Feeding a hungry world with venture capital

Artificial intelligence and machine learning technology are developing fast and finding their way into every corner of our lives. It’s hardly surprising, then, to find them in…animal poop. 

Livestock suffer from parasites. To counter them, farmers need to take samples of faeces to a lab and can wait five days for results. Instead, they often just dose their herd with medication, which can result in resistance to the medication.  “Overuse of medication could affect the food chain as well,” says Daniel Izquierdo, managing director and co-founder of Micron Agritech. “What goes into animals ends up on our plates.”

With fellow students from the Technological University of Dublin, Izquierdo has developed a solution that allows farmers to rapidly test the presence of gut parasites in cattle, sheep and horses. The Micron Kit uses machine-learning technology to turn samples collected with a pen-side portable kit into usable information that is plugged into a smartphone.

The information is relayed to the cloud. A model built on over 20 000 data points identifies the parasite, delivering results in under half an hour.

“This was our opportunity to make a positive change for both animal and human health,” says Izquierdo. “We knew that technology has the potential to help transform these practices for the better.”

The project won the team several awards and prize money, so in 2019 they were ready to spin out of the university and set up their own company. An equity investment from The Yield Lab Europe, a venture-capital firm focused on agriculture and food systems that is backed by the European Investment Fund under the European Union’s Investment Plan for Europe, helped them take the next step. “They helped our product development and got us to where we are today,” Izquierdo adds.

The Micron Agritech team have since been working full time on the project. They have deployed prototypes with 10 users in Ireland and are looking to launch the product commercially in 2022. “We are on the brink of a major tipping point right now, where the farming sector is looking to shift, try new things,” Izquierdo says. “Technology needs to support that.” 

Feeding the world with venture capital

Micron Agritech is one example of how venture capital is helping to bring much needed innovation to the agricultural sector. The world’s population hit eight billion this year and is expected to rise by about 30% to peak at 10.4 billion in about 60 years. Feeding all these extra people, however, will not be easy. Climate change, more extreme weather patterns, and nutrient depletion in the soil are set to weaken the planet’s ability to provide, just as it is called upon to produce more. Unless we make significant changes to how we produce our food and increase output significantly by innovating and embracing new technologies, future generations could go hungry.

The European Investment Fund supports venture capital in Europe by investing in funds like The Yield Lab Europe.

“By investing in funds managed by venture capital and private equity firms, we can multiply the resources we provide to the market,” says Adelaide Cracco, head of climate and environmental impact at the European Investment Fund. “When we work alongside investors in this way, every euro we invest attracts another four euros from other investors. It’s also a better way to scale our activities and do more with our financial and human resources reaching many more enterprises and businesses than if we were investing on our own. The Fund managers we work with have the required proximity to market to identify high potential companies and provide them with value-add in addition to capital.”

Buzzing with innovation

Another agri-tech startup that the European Investment Fund has helped support is ApisProtect, a company in Cork, Ireland, which has developed an innovative system involving sensors, global communications, and artificial intelligence that helps beekeepers increase productivity and reduce costs.

Bees play a vital role in food production, as they are essential for pollinating many crops. But bee numbers are declining and face continued threats, ranging from climate change and biocides to pathogens and suboptimal management practices.

Using a combination of the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence technology, ApisProtect remotely extracts and interprets data from hives. “Our technology can monitor temperature, movement, humidity and sound, triggering smart alerts to help beekeepers catch problems like pests or disease early, rather than rely on periodic manual inspections,” says Aoife O’Mahony, ApisProtect’s head of marketing.

The technology is small and unobtrusive, similar to the size of a smartphone, but the artificial intelligence technology behind it makes all the difference.

The company found that most hive inspections were unnecessary, though each time a hive is opened, the queen-bee’s life is at risk and the bees are disturbed for around three days. “If the bees have been trucked in to pollinate almonds for two weeks, you can’t afford to disturb them for three days,” O’Mahoney says.

ApisProtect’s technology aims to give beekeepers all the information they need, while the bees go about their business undisturbed. “That means more time pollinating, fewer risks, better time management for beekeepers and lower fuel costs,” O’Mahoney says.

Venture capital investments like Micron Agritech and ApisProtect promote innovation in its early stages of its development. “Innovations like these can have game changing potential that can disrupt industries,” says the European Investment Fund’s Cracco, “and create new products and technologies needed for the future which will have a huge impact.”