Shining a smarter light on crop health
Fotenix's imaging tech for farms is like an X-ray for plants
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Today we’re looking at a university spinout with patented tech to help farmers get the most from their crops.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve profiled startups with the same aim in the past, but Fotenix has very different approach that aims to catch problems before they become… problematic.
It’s also far more broadly applicable than some other startups out there, which drill into specific niches.
Scroll down to read all about it. As usual, paying PreSeed Now members get the full story, including some interesting observations about the agtech investment market in the UK.
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Fotenix shines a smarter light on crop health
There’s no shortage of companies approaching the agriculture market with crop data and analysis services, but they often rely on technologies like satellite or drone imagery to gain an understanding of what’s happening on the ground.
Fotenix takes a different approach.
A University of Manchester spinout, it is, as founder Charles Veys puts it, “a diagnostic tool for food production… a bit like the radiology department in healthcare,” in that it scans for potentially invisible health issues.
The technology uses 3D spectral imaging to analyse plant health and detect diseases before they become visible to human sight.
“It is a method of spectral imaging that uses different colours of light to look through plant tissue and detect disease, much like an X-ray,” says Veys, claiming it can outperform alternative approaches, detecting issues 80% earlier, at a much lower price.
“The patent is based on off-the-shelf components like phone cameras and LEDs, allowing it to be permitted in agriculture. The bit our competitors want to get their hands on is how we improve the signal using the plant’s shape, which I discovered during my doctorate.
“The software is the clever bit, taking the scans, which we call digital twins, and identifying pests, disease, and even nutrient stress.”
Putting it to use
The startup provides hardware, which is then mounted onto farm equipment made by third-party suppliers.
So what are some of the ways this can be used?
“A simple example is restricting pesticides to areas where there are actually pests, which has a significant environmental and economic benefit,” says Veys.
“And farmers can understand their likely yield, the factors impacting that, and how they can juggle the economics of the current marketplace of food, and supply of energy and inputs.”
The tech is even capable of generating 3D models of a diseased leaf, so an agronomist can look at it remotely, without having to travel to the crop itself, saving time and money for all concerned.
Rather than sell directly to farms, the Salford-based startup focuses on B2B sales to manufacturers of agricultural equipment.
As an example, automated spray booms for glasshouses that move over a crop can have a Fotenix camera installed to enhance their functionality.
“The technology is flexible and it has a lot of applications. But we know what we're good at and what we're not good at. What we're not good at is building sprayers, or robotics, or glasshouses, or vertical farms.”
And even the data Fotenix’s technology collects isn’t shared directly with farmers. This is a purely B2B, OEM play, where the crop insights go to equipment suppliers who then work out the best way to incorporate it into their own services for farmers.
Veys compares this to your in-car navigation display, which will be built using hardware and software from third parties. This, Fotenix has decided, is the best way to serve the market.
“Farmers do not have the revenue to buy widgets and be expected to run them all. So we work with their suppliers instead. Being able to supply digital agronomy services is really the holy grail of that sector at the moment.”
The story so far
Veys’ background is in engineering, with an interest in robotics and imaging. He initially had an interest in developing solutions in the medical market, as there are medics in his family. But that changed when his mind was opened to opportunities in farming.
“The agriculture side was an accident. I was part of a group project at the university to deploy sensors in rice farming, to try to promote a more sustainable use of water pumps.
“And that really bit me, and I realised that farming is not pitchforks and Wellington boots. Actually, the biggest companies in the world are food companies.”
Fotenix started out in 2018 with a focus on assisting the development of new seeds.
“Breeders could deliberately infect plants with disease and find the varieties that were the most resistant 80% quicker, which means that they could race to get a new variety before their competitors, and farmers got seeds that are naturally much more resistant to what is quite a dynamic climate environment at the moment.”
After two years tackling that market, Fotenix shifted its approach, prompted by a fall in the cost of their hardware.
“We were able to make it cost effective to deploy on farms. So we've been installed in glasshouses and vertical farms. And just this season, we've seen some equipment on the back of tractors in wide fields, which is the endgame, but the most difficult to supply because it's a very unstructured environment,” says Veys.
Veys is the startup’s sole founder, but it has now grown to a headcount approaching 10, with a goal to reach 20 by the end of the year. There are two directors with sector experience and a technical team specialising in optics, data science, and engineering.
Veys says that a major priority for the next 12 months is to start shouting about what they do now they’re ready to scale up their business.
A big selling point will be energy efficiency. With energy costs having soared in recent times, lighting and heating for some of Fotenix’s customers has been a major pain point when it comes to growing crops in optimal conditions.
He points to how the high price of energy has forced some vertical farm operators to pivot or shut down.
The ability to track plant growth digitally helps optimise energy use, Veys says.
And having begun with a focus on the UK and found product-market fit on home turf, international expansion into territories such as North America is on the cards.
Go deeper on Fotenix
Read on for details of investment, Charles’ assessment of agtech investment in the UK, and Fotenix’s vision, challenges, and key competition: