A Queensland agtech startup is the only private company to be selected for one of six AI grants from tech giant Microsoft, receiving a cash injection and a vote of confidence the founder says is “quite humbling”.
Microsoft dished out a portion of $US50 million ($69.69 million) in grants to Australian organisations working in the AI space as part of the company’s AI for Earth program, which seeks to use tech to help tackle climate change, biodiversity and sustainability issues across the globe. A total of 230 organisations received grants across 60 countries.
The six recipients were Monash University, Griffith University, Queensland University of Technology, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Bush Heritage Australia and Goondiwindi-based agtech Infarm.
Jerome Leray is the managing director and founder of Infarm, which uses drone and AI technology to help farmers identify and effectively spray fallow weeds. The drones capture high-definition images of paddocks, while the company’s AI system picks out the weeds.
That data is then converted into a file which can be uploaded into a typical variable-rate tractor which selectively sprays the weeds as it traverses the paddock.
Leray says the company has only had its commercial systems up and running for the last 12 months, with the startup itself being founded in 2017. But despite a relatively short life, the startup has already seen huge demand from farmers, with the founder running into the “good problem” of having to scale quicker than he expected.
“One of our problems is trying to cover the country and keeping up with farmers who want to use the product. It’s a good problem to have, but we’re trying to scale as quickly as possible,” he tells StartupSmart.
Microsoft’s AI grant, the specific amount of which the company couldn’t disclose, will help Infarm refine and develop its AI software to identify some of the country’s more stubborn weeds.
“The grant will help us ameliorate our AI system to identify certain types of weeds that are highly resistant and problematic from the ecosystem’s point of view,” he says.
Those weeds include Harrisia Cactus and Feathertop Rhodes grass, two plants marked as high risk by agricultural authorities.
The grant will also give Infarm access to Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing resources along with an array of other tools, which the startup is planning to use to train its AI, something Leray says would have taken the company at least a year to do previously.
“It would have been quite hard for us to have access to these high-powered computers otherwise, so now we’ll be able to get farmers a solution in three-six months instead,” he says.
Grant ‘opening doors’
With all the other recipients of the grant being either universities or large non-profits, Leray says he’s humbled to have been awarded the grant, with Microsoft quickly picking the company as an appropriate recipient after its application.
“We’re an agtech startup in a rural town most people haven’t heard of — we don’t get these sorts of opportunities. The fact Microsoft came along and said ours was a problem worth solving and got behind us is quite humbling,” he says.
“It’s opening doors in terms of media and letting us promote both ourselves and our goal of reducing chemicals used in farming systems.”
Despite operating in a remote part of Australia, Leray fights the misconception farmers are reluctant to adopt new technology, saying the clients he works with are some of the most forward-thinking and innovative types in the country.
“Australia has a history of major agricultural innovation, and we have some of the most efficient farmers in the world,” he says.
“If you can prove your systems will help them reduce their chemical uses and reduce their bills, along with having an environmental benefit, it’s not hard to get them on board.”