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Agtech startup Imago AI is using computer vision to boost crop yields

Presenting onstage today in the 2018 TC Disrupt Berlin Battlefield is Indian agtech startup Imago AI, which is applying AI to help feed the world’s growing population by increasing crop yields and reducing food waste. As startup missions go, it’s an impressively ambitious one. The team, which is based out of Gurgaon near New Delhi, is using computer vision and machine learning technology to fully automate the laborious task of measuring crop output and quality — speeding up what can be a very manual and time-consuming process to quantify plant traits, often involving tools like calipers and weighing scales, toward the goal of developing higher-yielding, more disease-resistant crop varieties. Currently they say it can take seed companies between six and eight years to develop a new seed variety. So anything that increases efficiency stands to be a major boon. And they claim their technology can reduce the time it takes to measure crop traits by up to 75 percent. In the case of one pilot, they say a client had previously been taking two days to manually measure the grades of their crops using traditional methods like scales. “Now using this image-based AI system they’re able to do it in just 30 to 40 minutes,” says co-founder Abhishek Goyal. Using AI-based image processing technology, they can also crucially capture more data points than the human eye can (or easily can), because their algorithms can measure and asses finer-grained phenotypic differences than a person might pick up on or be easily able to quantify just judging by eye alone. “Some of the phenotypic traits they are not possible to identify manually,” says co-founder Shweta Gupta. “Maybe very tedious or for whatever all these laborious reasons. So now with this AI-enabled [process] we are now able to capture more phenotypic traits. “So more coverage of phenotypic traits… and with this more coverage we are having more scope to select the next cycle of this seed. So this further improves the seed quality in the longer run.” The wordy phrase they use to describe what their technology delivers is: “High throughput precision phenotyping.” Or,…

Shelf Engine uses machine learning to stop food waste from eating into store margins

Shelf Engine’s team While running Molly’s, the Seattle-based ready meal wholesaler he founded, Stefan Kalb was upset about its 28 percent food wastage rate. Feeling that the amount was “astronomical,” he began researching how to lower it — and was shocked to discovered Molly’s was actually outperforming the industry average. Confronted by the sheer amount of food wasted by American retailers, Kalb and Bede Jordan, then a Microsoft engineer, began working on an order prediction engine. The project quickly brought Molly’s percentage of wasted food down to the mid-teens. “It was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done in my career,” Kalb told TechCrunch in an interview. Driven by its success, Kalb and Jordan launched Shelf Engine in 2016 to make the technology available to other companies. Currently participating in Y Combinator, the startup has already raised $800,000 in seed funding from Initialized Capital, the venture capital firm founded by Alexis Ohanian and Gerry Tan, and is now used at more than 180 retail points by clients including WeWork, Bartell Drugs, Natural Grocers and StockBox. Shelf Engine’s order prediction engine analyzes historical order and sales data and makes recommendations about how much retailers should order to minimize waste and increase margins. The more retailers use Shelf Engine, the more accurate its machine learning model becomes. The system also helps suppliers, because many operate on guaranteed sales, or scan-based trading, which means they agree to take back and refund the purchase price of any products that don’t sell by their expiration date. While running Molly’s, Kalb learned what a huge pain point this is for suppliers. To alleviate that, Shelf Engine itself buys back unsold inventory from the retailers it works with, taking the risk away from their suppliers. Kalb, Shelf Engine’s CEO, claims the startup’s customers are able to increase their gross margins by 25 percent and reduce food waste from an industry average of 30 percent to about 16-18 percent for items that expire within one to five days. (For items with a shelf life of up to 45 days, the longest that Shelf Engine manages, it…

Apeel Sciences is combating food waste with plant-derived second peels

In a world bursting with abundances like self-driving cars and robotic personal assistants, you would think that basic needs like sustainable food sourcing and distribution would be a problem of the past. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), every year roughly a third — 1.3 billion tons — of food grown for consumption is lost or wasted. In industrialized countries like the U.S., this results in a loss of $680 billion per year, and in countries without standardized infrastructure (such as proper cooling systems), this results in a loss of $310 billion per year. Among the billions of tons of food lost per year, the largest percentage is in vital, nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables and roots and tubers (such as potatoes and carrots), each seeing about 45 percent wasted annually. There are many factors responsible for food waste, including poorly regulated “Best By” and “Sell By” dates in the U.S. that tempt fickle customers into wasting otherwise good food, and unreliable or non-existent cooling distribution systems in less-industrialized countries. But an underlying cause of both of these issues, especially for easily spoiled foods, is the inherent shelf life of the food itself. And that’s where Apeel Sciences steps in. The California-based startup is combating food waste by using plant-derived materials from food itself to create an extra protective barrier to prolong its life and stave off spoilage — essentially, creating a second peel. To create it, farmers just add water to Apeel’s protective powder and apply it to produce as a spray or wash. For founder and CEO James Rogers, who was working on a PhD in materials engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara when he was inspired to create Apeel Sciences, the solution to the problem of quickly spoiled food could be found by looking to a problem science had already solved: rust. “Factors that cause spoilage are water loss and oxidation,” Rogers told TechCrunch. “[This] reminded me instantly of my undergraduate days at Carnegie Mellon as a metallurgist studying steel.…

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