Thursday, July 7, 2016
Flux: Using Artificial Intelligence To Create Smart Farms
Is the future of farming in the software? Tying together artificial intelligence (AI) software and hardware sensors, Dallas-based Flux Farm (www.fluxiot.com), led by Texas technology veteran Blake Burris, is hoping to create a new vision of farming, which relies more on software algorithms and less on the vagaries of weather and soil. We spoke with Blake about his new startup—which got its start in Israel—and what it's up to here in Texas.
What exactly is Flux all about?
Blake Burris: Flux Farms is about a two year old company, which was started in Israel. We're an artificial intelligence, machine learning company, coupling AI and machine learning with sensor technology. We've built a framework technology, which is generic, in a sense, and can be applied to multiple sectors or realms. The first sector we're addressing, is the agricultural sector, and hydroponics. We've built a system that includes both hardware, a cloud platform, and a robust, artificial intelligence back end, which uses machine learning to help both the average Joe grow crops with the yield an expert might get. That might be you or I growing tomatoes on the back patio, or someone growing at scale. For example, we recently visited a possible customer in Lucas, Texas, North of Dallas, who has 8,000 square feet, with the vision to supply Texas restaurants with lettuce, herbs, and other vegetables. We can scale this from your backyard to urban farms, and even to larger, vertical farms in cities around the world.
How much of an advantage do people get from using your system?
Blake Burris: First, there's the question of traditional soil, versus hydroponics. There's some fundamental advantages to hydroponics, which uses 90 percent less water, 70 percent less nutrients, and operates as closed loop system. If you add fish to that system, which is called aquapoincs, you've actually eliminated the need for nutrients. You use the waste produced by plants for food for the fish, tilapia or koi, which you can later sell or procuess. That's what the guy is doing in Lucas. You can also apply this in the vertical farming sense, where you can put up these big, rooftop greenhouses, where you can produce crops in urban markets like Dallas and Austin. These are crops which the product goes to market the same day they are picked, rather than traveling for two weeks, as they are transported from halfway around the world, so you're not buying grapes from Chile, tomatoes from who knows where, and your fruit from Florida.
How did you get involved with the company, given you are here in Texas and the company started in Israel?
Blake Burris: I took a trip to Israel two and a half years ago, at an event at Google Tel Aviv. The founder of Fluux was there at a hackathon. She remembered me, and we got connect literally just earlier this year through a mutual connection, who runs Iconic Labs, an accelerator in New York City, for Israeli technology companies. Karin, the founder, spend four to six months in New York, and Ari introduced us earlier this year as an advisor. I began talking to Karen, and found that what they were working on was really cool, and my previous work in urban technology and the clean web was a great match. I had been creating web technology, and applying that to solving sustainability issues. Due to my network and experience in the area, they asked me to help in an advisory capability. As I did that, I got more and more excited. I happen to have been exposed to hydroponics in the 70's and 80's, and had always been interested in that, although it was old school back then. We did not have cloud computing, Wi-Fi or sensors, or the whole IoT landscape we have now. If you look at the change from the late 70's to today, you now have a confluence of mobile computing power, ubiquitous wireless signals, LTE, sensor technology, and AI, and if you bundle that all together, you get what Flux is offering, which is a very compelling thing. I began approaching this first as an investor, asking hard questions, when Karin asked me if I could be the CEO in the US, which would be a perfect fit with her international experience.
What's the biggest challenge with a startup like this?
Blake Burris: Fundamentally, we have a hardware product. As you know, from countless Kickstarter projects, there are many people who have a great idea or excited team, but pretty much only have a hope and prayer of shipping product. We wanted to mitigate those risks, with the biggest risk being the ability to produce hardware units at scale, shipping it, and having it work, from soup to nuts.eth Even the biggest companies have those risks, and can fall on their face or face recalls. So, to mitigate that risk, we've put together a deep bench of talent. Many of them are from the Israeli military, and include people with experience in sensor technology, with patents from various entities around the world, and even experience with top secret world. Some of those are the same kind of technologies we are applying here. Our engineering team has built countless products, from soup to nuts. So the real risk for us is just getting our pilot products out there.
So where are you now with that?
Blake Burris: We're scheduled to release our first, 150 beta test units in testing internationally and in the U.S., and other markets in mid-July. As you know, of course, those schedules tend to push out, but we have to get and test the systems, get our feedback loops and features, and fix bugs before we launch a big pre-order campaign for the U.S. market in October. If all goes well, we hope to launch in volume with 5,000 to 10,000 units by the end of the year, primarily to the U.S., though we'll also be shipping internationally. Cellular support will be only in the U.S., but we'll support Wi-Fi anywhere in the world, and already have demand from several dozen countries.