From small beginnings to solving a world-wide vineyard problem
For Cropsy co-founders Ali Alomari, Leila Deljkovic, Rory Buchanan, and Winston Su, an idea sparked fresh out of university, when Ali was interning with a hydroponics company.
Here, he realised indoor growers face huge problems with pests and diseases, but mainly because they can’t be there to check on every plant all the time, giving infections and infestations time to spread.
“We figured this must affect all growers, especially the ones growing at large scale outdoors,” says Leila. “Wine grapes are huge in New Zealand, and that was our in.”
Together, the team of four began working on a prototype for AI-enabled hardware that attaches to a vineyard’s vehicle, collects data and optimises management of pests and diseases across a vineyard.
The goal: minimising crop loss through early detection; better estimating yields; and saving potentially millions in resource time and treatment applied to entire vineyards.
In those early days, funding was hard to come by.
“The first funding we received from AGMARDT was critical … it helped take a new idea we had into a prototype which actually forms the basis of Cropsy’s product today,” says Leila.
“Hardware and deep tech companies are at a real risk of falling through the cracks when it comes to early-stage investment, and that’s where grant support is crucial. So more than anything, [AGMARDT funding] gave our business the legs it needed to continue.”
Now, after launching their initial product and partnering with some of the largest wine producers in New Zealand, the Cropsy team is taking their business to the next level by tackling what they’ve termed “ghost vines” – the up to 13% of vines that are missing, dead, or unproductive for a number of reasons, including trunk and viral diseases.
Ghost vines pose a real threat to the sustainability of the industry, both environmentally through inefficient land use, and financially through lost production and unnecessary vineyard expansion.
On the flip side, if the ghost vines can be identified individually and removed, growers can replant without expanding and fully maximise every part of vineyard land.
The challenge lies in monitoring the health and productivity of every vine reliably and at-scale. With current practices and technologies, this is simply impossible.
But the Cropsy team have a plan, one that AGMARDT was thrilled to help fund once again.
“This is what AGMARDT is here for and what we love to enable: an early idea that develops and eventually attracts interest and investment, both from growers in New Zealand and overseas,” says AGMARDT General Manager Lee-Ann Marsh. “It’s a been a privilege to seed fund the initial project and to now partner with Cropsy as they take their business to the next level.”
To tackle the ghost vines, the team are building on their existing commercialised functionality to develop new IP that monitors vine performance over time and provides growers with individual vine performance assessments and locations of ghost vines.
Ultimately, this first-of-its-kind technology will give growers never-before-accessible knowledge about their individual vines and empower them to plan precision replanting programmes.
Leila sees huge potential for a world-leading product that works for growers and helps create healthier, more efficient and more sustainable vineyards – and loves that their research, innovation and work can be based in Aoteoroa.
“I [think] New Zealand is [one of] the best places in the world to start a viticulture tech company. Marlborough is also rare in that there’s a lot of vineyard area in a relatively small region, and the vineyards are very consistent, making it perfect to test technology at scale easily,” she says.
“We also have a fantastic pool of talented people in STEM and there’s a lot of opportunity for technology innovation in New Zealand, particularly in the primary industries,” she adds. “If we can support that innovation with grants, there’s a lot of challenge and excitement to uncover for STEM graduates and professionals.”