By Bruce Johnstone
For Economic Development Regina
Some say necessity is the mother of invention. Others say inventions are sometimes just “happy accidents.” Daniel McCann, CEO and founder of precision.ai, a Regina-based agtech company, is definitely in the latter camp.
“The company actually started a bit by mistake,’’ McCann said with a chuckle in a recent interview.
”Originally, I set out with a partner of mine, who had just completed his doctorate in artificial intelligence’’ to develop a “buying and selling platform that would use computer vision to recognize items for sale and figure out what they were worth,’’ McCann said.
The “long and short of it’’ was that the system worked okay, but it didn’t look like it was going set the retail world on fire. “It was really, really great in some areas and not-so-great in others.’’
But what they discovered, almost by accident, was that the system could tell the difference between plant species. That’s when “the lightbulb went on,” McCann said.
“Because we had a plant in the office and every time we tested this computer vision system, we would use it to see if it recognized the plant. Very quickly we realized that, hey, what we’ve created is really, really good at recognizing plants.’’
After consulting with friends and family in the industry, McCann determined that something that could differentiate between crops and weeds could have real value.
“I said, ‘Here’s the idea. I know you guys spend a ton of money every year on chemicals when you’re spraying your fields. If we could use this computer vision system to recognize what’s a crop and what’s a weed, so you could spray only the weeds and not the crop, would you buy it?’’’
Almost 100 per cent of them said: “I would buy that tomorrow,’’ McCann added. “At that point, we knew we had something and that was the genesis of precision.ai.’’ From that point on, McCann and his partner decided to tailor their system to meet the needs of the agriculture industry. “We’re in one of the largest agricultural centres in the world and my family all farmed… You can’t throw a stone in Saskatchewan without hitting somebody who’s involved in the agricultural sector.’’ But precision.ai took a different approach than conventional agricultural implement manufacturers, which tend to make their equipment larger and more powerful with each succeeding generation.
“We said if we’re going to do this, let’s do this right and try to really come up with some unique and game-changing,’’ McCann said.
They came up with the idea of pairing the computer vision system with drones because “applying chemical or crop protection products from the air is so much more efficient. You don’t have soil compaction, you don’t have to worry about the ground being muddy, you don’t have to worry about the (sprayer) arms hitting the dirt. It’s just so much better.’’
So precision.ai combined the concept of a precision sprayer with drones “to solve all of these problems.’’
“It ended up that the value proposition was striking for the farmer, but to actually build one and get it to do this was far more challenging than we thought,’’ McCann added
Nevertheless, in three short years, precision.ai has achieved considerable recognition and success in the highly competitive world of agtech.
“We’re definitely excited about where we’ve come from and what the future holds for us. We’ve made some great partnerships that will take this company to the next level.’’
Recently, the company signed a co-investment project agreement with Protein Industries Canada (PIC), the federally funded plant protein supercluster headquartered in Regina, aimed at developing new AI spraying technology. Precision.ai is partnering with a Langenburg agronomy firm, Sure Growth Solutions, Melfort-based Exceed Grain Marketing and the Global Institute for Food Security at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
“What we’re trying to do with that project is come up with a new class of (canola) that’s low-chemical residue. Because, using our technology, you can actually drop the chemical load in the food supply by over 90 per cent,’’ McCann said. “So you’re not spraying the crop, you’re spraying the weeds.’’
By reducing the amount of chemical being sprayed, the value of the crop is increased and the cost of the crop inputs is reduced.
“We’re trying to create that type of eco-system that can actually help producers save money on their chemical inputs, but also help them make money on the other end by producing a low-chemical (residue) crop that’s healthier and they can sell for a premium.’’
McCann believes that “environmental sustainability” is “where we see the industry going’’ and agtech is one way of getting there.
“The way we’re doing things today can’t really continue. The industry is definitely changing and we need to find more environmentally ways of doing things.’