Imagine if artificial intelligence could simplify the work of farmers? That’s exactly what Sherbrooke-based start-up Désherbex is working towards in developing a technological tool that eliminates the weeds stopping root vegetables from growing.
“In the parsnip, radish, and onion fields, you can’t turn the soil,” explains Simon Michaud, President and Founder of the young company. “In organic farms, weeding is done by hand as a result.”
It’s a long and tedious task that also affects traditional farms that, for the past few years, have been dealing with weeds that resist herbicides, which are also removed manually. In the long run, the young business would like to become a vector of transition from traditional to organic farming.
Equipped with artificial intelligence, the robot designed by the Sherbrooke resident can tell vegetables from weeds, all while learning to identify these unwanted plants, of which there is a significant variety. “The machine could therefore operate on different soils and sites.”
Alleviating farming issues
The idea sprouted in the summer of 2019, while Michaud, working toward his Bachelor’s in Robotic Engineering at Université de Sherbrooke, was completing an internship on an organic carrot field. “I saw people removing weeds by hand all day long, lying on massage tables as a tractor pulled them along,” recalls Michaud, who had never worked on agricultural lands before. “When the farmer explained the extent of the problem, it sparked something in me.”
It was as part of a business course involving the creation of an innovative product with potential to market and combining engineering and business administration students that Désherbex came to be. Michaud and two classmates started the project, with a childhood friend joining shortly thereafter.
“We visited 40 or so farms in the Eastern Townships and realized that the problem was widespread,” says the now Master’s student. “Both organic and traditional farms alike are dealing with the labour shortage.”
Weeding is very a demanding and tedious task; recruiting and retaining employees to do this is no easy feat. “We want to reduce the workforce specifically assigned to this task and reassign them to other, more valuable farming duties,” says Michaud.
Oftentimes farmers don’t have the time to treat all the soil, which ultimately leads to lost crops. “We met with the owner of approximately 50 acres of farmland. He would spend $150,000 on weeding each summer. Despite his best efforts, he still lost 25% of his crop,” says the businessman.
Désherbex helps farmers deal with a number of issues they face every day.
Bruno Crispin, directeur Produit et Stratégie, Solutions Mobilité & IoT Affaires, Vidéotron Affaires, Nadia Proteau - (Marketing specialist) Cofounder, Simon Michaud - Président Cofounder. Credit picture: Patric Nadeau Photographe
This innovation earned the young sprout the national OSEntreprendre Technological and Technical Innovations – Videotron Business award in June, as well as two “favourite awards”–Chief Scientist and Ingenuity–for a total of $20,000 in grants.
This journey, which spanned a little over six months, allowed the Désherbex team to make contacts, get valuable advice and, most importantly, work on their business model. “We were preparing for two other contests in parallel: the Pierre Péladeau Bursaries and Global Social Impact Challenge in San Diego,” recalls Michaud. “It was very beneficial, as we had to prepare three presentations from different angles based on the issue at hand.”
This led them to consider their long-term vision and impact potential, beyond the technology developed. “We now have a written growth plan and clear objectives.”
The Sherbrooke business plans to use the various bursaries they earned as a lever to develop their marketing project in the coming years.
Creating new farming practices
In the meantime, the Sherbrooke business is focusing its efforts on research and development in order to continue testing its technology in the field this coming spring.
“One of our main goals was to move from theory to practice,” explains the Master’s student, who was forced to put things on hold as a result of the pandemic. “We worked very hard on our technology, but on the field, it was a no-go.”
“The lesson here is that the technology needs to be developed both on the field and with the farmers, to ensure it meets their needs,” he goes on. “My advice to future entrepreneurs: fieldwork is worth thousands of hours of theory!”
Désherbex would like to offer a weeding service first, and eventually start selling machines once the technology is validated. “We also plan to offer our services in California or Florida in the winter!”
The team also hopes to facilitate the creation of new farming practices with their precision farming technology, an area still under development.
“With artificial intelligence, we could develop tools to achieve better performance and improve product quality,” Michaud concludes.
December 21, 2022, By Philippine de Tinguy