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“A blunt instrument”: Meet the startup bringing insecticides into the sustainable food conversation

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

RapidAIM

RapidAIM co-founder and chief Nancy Schellhorn. Source: supplied.

Having secured funding, taken home awards and started its Australia-wide rollout, precise insecticide deployment agtech RapidAIM is making a perhaps unexpected play in the future of sustainable agriculture.

RapidAIM provides efficient pest control as a service. The tech allows for real-time detection of pests, alerting farmers to their presence, and allowing them to target their response.

In October last year, less than a month after it launched, RapidAIM raised $1.25 million from Main Sequence Ventures.

Since then, it has completed its national trial, set up its tech in five locations, and put the product into the pockets of about 65 users.

The startup also took home the top prize — the Social Innovation Impact award — at CSIRO ON’s Impact Awards last month.

“By having real-time detection you can detect insect pests early, you can then have a targeted delivery of a product, and then validate that it’s working,” co-founder and chief Dr Nancy Schellhorn tells StartupSmart.

The product is intended to take the guesswork out of spraying for pesticides, and to prevent the traditional blanket approach that is not only damaging to the environment, but is inefficient for farmers.

Consumers want food that looks good, Schellhorn explains.

“We rarely want to pick an apple up that an insect has already partially consumed.”

And so, globally, about $15 billion is spent on about 100 tonnes of insecticides every year, she says.

However, a massive 98% of this “goes somewhere other than the intended target”, she adds.

And still, we lose about 15% of all produce to insects.

“It’s a guessing game,” Schellhorn says.

A changing environment

While RapidAIM is able to save farmers money and time, it also has a role to play in the sustainable agriculture conversation, Schellhorn says.

“The future of agriculture is changing, and we want to be driving that future.”

She highlights three globally topical issues that RapidAIM can help address.

First is the global decline of the bee population. There is a particular insecticide that has been shown to contribute to that, she says.

Already, “many countries around the world have put in place bans on that product”, she adds.

That’s in addition to the more general decline of the insect population around the world.

“Even though we might be bothered by insects, they’re super important to the ecosystem,” Schellhorn says.

And, the mass-deployment of insecticides means many innocent bugs are caught in the crossfire.

Finally, “we’re seeing that songbirds are also being harmed by insecticides”, she says.

Obviously, the more insecticides are in the environment, the more likely it is that birds will come into contact with them, whether they’re eating affected insects or not.

But, better pest control isn’t only about protecting the environment. It’s also tied to public perception and consumer demand.

France, for example, recently passed legislation to reduce the use of insecticide products by 50% by 2025. Last year, the first zero-residue products — those without any insecticides — hit the market, Schellhorn explains.

“They thought the market would be about 5%,” she said.

As it turned out, that was more like 20%.

“It’s an interesting trend from the consumer side … And it’s really linked with human health and the environment.”

While consumers are increasingly eco-conscious, they also don’t want foods that have already been nibbled on. At the same time, growers want to minimise their losses. There’s a balance to be struck here.

“Insecticides, no matter what, are going to be important tools for a lot of our food production,” Schellhorn says.

But traditionally, “the way in which they’re applied is really a blunt instrument”.

There’s a “fascinating” trend going on in the agricultural space, she adds, towards more environmentally friendly and targeted methods of killing insects.

“There are quite a few companies working on microbial methods,” she explains.

Going forward, RapidAIM is looking at providing a whole bundle of better insecticide options, helping farmers identify the problem, address it with a more environmentally friendly solution, and resolve it in a more targeted and accurate way.

“We need to really support our primary producers to be profitable and to produce a quality product that consumers want,” she adds.

“Learning all the time”

Born out of a research project within CSIRO, RapidAIM is headed up by scientists and researchers who know everything there is to know about pest control. When it comes to business, however, even the brightest minds can hit a roadblock.

For the founding team, this is the first time they have ever been involved in making sales, onboarding and maintaining customers, or organising supply chains.

“It’s all new learnings for us, and a pretty big challenge,” Schellhorn says.

But, the team is striving to manage that knowledge gap by surrounding themselves with good mentors, and people who have that experience.

“That’s absolutely critical,” she adds.

The founders on the team have “very deep technical skills … but the business side of it is all brand new”.

Having a team of super-technical science types has its benefits. RapidAIM has a “tight feedback loop for solving any technical issues and also just for developing our product,” Schellhorn explains.

“We don’t have to look for new partnerships of technical expertise.”

But becoming a customer-centric business has been eye-opening.

“There are definitely some days where I would like to not learn something new — I would like to just do something twice, and maybe the second time do it right,” Schellhorn jokes.

“We’re learning all the time.”

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is the editor at StartupSmart. You can contact her at [email protected].