Trying to make sense of all data is a very big ask

16 min read - published on December 7, 2019

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If you want to get to know Phil, you have to talk to Alastair Monk. Phil’s main man left Canada for the Netherlands to change the way horticulture works.

What’s your history working in horticulture?

In 2015 I started my own artificial intelligence company in Montreal. I was the co-founder and CEO of Motorleaf. Motorleaf was the first company with a market-ready solution to predict high-tech greenhouse yield accurately using artificial intelligence, with clients all over the world. 

My first job in horticulture was at a greengrocer when I was about 14 years old. I drove around with the owner, choosing the freshest fruit and vegetables from local suppliers. This job taught me to understand the difference between imported and super-fresh local produce.

Where do you think the largest opportunity lies to add value for crop producers, from a technology perspective?

A greenhouse is incredibly rich in data, but trying to make sense of all of the data without intuitive and easy techniques to help you is a very big ask. Most people who run greenhouses are busy running greenhouses; generally speaking, they’re not employed to stare at data all day long and figure out ways to make sense of it.

The other opportunity is automation for problems which involve labor. Because of the increasing cost in labor, and more importantly, the availability (or lack thereof) of labor in different regions around the world, it’s going to be very important to find ways to make up for that gap in a cost-efficient manner.

It’s incredibly naive that most people think of water as a resource that will always be there and literally be ‘on tap’.


Is horticulture lagging behind in data use?

“Horticulture is one of the largest industries on the planet, but probably one of the last to receive the attention it deserves from a data management and analysis point of view. One of the reasons for that is the infrastructure that’s in place. It’s a lot easier to build new products on top of an infrastructure that accommodates them easily. Let’s say, for instance, that you want to build new software for people working in accounting. These accounting companies are already online, allowing them to download a piece of software easily. But with horticulture, you’re also building the infrastructure. You have to build sensors, cloud connectivity and other ways to capture data in an automated fashion, then you can build a product on top of that data. So it’s more complex if the existing infrastructure is being retrofitted while also building new products.”


Who do you look up to in the industry, either as a mentor or thought leader?

Meiny Prins, the CEO of Priva, is definitely considered a thought leader around the world when it comes to how she envisions the future for urban populations. She understands the complexity around why local food production is so important, and how we can do it in an environmentally respectful manner to save energy and water consumption. It’s incredibly naive that most people think of water as a resource that will always be there and literally be ‘on tap’. Conserving our water while also increasing food production are two things that don’t normally sound as if they can co-exist. Meiny’s vision is one of the reasons that I’ve joined Priva via Phil.”

Alastair’s TED talk (recorded 2017)

 


What else attracted you to work with Priva?

“It’s a great opportunity to join a company which is already the market leader. Not because they’re complacent in this position, but because they have the most to lose in the market. There’s always just as much pressure as if you’re a startup with everything to win. Priva is sitting on top of the world’s largest data set in horticulture. If we don’t create something amazing with that, then who will?”

How has your experience in building a startup helped you to start up Phil?

“There are similarities in building a startup and driving innovation within an existing company. The first is that you need to carefully manage the environment in which you work. You have to create an identity which supports your vision and goals. With Phil, we need to refine a vision which suits our needs. Knowing how to problem-solve and get things done is also just as important within a bigger company. You have to have a huge amount of faith in your team's ability, and be deaf to comments like ‘Well, that's not how we normally do things.’”

The Netherlands has a great reputation for being the world leader in greenhouse production. Can you identify the key drivers keeping them in this leading position?

“As a native Brit who lived in Canada for 20 years, my experience with Dutch horticulture has been viewed from abroad for the most part. What I’ve always felt is that Dutch growers are much more open to sharing best practices and knowledge, even with their competitors. A rising tide raises all ships. Being a small but market-leading country, the Netherlands understands that trying to compete against your fellow countrymen doesn’t work. The whole country benefits greatly from its mostly unified approach to sharing best practices and adopting technology together.”

Young growers should look at technology as a toolkit to help them make better decisions themselves, not as letting decisions be made by somebody else.


There’s a lot of talk about the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning in horticulture, but it’s yet to be widely adopted. Do you think this is due to the lack of proven products, or conservative adoption of new technology within the greenhouse industry?

“What most people don’t realize is that greenhouse owners are very entrepreneurial. They understand risk-taking and the consequences in doing so. They plan in years, versus months, because they also grow crops in fairly long-term cycles. I think the adoption of AI is mostly a factor of being able to understand its value. Sometimes the value is hard to prove quickly to a customer with a new product. The adoption rate is slow because horticulture isn’t the space where the most AI has been developed. It also suffers from domain experts in horticulture having to take a large leap of faith with people who don’t have green thumbs.

Finally, trusting who you’re dealing with is a very important factor in horticulture. Most greenhouses want to have some history before they open up to reveal potentially sensitive information.”

Do you have a view on the young 'new blood' growers who are learning the ropes, and the differences technology may play in their approach to growing?

“New growers expect technology from day one. For them, it’s as easy to use as all the other things in their life. They are going to drive change quicker than any other previous type of grower. It’s an expectation, not a want or a desire. I think the more growers we have who push for technology, the quicker adoption is going to take place. The ways they’ve been taught to grow using old methods or equipment, along with old ways of accessing information — it will all go out the window, in some cases. Young growers should look at technology as a toolkit to help them make better decisions themselves, not as letting decisions be made by somebody else. Using AI will help give them a shortcut to make decisions.”

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What drives you every day, after putting so much time and energy into the horticulture space?

“I’m still considered a newbie in the horticulture space. Tackling a large challenge where the pay-off is not purely tied to profit is what motivates me. Everything Priva is doing leads to a more sustainable way of doing business and producing food. I like to come home and tell my kids that the work we’re doing is helping the lives they’ll be living when they are adults.”

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Published December 7, 2019

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