Tech companies cultivate agricultural sector

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Advanced Intelligent Systems CEO Afshin Doust with one of the company’s robots. The firm has typically served horticultural nurseries but is branching out into the agricultural sector | Chung Chow

Can a robot be the next one to answer your company’s job posting?

It may already be happening, according to Advanced Intelligent Systems Inc. (AIS) CEO Afshin Doust, whose firm specializes in autonomous machinery.

AIS got its start in 2014 trying to address labour shortage issues at horticultural nurseries, but it has since been branching out into agriculture.

When the Burnaby-based company began scouting job postings for farms, it uncovered one that had been seeking help for months.

“We applied on behalf of our robot, Bigtop, and they called right away and said, ‘Yes, we want it,’” Doust said, referring to AIS’s wheeled, artificial--intelligence-powered robot that comes complete with a large, flat surface on top and arms that can move objects with ease.

AIS has developed a business model centred on “robot as a service,” or RaaS – a take on SaaS, or software as a service – allowing companies to rent these machines instead of dropping significant amounts of capital all at once.

Doust said his clients aren’t looking to cut existing jobs but are instead dealing with persistent labour shortages that stunt company growth.

“Finding affordable labour, especially for hard tasks, is almost impossible,” Doust said.

There’s also multibillion-dollar growth potential for the country if farmers and companies can tap into the tech sector, according to an August report from the Royal Bank of Canada (TSX:RY).

The bank’s Farmer 4.0 study estimated that in Canada, where one-quarter of farmers will be 65 years old or older by 2025, the agricultural labour shortage is expected to grow to 123,000 positions by 2030.

However, RBC determined that the sector’s GDP output could grow by $11 billion to $51 billion during that same time period if the right investments are made in people, skills and technology.

The report also pointed out a number of deficiencies in technology adoption for the sector, including the fact that Canada’s global share of agricultural technology (agri-tech) investments amount to 3.4%.

That’s behind India and Brazil, despite Canada’s more abundant access to land, water and capital.

The bank is urging Ottawa to create a national skills strategy for agriculture and is calling on industry groups to attract and retain more youth, women and Indigenous workers to the sector to address those shortages.

On a national level, the federal government committed last year to investing up to $153 million in funding for the Prairie-based Protein Industries Canada supercluster in a bid to stoke more innovation in the agricultural sector.

Closer to home, initiatives include the Agritech Innovation Challenge, facilitated by the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Crown agency Innovate BC.

The initiative offers training, mentorship and $150,000 in seed funding to early-stage companies demonstrating technology that can be applied to farming.

Previous winners include Technology Brewing Corp., which specializes in developing automated mushroom pickers, and Guavas Technologies, which has developed software to help unmanned drones guard fruit and berry crops by scaring away birds.

Fernanda Whitaker, Innovate BC’s director of business development, said her agency’s goal is to get companies to think more strategically about technology and how they can apply innovations from different sectors to agriculture.

She added that machine learning, big data and blockchain are in the midst of changing how the sector will operate.

“A key for building a sustainable tech ecosystem is that you’re tackling problems that are globally relevant rather than just locally relevant,” said BC Tech Association CEO Jill Tipping. “Food scarcity, food security, changes in regulation, climate change – all of that comes together in the agricultural space.”

Her organization houses agri-tech company Semios Technologies within its 18,000-square-foot hub in Vancouver.

Semios develops wireless network technology for farms and orchards that helps create stronger yields by fighting pests and monitoring for diseases and frost.

Tipping said there is a nascent group of companies in B.C. focused on agri-tech but she’d like to see more of these populating the West Coast.

“[Agri-tech] is a massive growth area for the world,” she said.

torton@biv.com

@reporton