A Chat with Lisa Kikuchi of SenSprout — How Smart Agriculture Sensors Will Transform Farming

kikuchi-300x300Through a mutual connection among the wonderful community of IoT hardware innovators on the HWTrek platform, I recently caught up with Lisa Kikuchi, Manager at Tokyo-based SenSprout Inc., to learn more about the company and the low-cost smart agriculture sensor that they’ve developed. SenSprout successfully raised $169,931 for its Indiegogo campaign on a goal of $10,000.

Can you tell us the founding story of SenSprout? What inspired you to start it and what’s your vision for it?

SenSprout started from a research project by our current Technical Advisor and Associate Professor in the Engineering Department of University of Tokyo, Dr. Yoshihiro Kawahara. He applied his research knowledge of network technology and printed electronics into the field of agriculture, where he saw a lot of potential for optimization using engineering technology. After publishing his initial findings in a paper, he realized that there is a lot of demand for his prototype soil moisture sensor and decided to take part in the foundation of SenSprout Inc. to accelerate the development and sales of his sensors. We see a lot of opportunities for our product to change the way people use precious water resources to grow various types of crops around the world.

I saw that recently your company has released SenSproutPro. Can you tell us about its features and applications?

We have already done field testing of our SenSprout Pro sensors in multiple locations around Japan and will start official sales in April 2017. Our sensors can measure soil moisture at 3 different depths (10, 20 and 30 cm) and also ground level temperature. All the data is sent to the server via a gateway. We have also developed software to view the data — smartphone (iOS/Android) and web application from which users can access the real-time data.

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What have been the significant challenges or obstacles you’ve faced on the project? How were they resolved?

The complexity of soil science has been a challenge for us since we originally started as an Engineering project. One sensor will give you different data if the soil type and condition change. We’ve tackled this issue by collaborating with the experts in the field. We work with professors from the Agricultural and Life Sciences Department of the Universities of Tokyo as well as scientists from other universities and research institutes.

What are the difficulties your company face to do IoT agriculture business in Japan?

Even though there has been a rise in the formation of “agritech” startups and new technologies globally and in Japan as well, there is not enough awareness among typical farmers about the benefits they could receive from utilizing such technology. Since we think of farmers and farming corporations as our main B2C customers, the difficulty of creating the market itself is an issue we still face.

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In your opinion, how can IoT technology help to improve the agriculture sector? What are the benefits?

There are several areas in which the sector could benefit from the use of IoT technology. First, the technology could replace much of the manual labor that still takes place on the ground, enabling the farmers to cut labor costs and to focus on more value-added work such as marketing and even processing of their farm products. Also, cultivation based on data and analytics could lead to better quality and higher yield. In Japan, specifically, the aging and decreasing population of farmers is a major issue. Technology could help solve this issue by storing their vast amount of experience and knowledge in the form of big data, which could be passed on to the next generation and those entering the field without prior experiences, including private companies.

What resources have you used for sourcing and supply chain management? What were the most difficult things to source for your project and how did you source them?

We have yet to use any platform for sourcing and supply chain management and have secured the supplies ourselves. We pick the suppliers ourselves and source all the necessary parts, sometimes even running our own 3D printers for the production of parts. For the supply chain, either we or the factory where we outsource the production takes care of sending out the products to customers. We still see a lot of space to lower the supply and production cost and want to explore more options for the sourcing of network modules. We currently do business with the people that we have worked with since our prototype stage.

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What are the takeaways and lessons learned from working on this project that you’d like to share with other hardware startups?

One major takeaway is that no matter how much improvement there may possibly be, coming up with a prototype idea, actually making that prototype, and showing/testing it with the people who have demand for it is the most important thing for hardware startups. No one will give you honest feedback or support until you actually have something that they can touch and experiment with.

What trend do you see that is changing the agriculture sector? What shift would you like to see happen?

We see that there are some interesting new players entering this sector not only in the production phase but also later stages such as distribution. New technologies and ideas that have come up will change the old dated distribution networks and not only benefit the farmers but also the end customers, which is basically every human being (because no one can survive without food, right?). I personally would like more and more young people to enter and succeed in the sector utilizing the latest technology, especially in the production phase and make farming one of the most desired and inspiring occupations for young people.

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What’s next for your project? Any plan to enter the overseas market?

We have started a project on remote irrigation control and have partnered up with other cutting-edge companies to work on this. Also, we’d like to explore the overseas market, starting with India and the US where we have already started some initial experiments. We see a lot of opportunity for our solution in countries where water resources are scarce because we could help farmers increase revenue and help save the environment by optimizing the use of water resources at the same time.

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