“Not only am I developing the technology, I’m living the problem.”
By Haley Frederick
Pittsburgh Current Staff Writer
When you think of Pittsburgh technology, you first think of driverless cars and AI. One thing’s for sure, you probably weren’t thinking about agriculture technology. That’s part of a problem that the first ever Pittsburgh Ag Tech Summit is trying to solve.
On Nov. 19, ag tech startups will mix with local chefs, and other food, agriculture and tech industry professionals to share ideas, build connections and generate interest in their projects. They’ll also focus on one important question: how do we build a better food system?
The event is being presented by Idea Foundry and hosted at Tree Pittsburgh’s Heritage Nursery. It’s the work of Stefan Vantchev and Hank Wilde, co-founders of Greenhouses For Everyone and their own ag tech startup, Panacea.
Panacea’s mission is to use sensory technology, robotics and automated controls to make hydroponic farming as efficient, and therefore as profitable, as it can be.
“If you look at trend right now there is the local food, farm to table trend, but there is also the smart home automation trend,” says Wilde.
Smart homes use cameras connected to doorbells, automated lights and thermostats to collect data and enable energy efficiency. Panacea has a similar idea, but for growing plants. They want to solve some of the problems farmers are facing, like labor shortages, high energy costs, and crop loss. Vantchev is uniquely positioned to see the potential of ag tech; he’s a software software architect that grew up in Bulgaria working on family farms, and he still farms today.
“Not only am I developing the technology, I’m living the problem,” Vantchev says.
The end goal for Wilde and Vantchev is a big one. They want to find ways to enable farmers to grow more food right here, in our own region, and they want them to be able to do it in a sustainable, affordable way.
The advantages of increasing local food production are numerous and include things like better tasting tomatoes, but some of the biggest are purely economic.
“Definitely a lot [of food] is brought in from further away than benefits our local economy,” says the City of Pittsburgh’s Urban Agriculture and Food Policy Adviser Shelly Danko-Day.
If our food is coming from across the country, than our money is going there, too. And increased local production could create job opportunities.
But the problems that lead to food outsourcing aren’t easy to solve, and Vantchev and Wilde don’t expect to be able to solve them on their own.
Another startup that will be at the summit is also focused on finding ways to solve the problem of labor shortages, but in harvesting. University of Pittsburgh alumni Brandon Contino and Dan Chi started Four Growers after they heard from greenhouse growers that labor was an issue.
“Since I had a background in building robots, and Dan had spent time designing custom robot grippers for the packing industry, we realized we had the perfect skill set to develop a solution to the pressing need that these greenhouse growers had,” Contino says.
He’s spent the summer in San Francisco after Four Growers was chosen to be one of the startups in Y Combinator’s prestigious accelerator program that has also supported big names like Dropbox, Reddit, and Airbnb.
Contino is excited to come back to Pittsburgh and keep working on Four Growers’ tomato-harvesting technology. Though he can see why ag tech has flown under the radar here.
“Agriculture isn’t always the sexiest field,” Contino says. “Would you rather have a plant or have a car that’s going to drive itself?”
He thinks that the Ag Tech Summit will help bring attention to food production problems, which should in turn get people interested in finding solutions.
“It’s really hard to get interested if you don’t think there’s a problem, so by highlighting some of the problems it’ll help to engage more people,” says Contino.
Though, not every ag tech startup is focused on the problems surrounding growing food. The Pittsburgh-based startup Farm Jenny is all about the animals.
The founders of Farm Jenny, Tammy Crouthamel and her husband Rob, are also coming from backgrounds in both technology and agriculture. Crouthamel grew up on a farm, and for the past few decades, they’ve been working tech jobs during the day, and coming back to their farm at night.
“We were seeing a lot of opportunities as we cared for our animals–ways that we thought technology could enable farmers to prevent or address problems faster,” Crouthamel says. “Just like us, most of those farmers have day jobs, so they can’t always be with their animals and they may miss those early warning signs of potential problems.”
Farm Jenny makes behavior tracking wearable technology that is designed to help farmers detect illness, injuries, and potential problems with their animals before they become obvious through vital signs, and then sends the farmer an alert to their phone. They’re starting with horses, with plans to expand to other common farm animals in the future.
Crouthamel believes that Pittsburgh is the perfect setting for an ag tech industry. She’s been able to live close enough to the city to have a thirty minute commute to her tech job, while still being able to own enough land for a small farm.
“A lot of metropolitan areas wouldn’t allow for that because in order to get out far enough to have farmland, you would have to have a two hour commute to a tech job in the city but here in Pittsburgh it’s possible,” she says.
Crouthamel also thinks that when it comes to ag tech, we’re in just the right time.
“People are scrambling for and eager for technology,” she says. “It’s to the point now where almost every professional has a smartphone and they almost expect to have apps and devices and solutions to meet their every need through that smartphone, and so it’s only natural that today’s farmers would start to look for those solutions there as well.”
Coming from outside the tech industry, Danko-Day is less certain. She’s interested in creative solutions, but she knows that some farmers won’t have the resources to embrace ag tech.
“I think there’s a place for all kinds of farming—there’s definitely a place in the landscape of urban food growing for ag tech and for the robotics,” she says. “But the barriers for that type of technology are pretty high for some communities.”
The question is then: will it work in Pittsburgh? Panacea, Four Growers, and Farm Jenny all believe that they have solutions for farmers that will help them increase productivity and cut costs. And more than ten startups will be at the first ever Pittsburgh Ag Tech Summit, along with several other tech and food companies. And Crouthamel says that opportunity for collaboration and networking could make a difference in the field.
“I think that there’s a lot happening in ag tech and it’s important that we collaborate and share what we’re doing so that everyone can gather that information and knowledge and we can move ahead a lot faster as an industry.”