Perry Edwards, Ph.D.
Interview conducted by:
Lynn Fosse, Senior Editor
Published – July 3, 2023
CEOCFO: Dr. Edwards, what is the idea behind Croptix?
Dr. Edwards: Croptix was formed to bring a transformative solution to farmers to detect and monitor plant health. Croptix is based on an innovative approach to sensing nutrition and diseases in the field. We do this by translating sophisticated laboratory technology – specifically spectrophotometry -
CEOCFO: Are there existing ways now to do this or is your approach somewhat new?
Dr. Edwards: Our approach is brand new. Some products were created to do different parts of what we do. For example, there are sensors that can assess the green color of crops and correlate that with nitrogen concentration. We bring more sophisticated technology to the market with broad applications to detect different nutritional aspects of the crop as well as to assess disease.
Today, the common approach is for farmers to collect leaf samples from their crops, mail the samples off to a lab, and then get back an analysis of nutrition. The problem with this approach is that it is cumbersome and slow. Getting the results back from the lab takes a long time. By the time the farmer gets the results, it’s either too late to act or they’ve missed an optimal window to improve the health of their crops. Croptix’s solution enables farmers to monitor crop health in almost real time, allowing them to take proactive steps to improve productivity and output.
CEOCFO: Your initial solution was beneficial to citrus growers; why did you start there?
Dr. Edwards: Croptix was founded on technology developed at and spun out of Penn State University. My co-
Timing and relationships are everything for a young company. During our SBIR work, we collaborated with a group at the Small Business Administration and made great progress on citrus disease detection and the Huanglongbing (HLB) disease. HLB is a massive problem for the citrus industry, and we decided that this was where we should initially focus on bringing our technology to market. HLB was first detected in Florida in the late ’90s, decimating production by over 60%. The problem is now rampant with almost 100% of groves in the state infected. It was a good place to start in getting experience with the disease and developing our solution.
Early detection of HLB, before the effects of the disease are visible, enables the grower to manage groves to mitigate impact while preserving production capacity. So, we first conducted studies in Texas, a location that made sense for early-
CEOCFO: You mentioned nutrition a lot. Does the nutritional value change if there is a disease?
Dr. Edwards: Actually, the answer to your question is just the opposite: poor nutrition in crops can lead to greater susceptibility to disease. It’s important to be able to detect nutrition and disease reliably and to understand the correlations between them. Right now, we look at disease assessment and nutritional assessment as two separate things, two different solutions. Croptix’s AI-
CEOCFO: What is physically happening when somebody implements your system?
Dr. Edwards: Someone carries the Croptix sensor unit to the vicinity of the crop, whether it’s a field, a grove, an orchard, or a vineyard. For example, for citrus HLB detection, you would take the unit to an orange tree and collect a representative number of leaves from the tree. Those are the samples that you are going to put into the device to do the measurements on the spot.
The device operates with a smartphone app connected to the sensor. There is a leaf clip, like a lever, that opens, and you insert the leaves one at a time. You press the button to do the measurement, and it takes just a few seconds to do the measurement on each leaf. To assess a citrus tree for HLB, we recommend taking about eight to ten leaves. So, you can sample a tree in about 1 minute. You then move on to the next tree. This is a huge improvement over pulling leaves and mailing them to a lab.
CEOCFO: How many trees would a grower typically look at to get a meaningful assessment?
Dr. Edwards: For HLB disease assessment you first typically look at the perimeter of a grove or orchard, based on what we know about how the disease moves from tree to tree. Once HLB is detected in a perimeter tree, the testing pattern throughout a grove is different and customized to each situation.
On average it ends up being somewhere between ten to fifteen trees per acre that a citrus grower should measure. Other diseases have different patterns. Based on the guidance of crop consultants and pest control advisors that we work with, we shift the grove assessment strategy according to the disease. So, the answer to your question is that it depends on what disease we are testing for, whether that disease has been detected in the grove previously, the size of the grove, the layout of the grove, and any nearby features in the landscape – like the grove is next to a busy road. All our leaf samples are automatically geo-
CEOCFO: What happens after you do the measurement and what happens with the data?
Dr. Edwards: The device records all the measurements. When the smartphone with the app connects to Wi-
CEOCFO: Would the grower take it from there?
Dr. Edwards: Yes, in almost all cases, depending on the organization. Most growers work with crop consultants or pest control advisors to make decisions about what to do next. Growers with larger groves often have these consultants or PCAs on staff. Others work with independent advisors. What growers and advisors value most is that they can make decisions based on real-
CEOCFO: Are farmers typically open to new ways, are they actively looking for them or is it more when they hear about Croptix, they might want to look into it?
Dr. Edwards: Being subject to so many influences outside of their control, farmers are typically cautious about anything new. Market development takes time, and you have to find early adopters in each region that are receptive and will start to use a new product or service. In some cases, product uptake spreads quickly through word-
Our strategy is to leverage how markets work, and that is what we have been doing in California. We have been deploying our systems and getting demonstrations done in a variety of locations across the state where citrus is grown. Once we demonstrate that our solution works and that it is working for their neighbor, we see stronger adoption from more farmers.
CEOCFO: Would the grower purchase units from you that they can use to put the leaves in or might they lease them?
Dr. Edwards: Today, we offer our detection solutions as a service. Growers sign up at a per-
In essence, it is fully turn-
CEOCFO: What have you learned over the last few years that you did not realize a few years back?
Dr. Edwards: We have learned two key things over the last few years: the importance of our technical platform and the importance of our growing proprietary data. With the platform that we have today, we now have the ability to access and perform lots of measurements in many locations with a variety of crops. Our vast and growing amounts of data enable us to train our systems effectively and quickly for other applications, such as nutritional assessment. I have come to realize that harvesting lots of data and being able to quickly capture that data provides a very powerful advantage for us that we will be leveraging going forward as we broaden our platform.
It was great to be focused on citrus and HLB initially, and now we are set up to expand our platform and grow even more quickly.
CEOCFO: Would you tell us about your recent funding?
Dr. Edwards: This recent funding is the initial closing of our first equity round, which is a Series Seed investment. We took time to identify a strategic investor as part of this round. We were looking for a partner that could help us accelerate the development of our nutritional assessment and open that market more quickly than it would have taken us to do it on our own. We have partnered with Advancing Eco Agriculture (AEA), and they are highly aligned with our vision. AEA is a leader in regenerative agriculture. With our joint solution, AEA’s customers will benefit by getting nutritional results much faster than with traditional methods. By having data faster, adjustments can be made sooner to optimize crop health. For example, you might need less fertilizer if you see the nutritional needs earlier. This is both a cost-
Working with AEA will be a game changer for us in terms of building out our nutritional platform more quickly, and we are excited about how that is coming together. We are looking forward to trial testing this summer and leveraging the resources between both teams for a successful launch of products for nutritional assessment in the field.
Participation in this round from early investors 1855 Capital and Ben Franklin Technology Partners demonstrates their strong confidence in our future success. We are grateful for their ongoing commitment and support.
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