solutions B.V in Zundert tries to work with water in a creative way. With an eye on climate change, the focal point is a compact underground water tank designed for the agricultural sector, called Delta X. It is a strong and stable water reservoir with a high level of efficiency. Water is collected during heavy rain and stored for dry periods. The parts are recyclable and installation requires relatively little energy. Another important advantage is that this innovative storage system saves space.

The originator, the artsy civil engineer Tijmen Dekkers (23 and from the birthplace of Van Gogh), explains his company’s activities.

What motivated you to start Deltae?

It all started with a competition that I had won. That was the ‘Future of the Netherlands Delta Land’ prize from the Cruquius Museum. I had designed a concrete tank that collects and distributes water. The idea behind it was to cope more effectively with flooding and drought. I thought I should do more with that since I had won. And that’s how the idea came about for the company.

What does the company actually do??

The focus is on the Delta X underground water storage system which we devote most of our time to. The system is now comprised of an aluminium water tank that can be clicked together just like an IKEA kit.

It is designed to achieve various goals. Its underground construction means you can use the space above it. Rainwater is collected during rainfall and can be used during droughts. The construction is light and strong, so that the area can handle heavy loads.

One of the advantages of the light material is that it is easy to transport as well as to install. This in turn saves energy and CO2. The system is, amongst other things, well suited for tree nurseries, where it is currently being tested. Or for the cultivation of strawberries and tomatoes. There are various types of water used in the agricultural sector, but the most ideal is still rainwater. This provides a stable basis. Whereas with spring water, for example, there may be substances that are harmful.

Since aluminium reacts with water and that way produces ions that get into the water (which can be bad for your health, ed.), we are planning to modify Delta X. The material is now going to be made of composite, but with the same properties – light and strong, but it doesn’t react to water.

Besides all that, we advise and we talk about designs all over the place. Deltae is involved in a water playground near the railway area in Tilburg and has also designed the Corsospuwer. The latter is a creative solution designed to combat flooding. Corsopuwer prevents rainwater from flowing into drains, instead it sprays it onto your garden. It is a playful construction which also incorporates the heraldry featured on the logos of the Bloemencorso Zundert districts. The plan is to expand this nationwide.

Are there similar start-ups that are trying to do the same thing?

There are alternatives to underground water storage. Frequently the problem is finding the balance between cost, structural strength and maintenance. Usually infiltration crates are used for more effective water management, but they are less strong when it comes to heavier loads. Plus, our biggest advantage is that we are cheaper. Our costs for construction or transport are lower.

What is the reaction to your Delta X product and other services?

At the Bömer tree nursery, we are learning a lot from the trials. We are getting plenty of attention. Yet we often hear the question: does it work? Critical reactions are still up in the air as to the precise added value. You have to prove that it works.

What has been the biggest obstacle so far?

In the sector, you sometimes see an undercapacity of engineers who think differently. Or they think too specialized, solely within their own field of expertise. Then too little attention is paid to the big picture. I like to think ‘out of the box’. Maybe that’s why I’m also involved in art. That’s how I managed to gain some publicity with my ‘Nightwatch tea’.

What has been the highlight for Deltae?

That was winning the first prize at the Cities of our future European contest in 2018. It was a conceptual model designed to be used in South Africa. By using a demo model we were able to show how a city could be supplied with sufficient water.

What do you expect from the coming year?

Aside from using composite as a new material for the water tank, we are also involved in the Zundert tea plantation. That could do with better water. We are working on a tea concept for Saudi Arabia as well. And we – from the provinces of Noord-Brabant and Breda – are going on a trade mission to China.

And what is your long-term vision?

Many cities face water problems, especially when it comes to torrential rain. Cleansing and providing good water is interesting. We hope to eventually become a solid consortium, one that will expand and eventually have a partner.

Read moreStart-up of the day: artsy engineer aims to conquer the world with a creative approach to water

In search of more efficient agriculture using sensors and cameras

Photonics is a promising technology in almost all sectors, now and in the future. Numerous scientists are exploring the possibilities of this light technology. But what use is it to companies in other industries? How will they apply photonics? That’s what Photonics Applications Week is all about. This week will be dedicated to workshops, congresses, and exhibitions to show professionals from various disciplines what photonics can contribute in their sector.

Photonics can also be of great value to the agricultural and food industries. In the agri-food sector, there is currently a threat looming of major shortages of production staff who are able to do the work that has not yet been or cannot be automated,” says Ivo Ploegsma. He is responsible for scouting out new technologies within the Food Tech Brainport innovation accelerator. Agriculture, including arable and livestock farming, and horticulture all form part of the agri sector. “That work is often outdoors or in a food factory where it is relatively cold. That means that people are more likely to choose another job.” This is one of the reasons for the sector to go ahead with developing automation further alongwith photonics.

Converting applications

Together with ZLTO, BOM, FME and REWIN, Food Tech Brainport is organizing an event during the Photonics Applications Week. This is supported by the agri-food innovation program of the province of North Brabant. ” We are looking for applications in the agricultural sector that have been around for some time in the high-tech sector, such as more sensitive cameras or optical sensors,” says Ploegsma.

“We need to transform these into systems that work well in our sector. Like, for example, cameras that can withstand water and sand.” In order to achieve this, the agri sector must cooperate with the high-tech industry. “It’s just that these sectors speak totally different languages. As a result, the agri sector is unable to clarify their problems properly, and the companies in software, photonics and automation are unable to adequately explain their solutions. We want to make sure that the sectors understand each other better during this event and start looking for smart solutions together.”

Robotic eyes

The cameras or sensors, hence photonics, serve as a part of a robot or an automated system. “When you replace the hands of people who cut, pick or pack something, you also replace their eyes. A robot must be able to see what it has to pack or where it is going. That’s what the cameras are for.” These have many more possibilities than the human eye. “Using the latest camera technology, we can even look inside a tomato and measure certain values.”

A number of large farms are already well on the way to applying this technology. “A potato farmer from Brabant even has his own mini-airport and a permit to fly, which allows him to fly drones over his land,” Ploegsma explains. “But there are also still plenty of farms where people have to lie on the side platform of a slow-moving tractor in order to weed crops, for instance.”

Weed control and food production

The Photonics Applications Week event is also about weeding, among other things. “A robot or self-propelled tractor can easily weed when a field is empty. But if there are also potato plants in the field, the robot has to decide for itself what constitutes a weed and what does not.”

This makes the system complicated, according to Ploegsma. A camera needs to take pictures of the land. The robot analyzes the land on site and decides whether the plant is a weed or not. It then proceeds to carry out a mechanical action, namely pulling the plant out or leaving it alone “The system has to decide all this by itself. That’s why the machine has to be self-adaptive as well.”

The problems facing food processing companies are more or less the same. “Sometimes a robot with a camera system is already being used here. In many cases this is still difficult because the products are not fixed in shape or move around freely during production. This makes it a lot harder for a robot”, explains Ploegsma. By making existing camera systems smarter or developing new systems, a robot can respond better to variable products. According to him, there is still much to be gained in terms of quality, efficiency and data collection.

Bringing components together

This requires various companies with different expertise to work together. It takes one company to create the proper images, one company to provide software, analyze and classify data, and another company to build a machine or application that will eventually perform an action such as weed removal or relocating a food product. “The technical elements already exist. Now we need to combine them in the right way in order to be able to use the system on a large scale within the agri sector and the food industry.”

The participating organizations are looking for companies that will have developed a viable solution within six months to a year in order to make up for the shortage of production workers. “Research into new technological developments through universities, for example, remains necessary. Yet the agri-food sector is also looking for concrete applications that they will be able to use quickly,” Ploegsma says. “That is why we want to combine existing technologies so that we can create an affordable and reliable solution.”

Hunger for data

The demand for automation also has another reason, namely the hunger for data. ” Data concerning food production is becoming increasingly important. More and more people have an allergy or a preference for certain foods. On top of that, consumers want to know increasingly more about the origin of their food,” says Ploegsma. All this has to be registered on the basis of data collected during the production process. This is often done during the automated stages of the production process.

Cooperation is essential

For the time being, the high-tech and agri-food sectors are two separate worlds. During Photonics Applications Week, Ploegsma wants to ensure that these parties have a better understanding of each other and will start working together on applications that they are able to implement quickly. “We hope that all the various companies will start projects together in order to achieve this. The organizing parties will supervise and support these projects where necessary. By doing this, we hope to be able to show the first results within just a few months.”

The Photonics Applications Week will run until October the 4th. You can find the program here.

Start-up of the week: a real person as a customer service rep? How old-fashioned!

”Your sneak preview of the future” is the slogan of Innovation Origins, and that’s just what we will highlight with our Start-up of the Week column. Over the past few days, five start-ups of the day have been featured and on Saturday we will choose the week’s winner.

Innovation Origins presents a Start-up of the Day each weekday

We shall consider various issues such as sustainability, developmental phase, practical application, simplicity, originality and to what extent they are in line with the Sustainable Development Goals  of UNESCO. They will all pass by here and at the end of the week, the Start-Up of the Week will be announced.

 

SatAgro – A satellite’s eye for precision farming

As new technologies emerge, it is becoming easier for agricultural businesses to keep an eye on their land. In the past, everything had to be checked by hand and consequently a lot was overlooked. A combination of GPS equipment and sensors under the ground, on the land surface and in the air allows us to keep a very close eye on the growing crops without the need for human eyes.

SatAgro is actually exactly what you would expect from it – a satellite that looks after crops. The farmer saves a lot of time by outsourcing monitoring and always knows exactly how much fertilizer, pesticides or phytohormones are needed at any given time. This system might also be a solution for people without green fingers and a lousy garden …

Glowingplaces –  Let forlorn city spots shine once more

Eindhoven is generally not really known as a picturesque place with beautiful historic buildings. Most will associate the city of Brabant with desolate, redeveloped buildings and Philips. In the 1970s, no fewer than 40,000 people worked for the electronics company. However, this was almost half a century ago, and Philips gradually began to disappear from Eindhoven over time. What was left were abandoned factory sites with little left to do besides demolishing them.

Sandra Poelman has shown that things could be done differently. She was one of the architects behind the renovated Strijp-S, which over the past decade and a half has developed from a sad abandoned mess into one of the most innovative hotspots in the Netherlands. And now her expertise and experience is available to everyone through her start-up Glowingplaces. Which helps transformations from hopeless to hotspot. Poelman’s experience says more than enough. Let’s just say that a certain, sensational, unspecified site that publishes about start-ups is located at Strijp-S … we are not naming names here.

Zwolle, Oss and Bergen op Zoom have already started working with her and at the moment she has had so many requests that there’s a queue.

Tofmotion – Robot security

Following transport, logistics and administration, security should become the next sector where machines will take over from the people. Technological tools in the security sector are nothing new, but if it is up to Tofmotion’s camera equipment, video surveillance ought to be carried out without the intervention of a single person in the future.

This LIDAR technology is not new, but Tofmotion has made LIDAR more accurate. This technology used to work a bit like a knight’s helmet, so it could only make environmental scans using ‘stripes’, which were never very reliable. This is not the case with the cameras from this Austrian company. They use so-called Time-of-Flight (flashLIDAR) technology, which emits a kind of electromagnetic cloud that is immediately analyzed in order to determine whether or not there are any deviations from a normal situation.

Tofmotion sees itself as a pioneer in this field, their camera has already received an official safety certificate and they are eager to continue discovering the unexplored world of robotics and security. Will the ubiquitous V insignia on security staff uniforms disappear from the streets soon? Then this trio just might have something to do with that ….

 

Tangany – Extra security for blockchain

Blockchain was quite the buzzword in 2017.  No one really knew what it was, and every self-styled innovation guru thought that this was the future and that everyone should go for it. So far, even government agencies are convinced that blockchain is the future for them as well. Although they still don’t know exactly how and in what areas, it does sound good. Blockchain … a wonderful word that appeals to the imagination, obviously. ‘Cyber security expert’ Rian van Rijbroek has even created a whole revenue model around it and was able to amplify her mind-bending message on the Dutch national news television program Nieuwsuur.

However, blockchain is a technology that must be taken seriously and it offers plenty of advantages. The decentralized storage of data on numerous interconnected servers certainly has merit. And even though nobody really understands all the possibilities of this technology, Tangany promises to offer concrete solutions. It also offers concrete products for companies that want to work with blockchain, yet who don’t know exactly how to do that. The Germans are still looking for funding, but believe that, as pioneers, they will make the potential of blockchain technology more accessible as well as discover new innovative applications.

 

E-Bot7 – Automatized customer service

The team behind E-Bot7 wants to help telephone customer services enter into the future by using artificial intelligence to ensure that customers are served faster and more effectively. As a result, queues of up to 45 minutes and frustrating repeated calls (due to unsolved problems) may be a thing of the past.

A self-learning system that is designed to handle complaints or queries which can be resolved on the basis of standard procedures.  On average, around 90 percent of incoming calls to a telecom provider are handled by a computer. What is this percentage based on? The personal experience of this author, who in their grey past was once a ‘customer expert’ at a really friendly call center. In cases where more customization and expertise is needed, it will still be possible to transfer the call to a skilled human customer service representative. The E-Bot7 is very much in its infancy at the moment and can only speak English and German. However, the German company has big plans and wants to expand the software step by step with new technologies, specialties and languages.

Now, as a reader, you are probably thinking: _an insensitive robot on the line which is nothing more than a talking procedure … That’s not much different from the current situation, isn’t it?” This is partially true, especially for certain companies involved in parcel delivery and unnamed government agencies burdened with issues such as tax, benefits or driving ability.

However, it definitely makes a difference: artificial intelligence is not familiar with the phenomenon of ‘office hours’, which means that you are able to get your affairs in order even in the middle of the night. Ideal! And that’s why we want to crown E-Bot7 with the honor of calling itself Start-up of the Week! Despite the fact that personal attention is being lost, E-Bot7 – or technology that resembles it – certainly seems to be the future. What’s more, companies en masse are already working on it, but not on the same general and universal scale as this start-up who can roll it out across more sectors.

The need for customer service is greater than ever, yet this technology makes it cheaper and more efficient than ever before. And that’s how you save on both personnel and office costs. It’s a pity though that this technology means that thousands of call center employees will have to look for new employment in the coming decade.

 

Best read: ‘Farmers must produce less manure in order to stop soil acidification.’

Hassles with construction projects that are put on hold. Extra pressure on those farmers who are easy targets when it comes to exceeding nitrogen norms – thanks to their use and over-production of manure. In recent weeks, both these issues have been in the news quite a bit. That probably also led to an article from last month suddenly becoming one of the best read articles on Innovation Origins this week.

In this article, the Flemish biologist Tobias Ceulemans told us that his research shows that nutritious, much-needed fungi in tree roots and soil are dying of overly high levels of nitrogen. He also discovered that they are already dying with nitrogen values that are far below existing European norms for nitrogen levels (between 10 and 15 kilos per hectare, depending on what kind of area it is).

Norms for nitrogen levels must therefore be reduced, concludes Ceulemans. That said, the current norms are not even being upheld. Is this the only way to help soil recover from the excess nitrogen levels it contains? – That’s the question for ecologist Roos Loeb, a specialist in nature restoration at the B-Ware research center.

Are there other ways to reduce the nitrogen content that’s in soil other than preventing emissions?

“Yes, but they are not nearly as effective. One way is to remove a few centimeters off the top layer of the soil. It contains most of the nitrogen there and you’ll then be rid of these. But that’s not so great for the plants and animals that live there. They get a kind of desert in return. Dry conditions often arise as a result as well, so plants that need a little more moisture don’t do as well there anymore. And a lot of animals have a hard time because of the dry soil. However, heather, for example, grows really well there. But this is not the right way to tackle soil acidification caused by nitrogen deposition. This acidification leads to less varied vegetation. You notice that some plants die out, such as the catsfoot. You will also see fewer yellow flowers blooming in between the heather. You can sprinkle limestone or mineral-rich rockdust onto the ground in order to do something about this. This ensures that any acidification is negated. Another method is to cultivate grass that grows faster as a result of nitrogen deposition. You can mow that grass more often. And the grass clippings can be removed. These can then be used as animal feed, for instance. In that case, you will have taken the nitrogen out of the ecosystem. Though this doesn’t count for valuable vegetation. You can’t mow those very often.”

Is it also possible for acidic soil to recover naturally?

“It is possible. But the plants and animals that leave, do not just come back. If it weren’t for the high nitrogen emissions caused by human activity over the past 50 years, the soil would only have been slightly acidified by nitrogen. As minerals such as potassium and magnesium are released from clay more or less to the same extent, the composition of the soil would then have remained better in balance. But in that respect, you’ re talking about a process that will take hundreds of years.”

In that case, the only solution is to emit less nitrogen. How can we do that?

“That’s a difficult question. Most nitrogen is emitted by traffic, industry and agriculture. Agriculture not only releases NOx, but ammonia as well. This has an even stronger acidifying effect on soil. This is why I think the most effective solution is for agriculture to cut down on its production of manure.”

Top 10 Emerging Technologies (5): Smarter Fertilizers and Precision Farming

World Economic Forum (WEF) asked a group of international technology experts to identify this year’s Top 10 Emerging Technologies. After soliciting nominations from additional experts around the globe, the group evaluated dozens of proposals according to a number of criteria. Do the suggested technologies have the potential to provide major benefits to societies and economies? Could they alter established ways of doing things? Are they likely to make significant inroads in the next several years? “Technologies that are emerging today will soon be shaping the world tomorrow and well into the future – with impacts to economies and to society at large”, said Mariette DiChristina, Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American, and chair of the Emerging Technologies Steering Committee. In our constant lookout for the origins of innovation, IO will present WEF’s top-10 emerging technologies in a 10-part series. Today: Smarter fertilizers.

After part 10 has been published, the whole series can be found here

When Innovation Origins publishes about agriculture, it’s mostly about agrotech. You might have read about indoor farming, a milking robot, intelligent greenhouses, a food-scanner, the cultured meat burger, a device to determine the health of plants, it’s even about food made from air. We also explored how (and why) to bring tech to the farm. And that’s what WEF has also done. To feed the world’s growing population, farmers need to increase crop yields, WEF’s researchers note. “Applying more fertilizer could help, but standard versions work inefficiently and often harm the environment. Fortunately, products that are more ecologically sound – controlled-release fertilizers – are available and becoming increasingly smart.”

Farmers typically fertilize crops in two ways. They spray fields with ammonia, urea or other substances that generate the nutrient nitrogen when they react with water. And they apply granules of potash or other minerals to produce phosphorus, also in reaction to water. But relatively little of those nutrients makes its way into the plants. Instead, much of the nitrogen goes into the atmosphere in greenhouse gases, and phosphorus ends up in watersheds frequently triggering excessive growth of algae and other organisms. Controlled-release formulations, in contrast, can ensure that significantly higher levels of nutrients reach the crops, leading to higher yields with less fertilizer.

Slow-release fertilizers

A class known as slow-release fertilizers has been sold for some time. These formulations typically consist of
tiny capsules filled with substances that contain nitrogen, phosphorus and other desired nutrients. The outer shell slows both the rate at which water can access the inner contents to liberate the nutrients and the rate at which the end products escape from the capsule. Fertilizers that more fully fit the description “controlled release” have been developed recently – made possible by sophisticated materials and manufacturing techniques that can tune the shells so they alter nutrient-release rates in desired ways as the soil’s temperature, acidity or moisture changes.

Although controlled-release technologies make fertilizers more efficient, they do not eliminate all drawbacks of fertilizer use. The products still include ammonia, urea and potash, for example; producing these substances is energy-intensive, which means that their manufacture can contribute to greenhouse gas production and climate change. This effect could be mitigated, however, by using environmentally friendlier sources of nitrogen and incorporating microorganisms that improve the efficiency of nitrogen and phosphorus uptake by plants. There is no evidence that the materials composing the shells hurt the environment, but this risk must be monitored whenever any new substances are introduced in high volumes.

Precision Farming

Controlled-release fertilizers are part of a sustainable approach to agriculture known as precision farming. This approach improves crop yield and minimizes excessive nutrient release by combining data analytics, AI and various sensor systems to determine exactly how much fertilizer and water plants need at any given time and by deploying autonomous vehicles to deliver nutrients in prescribed amounts and locations. Installing precision systems is costly, though, so only large-scale operations tend to have them. In comparison, advanced controlled-release fertilizers are relatively inexpensive and could be a front-line technology that would help farmers to sustainably increase crop production.

(Most of this article is drawn from the 2019 Top 10 Emerging Technologies report)

Animal Feed from Insects Enables Environmentally Friendly Livestock Farming

Due to the intensification of meat production, there is an enormous demand for protein-containing animal feed. But protein is a scarce and valuable raw material – and the traditional production of vegetable protein is harmful to the environment. Animal feed from insects, on the other hand, would make species-appropriate and environmentally compatible livestock farming possible.

Traditionally, protein-rich animal feed is produced from soy and fish meal. Raw materials that represent a considerable burden on the environment and do not meet the requirements of organic animal breeding. Austria purchases approximately 250 thousand tons of soy and fishmeal annually from South America. The production of fly larvae could replace the import of protein sources from outside Europe. Shorter transport routes and the conservation of natural resources would reduce the emission of climate-damaging gases.

Natural Nourishment

The use of insects as feed is obvious. A protein deficiency has a negative effect on the health of the animals. Chickens, pigs and fish feed at least partially on insects in their natural environment. Insects make up sixty percent of the natural diet of trout. Laying hens and broilers eat insects as well as grains and grasses. When pigs dig in the soil, they also look for protein suppliers such as worms.

Special Case Fish-Breeding

In fish farming, the lack of high-quality organic feed also speaks in favor of insect-based feeds. According to the start-up company Ecofly, which specializes in breeding insect larvae that can be used for agricultural purposes, this lack of high-quality organic feed represents a considerable barrier to conversion to organic farming. As a marine raw material, fishmeal is not sustainable. For this reason, the production of organic trout feed is limited to fish meal obtained from processing waste. In addition, the high proportion of vegetable protein leads to poor usability and, as a result, to chronic intestinal inflammation, according to Ecofly.

Intensive Research

Ecofly is not alone in the market: there are around twenty companies worldwide that specialize in insect-based animal feeds. In Europe, the companies Protix (Netherlands), Ynsect (France) and Hermetia  (Germany) are working on it. Ecofly has focused on a segment that has not yet been considered: a protein source for the rearing and fattening of predatory fish.

Hermetia Illucens

Insects are able to convert feed with low protein value into high-quality protein. The insect Hermetia Illucens (black soldier fly), which occurs in the subtropics, feeds on dead plants and consists of thirty percent protein shortly before pupation. At this stage, the larvae could be harvested and processed or used live as animal feed. The Ecofly start-up wants to push this concept of protein recovery for a cycle-oriented agriculture.

Productive Breeding

Ecofly started research on the agricultural use of Hermetia Illucens three years ago. The larvae are fed with by-products from the food industry. This has the advantage that no additional heat sources are required for the breeding of the larvae. In addition, a stable process can be guaranteed, and harmful substances can be excluded. Land use is extremely efficient: one square meter can produce up to one ton of protein per year.

Protein, Oil and Fertilizer

The research work resulted in three products: Protein, oil and fertilizer. Protein and oil are obtained by degreasing the dried larvae. The fertilizer comes from the residues of larval breeding.

  • The oil is suitable in its composition as a sustainable palm oil substitute in cosmetics and food as well as an energy supplier in animal feed for farm animals and pets.
  • The protein is suitable for feed in aquaculture and as a protein source for pets with protein intolerances. It has no antinutritive properties and hardly any allergenic potential. Other properties include high biological value and excellent digestibility.
  • The fertilizer can be used in agriculture and horticulture. Sustainably produced, it represents a biological nutrient source for a large number of plants. The insect larvae enzymatically break down the nutrients they contain and thus become available to the plants.

Proven Benefit

The benefits of larval breeding have been proven in numerous scientific studies. Protein conversion rates of up to ninety percent were observed during waste recycling by Hermetia Illucens larvae. An effect on the growth and health of the animals comparable to fishmeal was also demonstrated. In terms of CO2 emissions, fish meal, at 1400 kilograms of CO2 per ton, is clearly behind insect meal, which is 500 kilograms of CO2 per ton.

Legal Hurdles

There are still a few hurdles to overcome for use on a larger scale. Regulation (EC) 893/2017 allowed the feeding of certain insect species in aquaculture. The concept of beneficial insect was introduced and clear guidelines for the production of insect protein were laid down at European level. In Austria the feeding of live insects is prohibited. There are fears of microbiological hazards from the introduction of live insects into livestock houses. The feeding of insect protein to chickens or pigs is also currently still prohibited. These regulations are expected to be changed in 2020.

The breeding of insects also raises ethical questions. Clear guidelines for the keeping and killing of bred insects are necessary to achieve acceptance in society.

The Team Ecofly

The founders of the Ecofly start-up are Simon Weinberger, Michael Forster and Bernhard Protiwensky. CEO Weinberger is a chemist and fisherman and contributes his expertise in aquaculture. CTO Forster completed his studies in culturalengineering and water management and contributes with his knowledge of technology and agriculture. CFO Protiwensky is a mechanical engineer and multiple founder. He is the source of knowledge about fertilizer production. He also contributes to the technical implementation.

Also Interesting:

Yeast as an Alternative Protein Source for Animal Feed

‘Mosquito Spray’ as Crop Protection

Bringing tech to the farm

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Technology is helping farmers feed the world. It can also make agriculture more environmentally friendly – for conventional and organic farmers alike

By Kelly Oakes, the Technologist

Replacing tractors, robots can cut a farm’s carbon footprint by 90%. They feed and spray only the plants that need it. Thanks to plant phenotyping, French researchers give farmers as much information as possible about a crop before they plant it.

Drones tackling weeds, satellites monitoring crops, and even robots testing whether grapes on the vine are ready for harvesting – these futuristic scenarios are already in use in farms across Europe, and not a moment too soon. A 2009 UN report predicted that by 2050 food production would have to increase by 70% to support the planet’s growing population. To do that, the world’s farmers will need all the technological help they can get.

At the same time, the planet is struggling under the weight of climate change and shrinking biodiversity, so the ecological footprint of any new technology can no longer be an afterthought.

The ecological footprint of organic agriculture has historically been better than that of conventional farming because it avoids chemical pesticides. But farmers embracing new technologies, known as precision agriculture, are making improvements, too. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Policy showed that automatic steering on tractors reduced a Kentucky corn and soybean farm’s carbon footprint by more than 2%. That may not sound like much, but it’s only one measure. Multiplying precision-agriculture techniques over an entire industry will make a big difference.

“Precision farmers are generally more technology-oriented than organic farmers, whereas organic farmers are generally more oriented towards working with nature,” says Lijbert Brussaard, professor emeritus of Soil Biology at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands. “But there are no fundamental reasons why this should remain so.”

Brussaard points out that precision-farming techniques could just as well be applied to the mixed or strip cropping (two or more crops grown in the same field) employed by organic farmers. “Precision farming could greatly relieve weed control in organic agriculture,” he says.

Robots of all kinds could be useful to conventional and organic farmers alike. Swiss company Gamaya, a spin-off from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, uses drones to image fields not just in visible light but in all electromagnetic wavelengths. The data is combined with that collected from on-the-ground sensors and satellite images, then analysed using machine learning to show farmers exactly what’s going on in their fields.

The Small Robot Company, based in Bristol, UK, gets a bit closer up and personal with crops: roaming over fields to digitise them, using a precision-sprayer to cut down on fertiliser for plants and pesticide for weeds, and “punch-planting” crops.

“Most farmers would like to be better stewards of the environment,” says Benn-Scott Robinson, co-founder of the Small Robot Company. But traditional machines like tractors have not given them much choice.

By replacing tractors and eliminating the need to plough a field because the soil is not compacted in the first place, Robinson says the company’s robots could cut a farm’s carbon footprint by 90%. Chemical usage could also be cut by 95%. “They will feed and spray only the plants that need it, giving them the perfect levels nutrients and support, with no waste,” he explains.

The company’s field digitising robot is currently being tested at 20 farms around the UK, and they plan to expand the trial with planting and weeding robots in 2019.

“The prospects of light robots to take over in weed control look bright,” says Brussaard. “The future is in lighter machinery anyway, also to prevent soil compaction.”

While some new agricultural technologies focus on gathering data in the fields, others want to optimise the plants themselves. Technologies like the Plantix app, developed by Berlin-based start-up PEAT, use machine learning to detect plant diseases. Launched in 2015, the app now has more than 600,000 users worldwide. “Users can upload images of diseased plants, which are then matched with a server image and a diagnosis of the plant’s health is provided,” says Dan Pitchford, founder of the magazine AI Business. “With up to 30% of yields lost due to disease, PEAT has the power to improve agricultural outputs by just as much.”

Plant data

But what if farmers could choose plants less susceptible to a particular disease in the first place? Plant phenotyping uses technology to give farmers as much information as possible about a crop before they plant it.

Emmanuel de Langre, professor of mechanics at École Polytechnique near Paris, and his co-workers have created a system that tests the mechanical strength of a plant using fast puffs of air and video analysis. “There’s plenty of things that you don’t see otherwise that you might see this way,” he says.

If a plant isn’t getting enough water or has been infected by a pathogen, for example, its strength will drop before it starts to wilt. By testing hundreds of individuals from several key varieties of plants, de Langre and other researchers working on plant phenotyping are building datasets that could help farmers make the most of their crops.

This information will complement the environmental data farmers are getting on soil quality and local weather. “They cannot use that effectively if they don’t have good data on the performance of plants under these conditions,” says de Langre. “You don’t try to push the plant too much to go outside of its usual way of growing. You just try to get data so that the right plant is used in the right place at the right time.”

This article was first published on ‘The Technologist‘ and was republished with permission