Tuesday, 19 April 2022 15:25

Bitwise Agronomy: Kiwi entrepreneur applies deep tech to vineyards

Written by  Tony Skinner
Fiona Turner Fiona Turner

Artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies are an ever-increasing feature of modern life, including vineyard management.

At the vanguard of this trend is Bitwise Agronomy, an ag-tech startup that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to evaluate video imagery from vineyards to deliver detailed reports on aspects including yield estimation and vine health.

Farmers purchase GoPro cameras, attach them to their existing farm machinery and collect side-on, plant-by-plant imagery as they're going about their usual vineyard activities such as mowing and mulching. The imagery is then uploaded to the company's GreenView portal, which identifies, counts and measures the growth stages of vines, and generates tailored insight reports about crop health.

The company's Kiwi co-founder, Fiona Turner, was working in deep tech when the desire for a change of lifestyle saw her purchase a vineyard in Tasmania. She soon realised that her digital transformation background could help solve the problems faced by grape growers and viticulturists. "I was still travelling for work all the time, setting up smart factories, smart cities and the like, and my vineyard was just out of control, because I was never here," Fiona says. "And I was thinking, 'just what have I got myself into?' Then I realised I've got the skills to solve this problem for myself. I'm using vision-based technology for tasks like helping to bottle wine - why can't I use it in the vineyard as well?"

Fiona partnered with fellow "technological polymath" Aran Elkington to develop a proof of concept. They were soon confident enough to quit their day jobs to launch the company - right in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. Bitwise Agronomy secured Pernod Ricard as a launch customer and now supports more than 50 customers across five countries.

For winegrowers, subscriptions start as AUD$2,000 a year, rising up to AUD$5,000 annually for the larger sites. Through the GreenView dashboard, growers get insights into aspects such as vine disease, veraison, canopy/vine height, and more. Fiona says the overall objective is to economise labour and maximise yield by helping users make data-driven decisions.

Bitwise Agronomy has just finished an over-subscribed seed raising round, netting AUD$2.4 million, and has expanded its staffing base into New Zealand, including a consultant in Marlborough. Fiona herself has since won several awards, including the AI in Agribusiness award at the 2021 Women in AI awards and, more recently, winning the Pitch to Farmers competition at the AdvanceAg conference in Adelaide.

The company is now actively growing throughout New Zealand, with Fiona noting that growers here are open to trying innovative solutions. "New Zealand is really innovative," she says. "Entrepreneurs in New Zealand always have to look globally and look outside the box to succeed, simply because New Zealand is so small. It's the Kiwi in me that gives me that drive and entrepreneurial spirit for sure."

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