Data mining drives innovation

Hawke’s Bay may never be a Silicon Valley, but it does face a compelling opportunity to differentiate from other regions by embracing hi-tech innovations that can transform its primary and food production sectors. 

This will require overhauling and fine tuning our economic engine with a maturing convergence of smart technologies to optimise production, performance and compliance in a world where ‘big data’ rules. 

Big data is at the heart of the emerging automated economy of robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), machine vision and the Internet of Things (IoT) that tracks, traces and reports on production processes, the lifecycles of animal and land health, and our goods and produce. 

Stuart MacIntyre says merging and analysing data from previously-fragmented information silos is at the heart of “the Enterprise 4.0 data-driven digital industrialisation of enterprises”. 

Stuart MacIntyre describes food and agriculture as “one of the least digitised” sectors.
Stuart MacIntyre describes food and agriculture as “one of the least digitised” sectors.

MacIntyre, a thought leader and business advisor who’s recently returned to Hawke’s Bay, believes there’s huge commercial opportunity for the region to engage with big data and hi-tech innovation. 

After 20 years in the telco industry in the UK with British Telecom and heading the mobile strategy team for Singtel Optus in Australia, MacIntyre is living on the outskirts of Havelock North, eyeing the potential for food and agriculture which he describes as “one of the least digitised” sectors.

He believes we can transform our food and beverage, wine, meat and horticulture industries to become our point of difference in the same way Tauranga is attracting automation and robotics companies to support its kiwifruit industry. 

Arrow head momentum

MacIntyre envisions a centre of excellence working together to attract people and capital; “an arrow-headed approach to get momentum” rather than a lot of generic attributes.

He says a number of “very smart, cashed-up people” are returning to Hawke’s Bay because of Covid-19, buying property and looking for opportunities to invest which could help set us up for an innovation explosion.

They will, however, need to face some obvious home truths; the worsening picking and packing labour shortage, the need to attract and retain competent millennial tech talent, whether there’s sufficient support from councils and others for fresh ideas.

Hi-tech covers everything from the smarts embedded in machinery to intelligent manufacturing and production systems, telecoms, networking, software development, software as a service (SaaS), and intellectual property (IP) – the protected ideas behind such innovations.

Much of Hawke’s Bay’s tech innovation and business development has been centred at Ahuriri. The Business Hub on Bridge St has core tenant Business HB alongside council development groups, Callaghan Innovation, the Icehouse and the HB Chamber of Commerce.

Just down the road, Wallace Development’s Tech Collective has a cluster of tech leaders including telco NOW, global accountancy examplar Xero, property management mavens Re-Leased, software and web developer WebFox and a host of others. 

Similar innovation hubs and shared work spaces for those involved in the gig or contract economy are emerging in Hastings, where the Kiwibank helpdesk team are based and in Havelock North, where predictive AI-based customer service analytics company Fingermark is located along with a host of smaller developers.

Hi-tech ecosystem evolving

The most recent attempt to sharpen the tech focus is ‘Hi-tech Hawke’s Bay’, as part of the Matariki Regional Development Strategy, with a vision is to build “a dynamic world class hi-tech ecosystem”.

A key sector development initiative of Business HB in partnership with the tech community, it has about 150 members from 80 organisations and businesses and an advisory group of 10 tech entrepreneurs, experts, innovators and influencers dedicated to raising the profile of the sector, while attracting new businesses, investors and tech skills. 

Dave France, BHB’s Business Growth and Projects Manager, chairs the ‘cluster group’. He started with a blank canvas and continues to be surprised at the new business, start-ups and low profile specialists he finds while mapping out the regional eco-system. 

He notes a strong focus on “ag and hort tech” and a big underlying trend of embedded technology and sensors as part of IoT. 

For example, sensors might be used to monitor soil moisture to run irrigation more efficiently, taking sap or leaf samples to improve the nutritional balance of trees or collecting information on climate and rainfall. “If you start gathering those variables you can start to build some intelligence.”

Local innovation ranges from moving platforms and robotic arms for harvesting fruit (including vision and colour detection) to robotic grading systems, tray filling, labelling, packing and stacking in the packhouse.

Agritech brings about $1.5 billion annually to our export economy. In fact the top 20 agritech companies spent $97.3 million in R&D in 2019, according to the TIN Agritech Insights 2020 report. 

The Labour Government poured $11.4 million into its Agritech Industry Transformation Plan to push for deeper changes, largely driven by our zero carbon target, which will require deeper pockets to comply.

Critical convergence ahead

France believes it’s a critical time for ongoing innovation with a range of technologies coming to maturity. “While some have been in a standalone environment, now you have big data and AI merging with vision technology starting to build some real capability.”

France agrees the future of the region depends on creating a centre of excellence around what we’re already good at: agriculture, horticulture, viticulture and food production.

To be effective next wave innovations need to drive efficiency, sustainability and increased revenue, while reducing labour needs and costs and generally making life easier for producers to make informed decisions.

EIT is working closely with Hi-Tech HB and continues to adapt its computer science and related courses and expand its efforts to consult with and meet the region’s technology needs.

An integral part of the any future strategy will be the Food Innovation Hub or Food East in Elwood Rd, Hastings which received $12 million from the Provincial Growth Fund.

It’s due to open in early 2022 hosting academic and research institutions in a bid to innovate in the sector, attract and incubate food, beverage and agritech businesses, and potentially create 500 jobs and add $100 million to the regional economy over the next 15-years.

AI now mainstream

Artificial intelligence (AI) still sounds sci-fi futuristic, but is in fact mainstream with a growing number of local companies using it, often alongside machine vision and learning and automation and data analytics. 

MindHive, based in Havelock North with offices in Auckland and Tokyo, combines AI and machine vision for customised traceability, quality control and process monitoring across industries and in ‘operationally intensive’ environments. And Qaunt AI has partnered with CRIs to access government data on all land parcels in New Zealand using AI data analytics to provide environmental and financial insights to calculate the returns and risks of diversifying, with forestry for example, on under-used land.

Havelock North-based specialist developer MyEnviro uses AI powered analytics in its environmental monitoring which connects all aspects of farm life by aggregating a range of metrics from a sensor eco-system and satellite-enabled mapping.

The desktop software and app can monitor soil health, water quality, emissions, fertiliser application, pasture growth and other changes in the environment by digitising farm environment plans (FEPS) in real-time. 

Good data helps with all manner of production and process forecasting, but perhaps the most difficult of all is the weather and all its permutations. 

Local company Metris, with offices around the country, continues to grow its range of services, including alerts for frosts, wind, rain, temperature and other weather events.

Atmospheric scientist Mark Bart purchased the 25-year-old-business in 2017 from founder Howard Staines and has taken it way beyond standard weather prediction, with weather stations and wireless sensors providing text and phone alerts to about 5,000 orchardists.

Metris installs sensors for clients, is working with plant disease models to help forecast spraying programmes, and through APIs (application programming interfaces) allows others to plug their websites and systems into its weather modelling and data systems.

Niche to necessity

There are dozens of other tools available or under development across Hawke’s Bay to help with the exponential demand to digitise records and reporting and optimise farming, growing and land use … and simplify compliance.

Gretchen King, managing director of Porangahau-based Cloud Farmer (formerly AgRecord), believes her rural record keeping start-up, created “for farmers by farmers” is well positioned to deal with the technophobic and has great export potential.

Cloud Farmer doubled its client base in 2019 and there was a surge of uptake during the Covid lockdown with the app Cloud Farmer now used by a couple of hundred medium-to-large scale sheep, beef and deer farms. 

The cloud-based system can gather data off-line then synchronise across devices regardless of location when in wifi or cellular range.

Farming friends had developed a website to help neighbours digitise their record keeping and asked Gretchen to develop a business plan, then in 2013 with 20 farmers onboard she and her husband Leyton were asked if they’d like to take over.

“It was a great prototype built from scratch around farmer’s needs. Normally you build, then learn from your mistakes.”

Gretchen, a former high country shepherd and farm recruitment  consultant with a background in marketing and business development launched Cloud Farmer within two years of developing the desktop software.

Simplify data collection

The goal is to make data collection and communication as simple as possible and to keep a finger on the pulse of what farmers are facing and are likely to face in the future.

Gretchen’s team of seven rural women have “walked a few miles in the farmers shoes, know the business and are talking to farmers every day”. 

Modules include purchases and sales, health and safety, planning, time sheets, stock treatment, medicines, drenching, dipping, docking and recording movements through National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) tags. 

A notetaking feature replaces the farmer’s diary to jot down casual observations about animal growth, the state of fencing, the health and safety chat they had with the junior, or environmental details.

Gretchen says farmers are doing incredible things with riparian planting, erosion control and monitoring creeks, rivers and dams but changes in regulation will increase the need for accurate data collection.

That includes new freshwater policy, biodiversity, tougher controls on nitrogen levels and now controversial ‘pugging regulations’ that determine the percentage and depth of hoofprints in paddocks.

“It’s really stressful stuff and farmers are looking for the easiest way to comply without changing their business or spending half their time in an office looking at a computer.” 

The main rival is FarmIQ, which Gretchen says is about analysis and benchmarking which can prove overwhelming for many farmers, while Cloud Farmer is “unapologetically simple”. 

The greatest competition is still pen and paper with farmers saying “we know we should change but haven’t got around to it”, although she believes “the pain point” is coming.

She claims there’s “spade loads of opportunities” for Cloud Farmer and an opportunity to become an exporter and dominant player once economies of scale are worked through.

Gretchen’s team, advisory board and developers are currently reassessing where they should be in the next five years … among the challenges is how far she and her team are prepared to stretch themselves. 

Some are working mothers helping run farms while Gretchen and her husband run 12,000 stock units of beef and deer and sheep on their Porangahau property. 

Automating orchards

Back in the horticulture sector the pressing perennial problem is a paucity of pickers and packers, creating an almost desperate need for automating.

That presents opportunities and challenges for automation and electrical design engineers like Rob Elstone, who wishes he had the time and funding to keep pace with his ideas.

He learned the trade with Hastings automation and design specialist Fruit Handling Systems, which merged with Compac Sorting, then tried to fill the gap when they shifted focus in 2016.

Elstone formed Hortworx, alongside his father Paul and friend Jarod Eichler, a mechatronics engineer or specialist in electrical, mechanical, robotics and systems control to companies with their orchard, packhouse and warehouse automation.

They’ve been “flying under the radar” integrating off-the-shelf technology and local developments creating robotic bin fillers for apples, potatoes and onions, bulk bin fillers for apple juicing, and working on specialist robotics that can be added into packhouse lines.

A current project is a driverless orchard platform for pickers. “Currently all the platforms are from the US and Europe but we’re going for fully autonomous vehicle control,” says Elstone.

Hortworx is partnering with The Smart Machine Co which builds autonomous vehicles for mowing, spraying and trimming, and has R&D projects for integrating 3D scanning for fruit weight and other orchard information.

Elstone believes there’s a strong local and international market for his technology and while he has “big dreams and lots of ideas” he’s currently taking things step-by-step. Investing “a couple of hundred thousand” for a prototype machine when they sell for $30,000 each is a big risk.

So is finding staff with the right skills, including mechanical, maintenance and servicing people, particularly when “everyone in Hawke’s Bay” is looking for the same skillsets. “We have to find those people from out of town or turn work away,” says Elstone.

Doing more with less

It’s not only pickers and packers who are in short supply but young technically astute workers. School leavers typically head away to attend university or gain work experiences and part of the plan by EIT, the Hi-tech Hawke’s Bay group and others is to entice them back once they’re ready to settle down.

In the meantime, Stuart MacIntyre suggests programming and development skills needed to “spin up prototypes” to take the region further down the automation path may need to be sourced offshore. 

Erik van den Hout has been forced to rethink growth plans for his DataNow platform by adopting a more scalable and interoperable model that allows clients to “inject their data” from an API (application programming interface) into a web site.

With less hardware installation required he has closed his offices and works remotely with a handful of contractors to help large industry collect and analyse data. 

DataNow provides “real data from raw data” delivering customisable reports, live displays, logic and calculations, including trends and alert reports through mobile phone apps.

It’s a kind of profit and loss (P&L) approach to the production line that identifies trends and potential problems which can impact the bottom line if not attended to, says van den Hout.

He wonders why so many companies make big decisions on gut feelings. 

DataNow can measure efficiencies and isolate areas that are negatively impacting profitability at a quarry, cement mill or bagging operations.

It’s currently in 35 sites including WineWorks, all Ravensdown sites, Fulton Hogan, Firth, Greymont, Holcim and Winstones, with organic growth to their branches and possibly even offshore. 

Crunch time for data

The gathering, storing, understanding and smart use of data will continue to be at the core of future innovation and decision making across most sectors. 

In his capacity as a farmer, Stuart MacIntyre recently attended a meeting where Hawke’s Bay famers and planners were learning how the Rangitikei Catchment group got mass buy in for managing water and waterways.

Once farmers realised they could provide data about nutrient levels in different streams in their eco-systems they came up with new and innovative management ideas. “In the old world where quantitive data didn’t exist very little was happening, but this crystallised minds to look at the data,” says MacIntyre.

Rather than fragmented strategies spread too thin to achieve a vision, he reckons that’s the kind of collective approach Hawke’s Bay businesses need to move to the next level. 

“An innovation hub can’t just be a talk shop, the old cliche that it takes a village to raise a child is the same for the information game,” says MacIntyre.

And that requires a long-term strategic approach backed by local councils rather than quick wins, “a big melting pot with lots of experimentation accepting that there will be failures even to get 10% doing very well”. 

One of the unknowns, says Dave France, is the skills becoming available with ex-pats adding their companies and their expertise to the ‘brain pool’. He’s trying to identify and connect people into the local ecosystem so they gain an appreciation of who else is in their back yard. 

“The real magic is picking people with a similar mindset who want to reach a common goal … to collaborate and work together more effectively … to pool resources and expertise and quickly start looking nationally and internationally,” says France.

Covid’s closed borders have challenged ‘business as usual’ by accelerating online options and highlighting new tools and techniques to diversify and differentiate. 

A Callaghan Innovation survey earlier this year revealed 60% of recipients saw the lockdown as an opportunity to use technology to reshape their organisations and the economy.

Here in Hawke’s Bay we keep telling people that ‘great things grow here’, promoting lifestyle, sunshine hours, schools and soil, but that’s not going to be enough to attract the skills or the investment needed to keep heartland industries ahead of the curve.

The future competitiveness of farming, horticulture and food processing may depend as much on the convergence of brilliant ideas, collaboration and hi-tech innovation as it does on quality land and labour.

If indeed returning hi-tech entrepreneurs and investors are looking to back winners, then our tech start-ups need to grab their attention with inspiring market-ready solutions that can easily translate into export dollars and a better bottom line for our regional economy. 

Photos by Tom Allan

Top photo: Gretchen King, Cloud Farmer


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