LO­CAL HEROES 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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Business & Appointments - - FRONT PAGE -

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 in­hive 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 fiveyear 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. apis­pro­tect.com

Fiona Ed­wards-mur­phy, founder and CEO of Cork-based Apis­pro­tect says she loves the va­ri­ety in her role, de­spite never be­fore con­sid­er­ing becoming an en­tre­pre­neur. Photo: Pro­vi­sion

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