Precision.ai wants to replace conventional crop sprayers with a fleet of AI- and sprayer-equipped drones.
Dan McCann credits an ultimatum from his wife for his latest business venture, which he hopes will “lay waste” to how things have been done on Saskatchewan farms for generations.
“Get rid of this stuff or I’m going to get rid of you,” the Saskatchewan-born serial entrepreneur recalls her saying after growing frustrated with a garage packed to overflowing with half-finished projects.
Instead of renting a dumpster, McCann and a friend who recently earned a doctorate in artificial intelligence set about building a tool aimed at turning smartphone photos of items into online sales listings.
What they discovered during repeated tests on household objects is that the AI software displayed an uncanny ability to recognize plants. That, McCann said with a laugh, was the seminal moment for Precision.ai Inc.
Founded about a year ago in Regina, the company, which McCann said he is “bootstrapping,” or financing himself, aims to build drones equipped with AI that can fly over a farmer’s crop and “surgically” spritz weeds with herbicide.
McCann concedes the project is in its infancy. The technology is “very, very hard” to master, like “trying to hit an arrow with another arrow,” and the first round of field trials just wrapped up, he said. At least one more round is needed.
The new 11-employee company’s chief executive believes the high-risk project could deliver an equally high potential.
According to the provincial government, farmers in the province can expect to spend more than $40 per acre on herbicide this year, depending on the crop. It’s money he believes is largely wasted, because much of the chemical just “hits the dirt,” McCann said.
“In no other industry in the world are those type of economics even remotely tolerated,” he said.
“The margins are extremely good on this,” he added of his business plan, which he believes could leave 80 per cent of the total spent on herbicide to be split between his company and the farmer who hires Precision.ai to spray fields “space invader style.”
That doesn’t account for the cost of a high-clearance sprayer, which can run upwards of $500,000, compared to a $25,000 drone, he said.
While Precision.ai has a long way to go before its technology is commercially available, at least some in the industry — including the world’s largest fertilizer company — have already taken notice of the Saskatchewan-based startup.
Earlier this year, the company found itself among the finalists in the Nutrien Radicle Challenge Pitch Day, which will reward one Canadian ag-tech firm with US$1 million in growth funding and another with US$250,000 in early-stage financing.
Precision.ai, which will make its case for the early-stage cash before a panel of judges in Saskatoon this week, is the only Saskatchewan company among the eight finalists in the competition.
The competition is aimed at “enabling new agricultural solutions that can help make growers around the world more sustainable, efficient and profitable,” Nutrien chief corporate development officer Mark Thompson said in a statement.
“There’s a lot of great companies here. Really, it’s hard to say,” McCann said of his company’s chances.
“Do they go with the moon shot or do they go with the more sure thing? At that point, we’re far from a sure thing but boy, if we pull this off, it’s going to be pretty good.”