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RALEIGH – Spending more time indoors is just part of life for most people these days.
But today’s indoor farming industry faces two major problems.
First, workers who have experience creating and managing environmental conditions for indoor plant growth are both expensive and difficult to find.
Second, during a pandemic, most indoor farms can’t continue operating, due to their dependence on that scarce human labor.
Raleigh-based AgEye Technologies says it has a solution for both problems. The artificial intelligence-based company, which typically provides its indoor farming customers AI-powered cameras, sensors and predictive analytics, calls its pandemic-beater “a plant scientist in a box.”
AgTech Breakthrough, a global market intelligence organization, likes what AgEye has come up with. It has given a big “aye” to AgEye by naming it one of the Top Five Artificial Intelligence Startups Impacting Agriculture. And it also recently conferred its inaugural Indoor Farming Company of the Year award to AgEye.
Indoor farming has emerged as one of the leading solutions to a global food security crisis that includes widespread food shortages, increasing food prices and an increasing number of less-nutritious crops that have been engineered to survive the long and difficult transit from farm to table.
However, AgEye points out, many indoor farmers fear being unprofitable, or worse yet, having to shutter their operations entirely, due to high operational costs. Most of the pressure is related to the need for skilled workers who understand the intricacies of growing plants in a controlled environment.
In addition, “The global COVID-19 pandemic has shown us just how critical the need is for food supply chains that can continue to operate without being entirely dependent on human labor,” said AgEye CEO Nick Genty. “Unfortunately, the majority of commercial indoor farms lack the technology infrastructure needed to effectively automate their operations enough to lessen their dependency on skilled labor. This is the area we’re focusing our efforts.”
Founded in 2018 by serial entrepreneurs Genty and John Dominic, AgEye has pioneered in the application of novel AI technologies within controlled-environment agriculture. The company’s patented “Scientist-in-a-Box” technology helps maximize plant development and structural analysis, with the goal of improving the consistency and quality of crop yields for indoor growers.
“We combine the principles of plant physiology and precision farming with our AIoT technology to build crop-specific AI models,” explained Dominic, AgEye’s chief technology officer. “This helps plants live up to their maximum genetic potential with the best and choicest traits as desired by consumers. AgEye is transforming today’s indoor farms into ‘truly intelligent’ ones by enabling remote management, precise and optimum resource utilization, accurate yield predictions, and autonomous, timely action.”
In an interview with the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, Genty said the 22-person company raised a $500,000 pre-seed round and is actively raising an additional $3 million.
He noted that the number of people with crop expertise and an understanding of plant science is declining year-by-year. The days of farmers passing on knowledge from one generation to the next “just isn’t there anymore.” That means that up to 55% of the staff working indoor farms have no crop-growing experience at all.
“Indoor farming takes an understanding of countless growth factors just to get it right, and a lot of people struggle with that.”
Several large ag tech companies are interested in indoor farming, Genty said. “When they asked Amazon why it wanted to get into the grocery business when it bought Whole Foods, Amazon said it didn’t want to be in the grocery business. It wants to be in the farming business and may include indoor farms at its distribution centers. Microsoft has invested $50 million in its Azure FarmBeats project and committed additional capital through their Agritech Startups Program, designed to specifically help startups build sustainable agricultural technology.”
AgEye currently has five commercial field trials going on in the Netherlands, Israel, Spain, Turkey and the U.S. Genty said it plans to boost its manufacturing capabilities and do more hiring to become fully operational and revenue-producing in the next 12 months.
The AgEye team is split between two offices; one in Raleigh and the other in Bangalore, India. It currently has seven open positions that it’s actively trying to fill.
AgEye recently won a patent for its use of AI to control indoor farming conditions, and also kicked off a collaborative research project with North Carolina State University.
Like most companies, AgEye has been working mostly virtually during the pandemic. “I spend half my day on Zoom,” Genty said.
(C) N.C. Biotech Center