PlantTech Research Institute
PlantTech Research Institute are contracted by MBIE for $8.425 million excluding GST to accelerate innovation and find solutions to horticultural challenges through Artificial Intelligence technology.
MBIE funding details
Successful in their application for Regional Research Institute (RRI) funding in the 2016 call for applications, PlantTech Research Institute received $8.425 million (excl GST) for the establishment of PlantTech over a 5 year period from January 2018 to December 2022.
About the research
PlantTech Research Institute have been contracted to accelerate innovation and find solutions to horticultural challenges through Artificial Intelligence technology. Below is the public statement from our contract with PlantTech Research Institute.
Read the public statement
PlantTech Research Institute Ltd. is a new industry-led research organisation based in the Western Bay of Plenty, focussed on technology and innovation in premium, plant-based value chains. PlantTech will leverage the Western Bay of Plenty’s regional strengths in horticulture, to create a unique applied research capability that will accelerate regional and national innovation for knowledge-intensive companies. PlantTech’s founders include eight companies (Bluelab, Cucumber, GPS-It, Eurofins, Plus Group Horticulture, Trimax Mowing Systems, Waka Digital and Zespri International) alongside the University of Waikato and Priority One (the Western Bay of Plenty’s economic development organisation). These organisations all share a vision for a collaborative R&D capability that will improve their global competitiveness, and the regional and national innovation systems they work in.
"PlantTech’s value proposition is in applied scientific research, coupled to innovation and knowledge transfer, at the interface of digital and natural systems. Its activities are directed through design-led innovation and informed by market drivers from a variety of companies. PlantTech aims to be a world leader in enabling customised, precise and automated production systems for premium, natural plant production, management and distribution, and in making these systems accessible to businesses at a range of scales. For the first stages of PlantTech’s operation, the focus is on research in artificial intelligence, applied to multi-modal sensor inputs, to enable autonomous solutions for growers and managers of horticultural operations or crops. While the Western Bay of Plenty provides the ‘lab’ in which the work will be conducted, PlantTech’s research will contribute to outcomes in many sectors, and will be commercialised nationally and globally in markets as diverse as sports facilities, hydroponics, logistics and other primary industries; including horticultural industries such as kiwifruit.
PlantTech’s benefit to New Zealand will ultimately be realised by accelerating business growth through improved speed and quality of innovation. If successful, participation in PlantTech by technology SMEs will generate an estimated $34million p/a additional revenue and create 100 new jobs by 2022, growing to an estimated additional revenue of $102million p/a and 290 new jobs by 2027.
Start-up investment of $8.425m for PlantTech has been secured through the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment’s Regional Research Institute (RRI) fund, announced in July 2017. By year five (2022) total private investment will exceed Government investment and by year ten (2026) will comprise up to 80% of the total investment."
For more contact:
- Dr Mark Begbie, CEO
- Visit planttechresearch.com(external link)
Recipients of RRI funding are required to report yearly on the progress of their work programme. Below is the public update from PlantTech Research Institute's annual report.
Read the public update from the 2021/22 annual report
Investment and Development
PlantTech was established as a Research and Technology Organisation (RTO), the term given to “specialised knowledge organisations dedicated to the development and transfer of science and technology to the benefit of the economy and society” . Part of the response to NZ’s poor record of converting excellent science into societal benefit, it is an adaptation of international learnings, particularly the Triple Helix approach, and the European RTO experience where “with a core responsibility for technological upgrading they (RTOs) play a key role in regional and national innovation systems” . Reflecting this, PlantTech’s mission is “stimulating leading edge, industrially exploitable and commercially focused research”  with a specific focus on developing Artificial Intelligence and data science solutions that solve problems in the primary sector.
We continue to believe that success in this space requires RTOs to maintain a balance of collaborative, outcome-focused activities across the spectrum from science excellence to commercial transfer. This is described in the 3-Pillar model PlantTech has developed, shown in Figure 3, which summarises the activities, drivers and trade-offs inherent to this space.
PlantTech now supports 17 full-time equivalent high-value roles (14 in Tauranga and 3 in Palmerston North), 12 of which are qualified to PhD level or beyond in their field of employment. It also sponsors 3 PhD students. In FY 07/21 – 06/22, PlantTech’s turnover was $3.73M, with $2.85M of this directly supporting translational research, aimed at delivering medium-term commercial outcomes for the NZ primary sector economy. Of this, $1.52M (41%) of revenue has come from industry partners, as compared to $0.675M (30%) in FY 2020 – 21.
Change of Structure
PlantTech has changed from being a limited company, owned by a group of horticulturally aligned companies, to being operated under a not-for-profit Incorporated Society structure. This shift is intended to support the RTO mission more effectively, particularly in three respects:
Growth in numbers and diversity of members
Membership has increased from 9 shareholders to 17 founding members, including:
- Diversification with primary industry companies, economic development agencies, Māori Trust, research providers (including CRIs), and growers involved.
- Geographical spread with members from the BoP, Waikato, Manawatu, and with broad NZ regional bases in the case of CRIs.
- Stronger network potential between research providers, commercial users, and public economic growth bodies represented.
Delivering clarity of intent and competitive positioning
The requirement for an incorporated society to reinvest any surpluses for broad benefit of its membership delivers a clear statement that PlantTech is intent on supporting the growth and prosperity of the sector, and ultimate protection for the investment of public funds.
Preserving agility and outcome focus
Retaining a company, as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Incorporated Society, allows PlantTech to continue to deliver agile and outcome focused services, whilst ultimately protecting its broader sector impact mission.
People and Place
PlantTech took on three summer internship students supported by Callaghan Innovation. Two returned to university to complete their degrees, and the third is now a Data Scientist with The Mindlab. In addition, we sought an intern through the first Toi Kai Rawa internship programme, placing rangatahi into BoP experiences. We were unsuccessful but had the honour to host the 7 interns for a session at the end of their programme. We will strongly pursue both avenues for 2022-23.
All staff who had not previously had the opportunity, attended the Cultural Connections course, run by the Takawaenga Maori Unit of Tauranga City Council, to learn about our history, local iwi and hapū, and the cultural richness of our land.
PlantTech has continued to engage with the Industry Transformation Plan for Agritech. Under the Data Sharing and Interoperability Working Group (DIWG), we led the Data Alliance in delivering a case study to demonstrate value creation through effective sharing of data with strong respect for consent and ownership. We have been successful in winning funding to take this to a minimum viable product demonstration with industry partners. PlantTech contributes to the DIWG through seats on the industry expert reference group and the geospatial data sub-group. PlantTech also supports a seat on the executive council of Agritech New Zealand.
Aotearoa New Zealand is in the midst of the Te Ara Paerangi – Future Pathways consultation, seeking to modernise the Research Science and Innovation system to make it fit for the future. PlantTech has taken an active role in this consultation with its own response and via engagement with a range of other stakeholders, including AgritechNZ and the Independent Research Association of New Zealand (IRANZ) in which we also support the executive committee.
There was a challenge laid in the cabinet papers around the drivers to establish a new generation of RTOs, of which PlantTech is one. Based on current research sources, identified in our response to the consultation, we believe this is equally true as we engage with Te Ara Paerangi today “New Zealand’s overall research system is highly productive, performs relatively well on research quality, and has some world-leading concentrations of expertise. However, we perform poorly by international standards in translating publicly funded research into commercial developments and business innovations which are critical for growing our economy.”
We assert that PlantTech has clearly proven its ability to deliver against this challenge, as can be adequately demonstrated through our science excellence and impact, developed in only 3½ years of activity. PlantTech will continue to engage with all parts of the public sector to advance a case in support of better economic outcomes for all.
PlantTech staff are lead author in 4 publications submitted to high-quality journals, have participated in the co-authorships of a further 13 journal papers published within the year, and presented 9 conference contributions.
Henry Kirkwood was lead author in a paper published in Nature Scientific Data relating to his previous work at the European X-Ray Free-Electron Facility (XFEL), a level of skill he is now applying to the horticulture sector. Three papers were published by Ian Yule with international cooperation from Malaysian Universities, in topics utilising hyperspectral remote sensing applied to crops. Reddy Pullanagari co-authored two papers related to remote sensing, atmospheric correction, and hyperspectral imaging. He and Ian Yule cooperated on a paper on the storage potential of Kiwifruit, relating to previous PhD co-supervision. Alvaro Orsi co-authored two papers with an international team.
PlantTech’s growing reputation has led to collaborative success in contestable funding:
- Lead applicant – Endeavour Smart Idea project “3D SIF” with Plant and Food Research and international collaboration from Durham University (UK) and the University of Melbourne (Australia)
- Partner – Endeavour Programme led by Scion.
- Successful co-applicant and bid lead – Our Land and Water Rural Professional Fund project
PlantTech has been incorporated as a science and technology provider into three SFFF project partnership with other research providers in each:
- Smart and Sustainable (Apples and Pears NZ, PFR, Lincoln Agritech, ARL Ltd.)
- Precision Silviculture (Forest Growers Research Ltd, Scion)
- An ongoing bid for transformation in the pip fruit sector
An Economic impact assessment was carried out for PlantTech by NZIER. The report highlights several specific and tangible impacts in addition to critical productivity uplift and an extremely strong (5.9 x) RoI to GDP from the $7.8M life to date investment. The key findings are:
- 1.8 percent (multi-factor) productivity gain – “As a conservative estimate, we have used a 1.8% productivity gain (based mainly on the crop estimation project) to illustrate the benefits of PlantTech. We estimate that once innovations become widely used within the kiwifruit industry, the impact will rise well above 1.8 percent productivity for the sector”
- A $46 million boost to the national economy – “A significant boost to New Zealand’s GDP is expected ($46 million). This will mainly generate further economic activity within the Bay of Plenty region, benefiting businesses and households in the region… These new research capabilities and opportunities are expected to build research and end-user connections and generate further spillovers as the research effort grows”
- Structural Change - The change in structure has also fostered more efficient engagement with partners and clients from the Hawkes’ Bay, Waikato, and Manawatu.
- Generation of 440 new jobs in the region over ten years - The injection of cash in the region generates more jobs particularly in the region and nationally. Some 440 new jobs are likely to be generated. These are mainly in the Bay of Plenty area since most of the services associated with the kiwifruit industry are based there. While the Bay of Plenty will benefit the most, other regions growing kiwifruit will also benefit. As the PlantTech research effort grows, we are likely to see similar job expansion in other regions and industries.
- Estimates are likely to underestimate the impacts of PlantTech - We have put together quantitative impacts of the initial research. These are likely to be underestimates of the benefits once fully realised. We also expect that research will beget research. The more that PlantTech’s abilities are recognised, the more it will be utilised; for example, when orchard plans are required, orchardists will fully realise the benefit of the work being done on water stress and foliage nitrogen monitoring.
- Enabling Capability - PlantTech is building enabling platforms, and these are geared towards leveraging project approaches to other horticultural industries and beyond. PlantTech is now working with five major vertically integrated apple entities on crop estimation to apply the techniques developed in the kiwifruit industry. This makes good business sense and will enhance research revenue streams.
At a more specific level, PlantTech now has five technologies, which it has developed, that are in transfer to commercial deployment:
- Digital crop estimation – We have continued to work with kiwifruit marketer Zespri™, using orchard surveying equipment to deliver accurate crop predictions early in the season. PlantTech has improved the performance of the system for both counting and sizing fruit in orchard. The next stage is to transfer this to deliver core business information.
- Handheld crop evaluation – The work on orchard data gathering has enabled a fast start to be made with a related capability using handheld devices, in partnership with Radfords software. The key impact will be to create new information gathering capabilities, direct from the field into the core software management products of Radfords. Further related work within the orchard is also anticipated.
- Supply chain temperature anomalies – An analytical system has been developed for Zespri™, capable of detecting if kiwifruit moving through export supply chains are suffering from unintended temperature spikes. This is thought to be associated with an increased risk of fruit spoilage during transport and has previously been very difficult to detect. Our solution has been deployed and tested in Zespri™ systems, helping address a problem estimated to cost $100M a year.
- Laboratory soil analysis – Different sensing technologies have been combined to enable rapid determination of nutrients in soils, without the need for wet chemistry. The partner is deploying this as part of their strategy to move away from wet chemistry testing to faster, cheaper, and more data ready forms of sensing. They expect a 35% value increase once fully deployed.
- Retro-Fit Orchard Autonomy – A member of PlantTech technical staff is embedded with start-up Machines at Work, to accelerate their development of systems to convert existing orchard machinery to fully autonomous operation. This brings expertise directly into their team and enables the young company to rapidly develop skills and adopt effective AI toolchains and R&D practices.
These outcomes are testament to PlantTech’s technology developments genuinely addressing market needs and being fit for purpose when it comes to evaluation and adoption. The work to transfer these technologies, and the skills required to develop them further, will take some time to complete. We are confident that we will see this pipeline of impact grow as we bring more research outcomes to the point where they are ready for adoption.
Read the public update from the 2020/21 annual report
- Investment and Development
- People and Place
Investment and Development
PlantTech Research Institute Ltd. (PlantTech) is an Independent Research Organisation, based in Tauranga, regional Bay of Plenty, pursuing a mission to “Deliver Globally Relevant AI-Based Enabling Technologies” to “Power Data-Driven Solutions across Primary Produce Value-Chains” by making these capabilities available for the next generation of products and services growing the regional economy of New Zealand, and being exported globally. This is achieved through a three-stage acceleration pathway based on a “triple-helix” approach
Applied R&D – creating market-led, science-based, and globally relevant technology platforms. This is driven by grant funded, broadly disseminated R&D, and complements the more fundament research activity of universities and CRIs.
Proof-of-concept – developing scalable solutions, that are proven in the field, with strategic partners. This is driven by collaboratively funded activity, and focuses on de-risking new solutions to show they have the speed, accuracy, reliability, affordability, and fit with common practice to make them valuable.
Commercial Acceleration – The final stage is to work with strategic and/or solution provision partners, to embed PlantTech technology in products serving global markets. By ensuring R&D is market-led, and working closely with partners to proof-of-concept, we minimise the risks and delays of market introduction. By working with established partners, who already have routes to market and commercial scale, we can significantly shorten the time to have a scaled commercial offering, delivering long-term returns to be reinvested in the next challenge.
PlantTech now supports 13 full-time equivalent high-value roles in Tauranga, 8 of which are qualified to PhD level or beyond in their field of employment. In the financial year July 2020 – June 2021, PlantTech’s turnover was $2.31M, with $2.22M of this directly supporting translational research, aimed at delivering medium-term commercial outcomes for the NZ primary sector economy. Of this research activity, $0.674M (30%) has been directly funded by industry partners.
Developing AI models rapidly or for complex problems, requires specialist, high powered, computing infrastructure based on Graphical Processing Units . This differs from the sort of machines historically built for High Performance Computing (HPC) and operated by organisations such as NIWA. PlantTech and New Zealand e-Science Infrastructure (NeSI), the national organisation responsible for delivery of HPC for the New Zealand research community, have signed an MoU committing to a partnership development of open GPU-based HPC for New Zealand. Through this partnership, PlantTech will have access to world-leading compute facilities and NeSI will have a specialist AI partner with whom to co-develop their investment strategy. The partnership will ensure this is done in a way that maximises benefit to NZ and minimises duplication of effort or investment.
Capability and Vision Mātauranga
PlantTech took on 6 summer internship students from 4 New Zealand universities; five supported through Callaghan Innovation Summer Experience grants and one fully funded by PlantTech.
- Two interns were retained on 12-month contracts and continue the work they had started; giving these young scientists their first substantive career opportunity.
- Two have found employment with other organisations within horticulture.
- The final two have found employment in data science and geographical information systems data science; areas they worked on with PlantTech.
We worked closely with the interns to create a worthwhile learning and developmental experience for them and the feedback they gave us was extremely positive in terms of feeling valued and providing a supportive around them.
PlantTech further developed 4 PhD opportunities with New Zealand universities, three of these are in the areas of machine learning and deep learning associated with the horticultural industry and remote sensing in particular, the remaining scholarship will look to leverage human centred product design to improve the usability and product experience in innovative fruit measurement systems.
We have continued to be strongly involved with the Industry Transformation Plan for Agritech, with a particular focus on data sharing and data interoperability, where we have led an industry group (The Data Alliance) in developing a proof of concept project. The project will further the development of mechanisms to support trust and consent in the context of data sharing, ensuring that data owners can be confident they will retain control over their data, even after it has been shared, thereby protecting their interest, their sovereignty in the data, and their rights to ongoing value.
Implementing approaches to respect the sovereignty and value in data, coupled with the techniques we are developing for regional-scale environmental understanding, support our vision of a future where we can identify and respect the value of all land uses in a catchment, not simply the areas which support a cash crop. By leveraging the capability of AI and ML to make sense of highly complex systems, we seek to enable participants in the environment to identify, evidence, and benefit from the true value that their land brings; whether this is in the form of a cash crop, of water capture and purification, or it relates to biodiversity and bio-resilience.
PlantTech has been engaging with our tangata whenua, particularly around the vision for holistic and sustainable land use based on the approaches above. We are now working closely with two of our local iwi to explore how we can support better outcomes for the generations ahead. We have also been supporting Toi Kai Rawa in their efforts to bring excitement and engagement with technology to the tamariki and rangatahi. Our staff brought relevant and accessible demonstrations relating agritech as scale to concepts they are familiar with in their everyday lives. We will continue supporting their work with kura Māori and intend to develop further materials to support this.
PlantTech staff have co-authored seven directly related papers published in high quality journals during the period, covering:
- Measurement of canopy nitrogen in grasslands, which we are further developing for application to horticulture. This has led to demonstration of the potential to use satellite data, opening up the prospect of cost-effective, national-scale, monitoring and management of nitrogen.
- The early detection of fungal disease in plantation seedling crops.
- Hyperspectral assessment of feed crops relates to other important attributes of foliage which we are developing for their commercial value in crop management.
- Impact of hyperspectral measurement on animal performance.
- Real-time tracking relates strongly to much of the work we have delivered in crop counting and sizing, an area where we believe we can evidence PlantTech is in the top tier globally.
In addition, PlantTech staff presented four papers at eResearch 2021. These cover:
- The role of temperature control in kiwifruit supply chains
- Machine vision as a means of performing phenotyping in orchards
- Influence of weather on irregular crops in avocado
- The path to, and opportunities created by, data-driven horticulture
PlantTech is working internationally with researchers in:
- Durham University in the UK
- Charles Darwin University in Australia
- Australian National University
In addition, PlantTech is leading a bid into the Endeavour Fund “Smart Ideas” programme, which has passed the science excellence assessment, and has partnered with two CRIs in separate bids into the Endeavour Fund Programme.
High-Throughput, High-Accuracy Harvest Estimation
Crop estimation is carried out by kiwifruit marketer Zespri™ at the start of every year to understand the volume and size (weight) of kiwifruit they will have to export and market globally after it’s harvested in autumn. This intelligence is needed to inform decisions related to logistics and market planning.
Accuracy is critical for Zespri™ as it aims to maximise kiwifruit grower returns by optimising revenue, which is achieved by optimising sending of appropriate sized fruit to various global markets.
Current crop estimation methods include a combination of historical crop data and manual monitoring, where a sample of kiwifruit (Green and SunGold™) is picked from various orchards and a size profile is measured.
Zespri™ wants to improve on the current methodology to achieve greater accuracy. Firstly, a small sample is not always representative of the whole population of fruit in an orchard. With current methods, increasing the sample size dramatically would be prohibitive in terms of effort and cost of the sampling regime. Coupled with this is the challenge of carrying out the sampling programme in a tight timeframe of only a few weeks.
PlantTech only began working on size estimation of kiwifruit using imagery in early 2020. By March of that year we had demonstrated a clear lead over other developers in New Zealand.
For the 2021 harvest, the system was used to process survey data from a substantial survey campaign run by Zespri™ and proved able automatically to process the data in two days, resulting in over 23 million calculated fruit weights, approximately 13 million Hayward green and 10 million Sungold™. The error level achieved was around 5% which compares extremely well to the current approach, where the error is often >20%. The further development of this solution to provide OSE predictions, based on current information and markets, would deliver 10’s of millions of dollars additional value to Zespri’s 2,500 growers over a three-year period.
International benchmarking identified two leading developers of similar technology, one in Switzerland and the other in Israel. Both of these are startups, attracting appreciable investment, but neither of them is achieving the accuracy levels for their crops that PlantTech has demonstrated in kiwifruit. A key opportunity we will pursue in 2021-22 is development of solutions for global crops.
The solution was presented to Fieldays 2021, at Mystery Creek, as an entrant in the innovation awards. Feedback from the event validated the capability and potential for the technology in fruit produce, as well as confirming that solutions that provide information earlier in the season will deliver increased value to growers, where the crop estimation is of most value to post harvest and marketing.
Low-Cost Wider Area Surveillance for Productivity, Sustainability, and Security
PlantTech staff bring many years’ experience in the analysis of hyperspectral image data, a way of seeing information from across a very wide portion of the electromagnetic spectrum in great detail. Similar capabilities are seen in nature, in creatures such as bees and mantis shrimps, as a ‘super sense’.
Using this approach, PlantTech scientists have demonstrated the ability to measure economically important characteristics of horticultural crops, such as plant vigour and nutrient status. In addition, we can identify species, and species diversity, which has applications in sustainable land management and ecosystem management / audit. Early indications are that the techniques can be cost effectively deployed at regional and national scale.
We will be working extensively over the coming year to encapsulate these analytics techniques within tools that can be put in the hands of land managers and other practitioners to deliver timely and cost effective insights and decision support. By partnering with influential players in the global geospatial data and analytics space, we will pursue opportunities at the global scale, with technology and solutions developed and owned in New Zealand.
Fieldays also strongly validated our belief that affordable and accurate area monitoring techniques are attractive for their potential to support a range of monitoring, management, and sustainability challenges across a variety of sectors. We see strong potential in both agriculture and horticulture for productivity optimisation, nutrient and agrichemical input management, crop performance, and pest and disease monitoring. It also has potential to support deeper understanding of the environment as a whole, playing an important role in creating the sustainable practices of the future, spanning all the uses of the environment across a catchment and into littoral waters.