- Author: Hanif Houston
Validation of Innovation Program provides supportive ecosystem for startups
The VINE, an initiative by the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, is now accepting applications for its VINE Validation of Innovation Program. The program aims to support innovation in the agri-tech sector, particularly in climate-resilient solutions for California food systems.
Made possible with support from a UC Climate Action grant, the program is inviting startups to apply, with a focus on providing comprehensive support for field trials – a critical stage for any agri-tech venture.
"Field trials are vital for validating new innovations in the agri-tech sector,” said Gabe Youtsey, chief innovation officer with UC ANR and founder of The VINE. “The VINE VIP aims to provide a supportive environment for carrying out these essential tests, bridging the gap between innovative concepts and real-world application."
Elif Ceylan, co-founder of OpenGate Partners and head of the VINE VIP, also stressed the importance of field trials.
"Field trials serve as a crucial phase where promising ideas either succeed or require adjustment,” Ceylan said. “We are committed to prioritizing this stage to ensure the effectiveness and relevance of emerging agri-tech solutions."
The VINE VIP offers more than field trials. It provides a supportive ecosystem for startups, including industry connections, access to a broad network of farmers and experts, comprehensive validation results and market entry support. The program is a unique accelerator that pairs startups with project partners in the agri-tech industry, facilitating Proof of Concept projects and commercialization trials for industry-defined challenges in California agriculture.
By connecting startups with farmers, academics and industry experts, the program aims to validate, advance, adopt and amplify innovative technologies, reducing technological risks and accelerating sales through its extensive industry network.
Startups interested in joining the VINE VIP can apply until Sept. 16, 2023. Detailed information about the program and the application process is available on The VINE's website at thevine.io/vip.
The VINE is an initiative of the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources, dedicated to fostering agriculture, food, and biotech innovation in California. Our mission is to support industries and entrepreneurs while promoting technology innovation and commercialization for sustainable and equitable food systems. We connect entrepreneurs with public and private sector resources, encourage collaborations to address industry challenges, and promote regional capacity for global innovation as an economic opportunity./h3>
- Author: Hanif Houston, Associate Director, Communications & Marketing for UC ANR's The VINE
College students are invited to develop a robot that makes farm work easier while competing for cash prizes and bragging rights in the Farm Robotics Challenge, a three-month robotics development competition running from Feb. 1 to May 13, 2023.
The challenge is being sponsored by The VINE, an initiative of the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources focused on agricultural innovation, in partnership with the AI Institute for Next Generation Food Systems (AIFS), farm-ng robotics company, and the Fresno-Merced Future of Food (F3) Innovation coalition.
"Our primary objective for the Farm Robotics Challenge is to empower young innovators to explore careers in agriculture technology and innovation," said Gabe Youtsey, chief innovation officer for UC ANR and head of the VINE. "The agrifood technology industry is one of the most exciting and fastest-growing sectors in the economy right now, estimated to reach $30.5 billion by 2050. Yet, because of a lack of exposure or access, our brightest minds end up entering other sectors, taking their talents and abilities with them. We hope this new competition changes that and reverses the talent flow back into agriculture."
“In order to have a next-generation food system, we need next-generation agricultural robotics developers,” said Steve Brown, AIFS associate director. “There is tremendous innovation potential in this domain that just needs more connecting points to the coders and makers.
The Farm Robotics Challenge is open to any university or college in the U.S. Student teams will be asked to address a production farming topic on any crop or size of farm, with a desired focus on small farms, by automating an essential farm-related task using the farm-ng robotics platform. Each campus will need to purchase a farm-ng robot or borrow one to participate in the challenge.
Specific challenges will either be pre-identified for teams to choose from, or teams may choose to create additional or custom functionality to solve a self-identified challenge. Challenges will fit into one or more of the following categories: autonomy, artificial intelligence or attachment. Virtual training sessions will be offered throughout the competition to provide teams with expert guidance and technical help from AIFS, farm-ng, The VINE and other partners.
Student teams will be judged on the following criteria, with a grand prize and several specific prizes for top teams in each category: accuracy and completeness, market fit and commercial potential, design elegance and ease of use, cost-effectiveness, safety, interdisciplinary inclusion, and social and economic impact. Winners will receive cash prizes and connections to robotic companies for internships and jobs, among other benefits.
For more information, please visit the Farm Robotics Challenge website at https://farmbot.ai. If you have questions, contact HannaBartram, AI Institute for Next Generation Food Systems education and public engagement coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Author: Hanif Houston, Associate Director, Communications & Marketing for UC ANR's The VINE
Agriculture and the global food supply is threatened by a range of issues including drought, climate impacts, increasing business costs and labor scarcity. To forge solutions to these issues and more, nearly 1,000 attendees from 26 countries converged in Fresno on Oct. 18-22 for the inaugural FIRA - World Ag Robotics Forum to be held in the U.S. The event was co-sponsored by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' The Verde Innovation Network for Entrepreneurship, or the VINE.
Widely observed as a pivotal moment for agricultural technology and robotics in U.S. agriculture, the event was kicked off by California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross and moved into a packed agenda with panel discussions, lightning talks and pitches where automation company representatives, academics and growers had the opportunity to share their challenges, concerns and hopes for the future of autonomous farming. The event culminated at CSU Fresno with more than a dozen companies offering in-the-field demonstrations.
Although growers are the target market for most of the equipment, the benefits of automation can ripple out into society, according to Glenda Humiston, University of California vice president for agriculture and natural resources.
“Technology can help us grow, harvest and distribute food more efficiently so that it can become more affordable and accessible for those who are food insecure,” said Humiston. “If we do this right, it's good for the whole community.
Here are a few themes and takeaways from this pioneering multi-day event.
Gaining on-farm use - Focus on end-user needs and ease of use
A major question speakers tackled was why more growers aren't yet integrating automation on their farms. Automation solutions exist and are being developed to help growers in nearly every aspect of running a farm — from planting, harvesting and weeding to addressing persistent labor shortages. Despite this, ag automation companies – both big and small – still face resistance from growers to adopting new technologies.
Part of the problem, Jeff Morrison of Grimmway Farms said during a panel on mechanization versus automation, is that companies pay more attention to their product than the needs of the grower. “Farmers want technology that fills a particular need,” he said. Anna Haldewang, the founder of InsightTRAC, agreed. “Don't be married to your product, be married to your customer.”
Chuck Baresich, president of the Haggerty AgRobotics Company, emphasized the importance of creating automation solutions that are simple and intuitive to use. “For a manufacturer, the first thing I'd tell them is don't overcomplicate things,” he said. “Make sure your robot can drive straight, start with that.”
Panels also touched on the technical, business and regulatory challenges to automating agriculture. The ag tech startup market is much younger than Silicon Valley, and we don't yet know the best route to establishing a successful business, Rob Trice of Better Food Ventures and The Mixing Bowl observed during a panel on robotic product development with key industry leaders, including Walt Duflock, vice president of innovation for Western Growers. That said, panelists identified three things that startups should do:
- Get prototypes into the field as quickly as possible to get performance data and get feedback, including from farmworkers, who may come up with multiple uses for the product.
- Be transparent about development to build partnerships with investors and growers. Partners understand that startups are a work-in-progress.
- Be ready to evolve and change your technology or your business to meet the customers' needs. Love the customer, not the tech.
AgTech, Labor and Farmworkers - Forging win-win opportunities
Labor issues also emerged as a persistent theme during the event. One of the major forces driving the need for automation in agriculture is persistent labor shortages. Simply put, farmers do not have sufficient labor to sustain their operations and are turning to agtech, robotics and automation to fill the gap. At the same time, as robotics and automation take hold in the agriculture industry, farmworkers and farm labor organizations are rightly concerned about the impact that the adoption of automation will have on agriculture jobs, in particular farm labor jobs.
Hernan Hernandez of the California Farmworker Foundation acknowledges the labor concern, but also sees opportunity. “All of a sudden, you go from 100 individuals that are going to be able to harvest this season to now 10 that will harvest with a machine," he said. "But the way we look at it is as well, when we talk to farmworkers and engage them, and we look at data, there is also opportunity. We know a lot of the farmworkers want opportunities to further their skill sets.”
We've got to find ways to help our farm workers actually get the training they need to make use of this technology, which will give them a better quality of life.
This sense of optimism about the future of the farmworker was shared by Gabe Youtsey, chief innovation officer of UC ANR, who moderated a panel on the future of agricultural work. “California as a whole has begun recognizing the importance of creating the next generation of ag workers,” he observed, “and schools and industry have both taken notice.” Indeed, California community colleges have begun working on new relevant programs that translate directly to jobs, and the federal government has allocated $10 million going directly to Central Valley agricultural education and workforce development programs.
The gathering also served as a platform for launching new technology initiatives. Youtsey, in collaboration with our partners at UC Davis AI Institute for Food Systems, announced the 2023 Farm Robotics Challenge at FIRA USA 22! We look forward to co-hosting this event!
It is clear that automation and robotics will play an increasingly crucial role in agriculture. Not only in addressing the pronounced labor shortage in agriculture, but by creating new value creation opportunities related to resource efficiency, crop health, disease, harvesting and more.
“Our job at The VINE is to drive collaboration between industry, academia and government forward,” said Youtsey. “Robotics is moving very fast and there's a new set of players coming into the space. UC Cooperative Extension advisors can bring startups and farmers together in creative new ways during development and advance these solutions into commercialization faster.”
Co-sponsors of the conference included FIRA, Western Growers, University of California, Merced, California State University, Fresno and the Fresno-Merced Future of Food (F3) Innovation Initiative.
Industry sponsors included Bluewhite, Carbon Robotics, CNH Industrial, Far West Equipment Dealers Association, Grimmway Farms, Keithly-Williams Seeds Inc., Robotics Plus, VARTA AG, and Sonsray Machinery, LLC.
For more information
- Author: Jeannette E. Warnert
The Third Annual Open Farm comes to the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier Oct. 3. Open Farm is a gathering hosted each year by the farming community to connect technology vendors, academics and growers to accelerate the digital transformation of the food and agriculture sector.
The meeting runs from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Registration is free for growers and government employees; $20 for representatives of power and water utilities; and $40 for vendors. Register on the Eventbrite webpage. (https://www.eventbrite.com/e/3rd-annual-open-farm-tickets-48793567875) Continuing education credits will be offered.
The Kearney REC is at 9240 S. Riverbend Ave., Parlier, Calif.
The Open Farm event features:
- Keynote address by Glenda Humiston, vice president, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources
- Field demonstrations of 3D mapping of research fields using drones, automation of irrigation and fertigation, and comparison of water measurement methods to prepare for the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act
- Peer reviewed research presentations on agronomy, monitoring, robotics and data mining
- An industry panel with growers and food processors
Open Farm 2018 sponsors and partners are:
- UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR)
- The VINE, Verde Innovation Network for Entrepreneurship
- West Hills College, Coalinga
- California State University, Fresno
- PowWow Energy
- WiseConn Engineering
- Blue River Technologies
- Bowles Farming Company
Open Farm started in 2016 at Terranova Ranch with the support of a research grant from the California Energy Commission (EPC-14-081). In 2017, the event grew to a wider gathering with peer-reviewed presentations organized by UC ANR and field demonstrations led by West Hills College. Both organizations are involved in the broadband initiative to bring better broadband services in the Central Valley.
“The future of ag tech innovation and implementation on the West Side depends on access to broadband internet in the fields,” said Terry Brase, ag science instructor at West Hills Community College. “West Hills is proud to partner with UC ANR to champion an initiative that would make this possible for local growers.”
PowWow Energy, Pumpsight and WiseConn Engineering are examples of companies that have worked with the farming community and established application programmable interfaces (API) that allow farmers to protect their data and get the different applications to talk to each other.
“It makes the lives of growers easier, not harder,” said Olivier Jerphagon, founder and CEO of PowWow Energy, Inc.
The three vendors went through the Water Energy Technology (WET) center at Fresno State, which is one of the incubators in California connected by the VINE.
“Agriculture needs standards to support the better integration of systems and data to make using technology easier and less expensive, while protecting the privacy of farms,” said Gabe Youtsey, UC ANR chief innovation officer. “We need to work together across industry, academia and government to share best practices and form partnerships to solve real problems and adapt the integration of software and data to the needs agriculture. This is why we started the VINE.”
The VINE – the Verde Innovation Network for Entrepreneurship – is a connected community of innovators and resources that sustainable agriculture and food innovators can leverage, including incubators, research labs, field testing facilities, mentors and industry experts.
“The food and agriculture industry is changing fast, and for an organization like ours to add value, we have to understand the diversity of innovation that is happening in the industry,” said Helle Petersen of Fresno State's WET Center. “The VINE community helps us navigate the field, and leverages the many assets of our region. The Open Farm is one of those opportunities, a unique event that brings together researchers, farmers, industry and others to share their knowledge, best practices and find opportunities for partnerships.”
- Author: Pamela Kan-Rice
The nonprofit organization CENIC has awarded the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources its 2018 Innovations in Networking Award for Broadband Applications. The award recognizes work to extend high-speed broadband to University of California researchers in rural communities across California by connecting UC ANR sites to the California Research and Education Network (CalREN).
“The internet at Kearney was like a drinking straw delivering and retrieving information, when what we needed was a fire hose,” said Gabe Youtsey, chief innovation officer for UC ANR. “High-speed, broadband Internet at our Kearney Research and Extension Center, just south of Fresno, will allow UC ANR to lead innovative, on-farm agriculture technology research and extension for UC in the Central Valley. It will allow UC researchers to share big data and big computing with colleagues at campuses and globally.“
Project leaders being recognized include Tolgay Kizilelma, chief information security officer; Tu Tran, associate vice president for business operations; and Youtsey.
Until now, UC ANR facilities have been hamstrung by poor Internet connectivity, hindering their ability to support campus-based researchers and UC Cooperative Extension scientists who are engaged with community and industry partners to ensure that California has healthy food systems, environments and communities.
Extending from the Oregon border in the north, through the Sierra foothills and Central Valley, along the Pacific Coast and south to the Mexican border, UC ANR's research and extension facilities are situated among California's rich and unique agricultural and natural resources. This allows for the application of scientific research to regional challenges and issues. Today, nearly all research and data analysis involves remote collaboration. To work effectively and efficiently on multi-institutional projects, researchers depend heavily on high-speed networks and access to large data sets and computing resources. The high-speed broadband connection also provides a new way for Cooperative Extension advisors to collaborate with farmers, naturalists and others in these rural regions.
In 2016, CENIC began working with UC ANR to connect its nine research and extension centers to CalREN, equipping them with internet speeds comparable to those found on UC campuses. For example, the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center in Mendocino County and the UC Desert Research and Extension Center in Imperial County are both connected at 500 Mbps, five times their previous level of connectivity.
Due to the remote location of most of these facilities, the work involved in identifying suitable pathways for connections between each site and the CalREN network has been extensive. Engineers from CENIC and UC ANR collaborated on network design, deployment, and troubleshooting to equip these facilities with the high-speed internet they need. High-speed connectivity with significant bandwidth now allows researchers to use equipment like infrared cameras to collect data on how crops respond to heat, among many other electronic tools. Farmers who are unable to visit the Research and Extension Centers can now connect virtually and tune in to real-time video streams, gaining access to the latest knowledge.
In addition to the Research and Extension Centers, the Citrus Clonal Protection Program in Riverside is now connected to CalREN. Elkus Ranch, the environmental education center for Bay Area youths, the UC ANR administrative offices in Davis and 30 UC Cooperative Extension sites are in the process of being connected.
“You can't do big data with dial-up Internet speed,” said Jeffery Dahlberg, director of Kearney Research and Extension Center. “Before this upgrade, our internet was slower than my home internet speeds. Now we have speeds more like you will find on UC campuses.”
Dahlberg noted that high-speed internet will become a powerful research tool allowing researchers to collect and share data in real-time. “For instance, a researcher can use an infrared camera in a field collecting readings to determine how a crop responds to heat as it changes throughout the day, but even this modest instrument needs significant bandwidth,” he said. “We now have the bandwidth to do that.”
“The impact of these newly established broadband connections is significant,” said Louis Fox, president and CEO of CENIC. “UC ANR researchers and educators can now enhance and share the creation, development, and application of knowledge in agricultural, natural and human resources, bringing practical, science-based answers to Californians and California industry.”
Innovations in Networking Awards are presented each year by CENIC to highlight the exemplary innovations that leverage ultra-high bandwidth networking, particularly where those innovations have the potential to transform the ways in which instruction and research are conducted or where they further the deployment of broadband in underserved areas.