b.digital leverages AI to benefit the AgriFood industry through the Watson Build Challenge
A venture of Blueit Group, b.digital was the 2017 Watson Build Global Champion. The company earned the highest Watson Build accolade possible for its solution bioBotGuard, which facilitates “precision farming” by improving both monitoring activities and field operations to help agronomists and farmers do their complicated and exacting work more efficiently and cost-effectively.
Today, there is a growing interest in the cultivation of organic foods, as well as cutting-edge farming methods to ensure the highest quality crops. While this focus has contributed greatly to the vast size of the AgriFood industry, with it comes a number of very interesting variables and unique challenges for technologists who want to come up with new solutions that add value. For that reason, it’s not an easy industry to compete in, unless you’re bringing something fresh to the table.
But through the 2017 Watson Build Challenge, that’s exactly what Italy-based b.digital managed to accomplish by creating a solution called bioBotGuard. And in the process, b.digital emerged as the 2017 Watson Build Global Champion at our Global Finals event in New York last November.
I wanted to share some Q&A with Paolo Mazza, co-Founder of Blueit and CEO of b.digital, to give you a window into his experience with the Watson Build Challenge, and the role IBM played in supporting the creation of b.digital’s game-changing bioBotGuard product.
So Paolo, when you heard the news in New York that you’d been selected Global Champion, what was your reaction?
Paolo Mazza: When you and David Kenny finally revealed the Global Champion it was a huge surprise and a big explosion of emotions and satisfaction for our whole team. We didn’t know that much about the other seven finalists’ projects until the presentation speeches, and they were all really impressive. We were so proud and honored just to be there among them. And of course we all had our Italian flags with us to display proudly, just in case, when we stood on stage as the winners, as you saw.
Can you tell our readers how bioBotGuard works, and why it’s such an innovation for the AgriFood industry?
To put it simply, bioBotGuard uses drones with GPS and high-resolution cameras to monitor the crops; the images are then processed by Watson Visual Recognition APIs in order to spot diseases and harmful insect attacks, building a georeferenced risk map of the crop. This can be used to send operational drones to put the treatment (or antagonist insects) only when and where it is needed.
It’s what we call Precision Farming as a Service. As a result, bioBotGuard can help AgriFood producers to change the cost structure of the industry, by requiring less water and less treatment, as well as a significant reduction in labor costs.
How did you approach putting your business plan together? Did you leverage your IBM relationships?
Definitely. We did quite a deep dive into the numbers, because there’s a lot of market research and forecasts regarding AgriFood, so we started from there. Once we settled on the right approach, we leveraged our relationships with many friends and executives in IBM as sparring partners. But they also gave us enthusiastic support.
Another great result we gained by participating in Watson Build is that we now have a network of very skilled and trusted IBM Business Partners all over the world. Being part of the IBM ecosystem is like sharing a common base in values and vision. Partnering in some projects comes very naturally.
So it sounds like the biggest challenge involved moving from prototype to mobile app launch?
That’s THE question! Building it was indeed the challenge, and the moment in which your team builds experience and the learning curve steps up. That’s also the reason why I suggest that all Business Partners apply for Watson Build 2018, because the Build phase itself is the greater value you get from the whole journey.
There’s a huge difference between testing some features, as described in a manual, versus having to solve problems like real code, real difficulties and real deadlines. So you need to ask for support from IBM, which builds the relationship. In our case, IBM support was great and this phase helped us to become Watson experts by doing it, rather than just talking about it.
We were already experts in using IBM Bluemix (now IBM Cloud) and it was key for our success: The timing was so strict that using a Platform as a Service (PaaS) approach was the only way. We did it from scratch to working prototype in less than four months, and we couldn’t have done that without using Bluemix.
What advice would you give to Business Partners who have joined this year’s Watson Build and are just starting their planning?
You did the right thing, so fully dive into it! Ask IBM for support: They are willing to help and they are great at doing it, so you will learn a lot. We are part of the IBM ecosystem of Business Partners because we truly share IBM values. And that means working from an ethical basis and focusing on technology that is going to change the world for the better. Last but not least, remember to pack your country’s flag in your luggage. Because winning happened to us, and it could happen to you!
Thanks, Paolo, for giving us a window into your experience! For those of you who want to learn more about what Paolo and his team accomplished, I’ve included some great videos: