Tech entrepreneur creating a global buzz with beehive-monitoring apps
Smart sensor networks aim to take sting out of beekeepers' vital work, writes John Cradden
The huge importance of bees to our food supply certainly seems to be one of the lesser-known facts about agriculture. We know they make all our honey, but how can such small creatures also be responsible for so much of the food we consume?
It turns out that bees provide most of the pollination services for a whole slew of crops of fruits, vegetables, oil and protein plants, nuts, spices, coffee and cocoa, and the value of this pollination is estimated by EU research to be worth a staggering €153bn a year.
There is, however, a surprisingly high level of awareness about the epidemic of diseases that have struck at the heart of so many bee populations all over the world over the last number of years. But again, not everyone knows that there are a number of other factors that have conspired to make life even more difficult for today's beekeepers.
A few weeks ago, the EU voted to completely ban neonicotinoid chemicals, one of the world's most widely-used pesticides, because of the danger they pose to bees. "It's not going to solve all the problems, but it's a step in the right direction," says Fiona Edwards-Murphy, founder and CEO of new Cork-based firm called Apisprotect.
Apisprotect develops and produces applications for beekeepers based on Internet of Things (IoT) technology. Specifically, it uses in-hive sensors to unobtrusively monitor honey bee colonies, and then provides the beekeeper with in-depth information about the health and condition of their colonies, using machine learning and big data technologies.
It's one of a number of enterprises that have been working behind the scenes to develop new solutions to help beekeepers protect their hives and preserve bee health, but it's also one based on research that attracted significant local and international recognition from many different quarters.
That research began in 2013 as a PhD project that Edwards-Murphy embarked on after completing her degree in electrical engineering at UCC, during which she had built up a strong focus on wireless sensor networks that provide much of the backbone for the fast-emerging area of IoT technology.
"My favourite aspect of this technology is the massive potential for interdisciplinary applications, so when I decided to pursue a PhD I was looking for a really interesting application." The answer came after a discussion with her supervisor, who had once kept bees. "I knew that this was a great opportunity to apply my technical skills."
Shortly after, she won funding from the Irish Research Council for a project focusing on the application of sensors and networking in honey bee hives.
The huge potential didn't become completely clear until she led a UCC project based on her research that won first place in the 2014 IBM/IEEE Smarter Planet Challenge. "It generated a lot of media attention then we started getting loads of phone calls and emails from beekeepers not just in Ireland but from around the world. That was when we started to realise just how dramatic the application of the technology to beekeeping could be," says Edwards-Murphy.
"We were conscious that there were so many different problems now that are affecting beekeepers. Even if you could wipe out all the diseases, there is still a huge combination of different problems; things like climate biodiversity, increased agricultural use, and increased pesticide use.
"Our objective is to help them use the information that they have and the skills that they have in a more informed way. So what our sensors do is help them understand what condition the hive is in, identify when the conditions of the beehive change and help them manage their hives more efficiently."
Everyone knows that even the most inspired academic research requires a whole other set of skills to turn it into a viable business, never mind a successful one, but an important step came when Edwards-Murphy joined the Bank of Ireland Ignite programme in 2016 - a 12-month business incubation programme.
"I never thought of becoming an entrepreneur - but really I love how varied it is; I do different things every single day, I travel all over the world, I'm pitching, developing infrastructures, and thinking about things like accounts, and sales, learning so much every single day about all the different aspects of the business. It's very tiring, but really interesting."
She is also keen not to deviate too far from the scientific foundations that created the application in the first place. "Our core principle is 'science-driven, healthy bees' so for us it is important to engage with high-profile beekeeping organisations and well-respected beekeepers. We also put a huge amount of work into both validating our product's performance, and utilising the latest advancements in honey bee research."
At the same time, she is conscious not to portray Apisprotect's solutions as something that might take away from the core skills of beekeepers. "That's something that we put a lot of work into, because we know that beekeepers are beekeepers because they love keeping bees."
The technology is designed to be unobtrusive, she adds, and doesn't require any special technical skills or knowledge to operate.
To add to all the academic accolades for her PhD research, Apisprotect, which is based in the Environmental Research Institute on the Lee Road and employs a team of three, went on to be named Ignite Business of the Year 2017, which was followed by Edwards-Murphy's inclusion in the Competitive Start Fund for Female Entrepreneurs in 2017, "a fantastic boost for us at such an early stage".
Despite all the positive attention, she maintains that one of the biggest challenges for the business is the amount of work they have to do in educating people around how important bees are. "Everyone knows about the problems that bees are having but not everybody knows that they are responsible for a third of the food that we eat every day."
Things like apples and almonds could end up becoming luxury items because bees do so much of the work in pollinating them, she says.
In the meantime, the company is currently working on rolling out of devices to 200 beehives, the majority of them in the USA. Other future target export markets will include New Zealand and mainland Europe.
When you consider that there are 81 million beehives around the world, it certainly gives you a sense of the potential market.
Even in that context, the company's five-year objective to have their monitoring devices working in 100,000 hives still sounds impressive, so there's no doubt they'll be busy bees for some time to come.
Sunday Indo Business