Sensing the need for a solution

Founded by Illinois students, Amber Agriculture is poised to protect our crops.
written by Kim Schmidt

They punctuate open horizons throughout the Midwest and Great Plains, rising from fields of corn, wheat, and soy. While to many of us they are iconic, beautiful structures that evoke the heartland, to farmers these grain bins store their livelihood.

A grain bin is more than just a passive container, though. Farmers have to ensure the moisture levels of their harvest are correct within the bin, or they risk spoilage and loss of their crop. That loss takes food out of people’s mouths, and money out of farmer’s banks.

Illinois start-up Amber Agriculture has developed technology that could revolutionize grain bin storage by decreasing spoilage, increasing yield, and ensuring we protect our food supply.

 

Feeding a growing world
Losing crops to spoilage or other factors after harvest is referred to in the industry as postharvest loss. According to a research initiative supported by the Rockefeller Foundation through a project called Yieldwise, cutting postharvest loss in half would yield enough food to feed one billion more people.

With a rapidly expanding global population expected to increase by 2 billion in the next 30 years, finding ways to reduce postharvest loss is critical. Currently, 1 in 9 people suffer from food insecurity worldwide. Without a solution to increase food supply and harvest yield, we face a world where more people will suffer from hunger.

Grain spoilage contributes significantly to this problem. Spoilage can occur a number of ways—through insect or rodent infestations or breeches in containing structures, for example. With Amber Ag, co-founders Lucas Frye (ACES ’15) and Joseph Varikooty, who studied electrical and computer engineering at Illinois, are concerned with spoilage due to moisture.

Co-founders Joseph Varikooty and Lucas Frye

Homegrown
Amber Ag’s device was originally conceived to improve the efficacy of clothes dryers. Lucas met Joseph at a campus hackathon where students teams were challenged with planning, building, and launching a startup—all in 54 hours. Frustrated with the old dryers in his campus apartment building, Joseph was engineering technology to monitor the moisture of clothes as they were drying. Lucas, intrigued by Joseph’s ideas, brought forth another need for moisture control, one that had significant market potential—the agricultural need to keep grains dry.

Recognizing the impact their technology could have globally, they began developing a sensor that can measure the amount of moisture in a grain bin, and deliver those readings to a farmer remotely. Not only will a farmer be able to monitor their grain supply more accurately and quickly with this device, it is also a safer approach to interacting with the grain inside the bin.

Farming has always benefited from new developments in technology, and the potential impact of Amber’s product has great promise to be another game-changer. Amber Ag was named the top startup at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show.

The entrepreneurship pipeline at Illinois is incredibly robust, with support and opportunities for students and faculty throughout the process of developing a product and building a business. Amber participated in many of these programs, and now they have a staff of four—in fact, their first employee hire was a fellow Illini. This fall, they’ll have units deployed across the state of Illinois, the Western Cornbelt, and Canada. They will keep tabs on them throughout the six- to eight-month storage season.

Securing the supply chain
In addition to ensuring the quality and protection of grain during storage, Amber’s sensor also has potential use in another important, and lucrative, arena: organics.

The sensor is small enough to fit in bags of grain, making it easy to ensure quality as well as eliminate fraud along the food supply chain.

Recent investigative reports have exposed fraud among imported shipments of grain that are labeled organic when, in fact, they are not. These reports led to testimony by Kenneth Dallmier, president and chief operating officer of the Clarkson Grain Company in Cerro Gordo, Illinois in front of the U.S. Senate’s Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. He pointed to Amber’s technology as a potential solution for ensuring proper provenance of the grain. If the sensor is deposited in the shipment at its originating source, it can provide continuous reporting and indicate whether or not the shipment has been tampered with. He testified that there is need for “increased transparency through the supply chain using physical tracking mechanisms that are robust enough to withstand grain transit while being easily removed from the grain stream at the final destination.”

With these multiple applications, Amber stands to make an important contribution to the business of agriculture. At the root of Illinois research is our desire to create technologies that will have a very human impact. Amber Ag is following strongly in that tradition, seeking to address a worldwide need using our engineering expertise.

“The inscription on our first President’s grave, which lies just south of Altgeld, I think epitomizes it all,” Lucas said. “It reads, ‘If you seek his monument look about you.’ This could really extend and be applied to our institution’s influence on the world, ‘If you seek Illinois’ contribution to humankind look about you.’ Walk into any home or office and try to identify something—anything—that was not impacted by an Illini.”