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Reducing Food Waste with AI: From Self-Driving Cars to Self-Grading Strawberries

Miku Jha

Founder & CEO



AgShift Press


Interview conducted by:

Lynn Fosse, Senior Editor

CEOCFO Magazine

Published – January 11, 2021

CEOCFO: Ms. Jha, what is the concept behind AgShift, and what is your focus right now?

Ms. Jha: AgShift is on a mission to reduce food waste across the food supply chain. Our medium of choice is AI.

Conceptually at AgShift, we are putting technology to work to empower food organizations with better automation, better tools, better efficiencies and better insights to improve food quality and to reduce food waste.

Our current focus is to automate the food quality assessment and grading process for the industry. Utilizing the latest in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), computer vision and algorithms, we have built the industry’s most advanced, AI-enabled, food quality analyzer—Hydra.

Hydra automates quality assessment of agricultural commodities under fresh produce and edible nuts such as strawberries, almonds, blueberries, baby carrots, etc. This patented turnkey solution enables better, faster and objective grading at scale throughout the food supply chain, resulting in a digitized audit trail, better operational efficiencies and significant reduction of food waste across the supply chain.

CEOCFO: What has been the standard process, and how does Hydra work to make a difference?

Ms. Jha: For decades, food quality assessment and grading has been done in a completely manual way and continues to be so.

When a strawberry shipment leaves the farm and reaches the processing facility of a shipper, packer or distributor, the typical inspection process is to manually inspect a sample selected randomly, which involves trained inspectors looking for visual defects or patterns to assess the quality and grade of that entire shipment. For example, you might take a hundred berries in a sample to decide the fate of that entire shipment on the quality—do you accept the shipment, how much would you pay the ranch, how far it should go, and every other decision is based on this inspection.

Depending on the skill set of the individual inspector and also because these tasks are extremely repetitive in a high throughput environment, the process is highly subjective and error-prone. This leads to inconsistencies in the quality process, which is not good for anyone in the supply chain. What also happens is you are inspecting a very small sample because you are bound by your manual workforce. All of this adds up to suboptimal decisions, loss of profit margins for businesses and food waste. Processing plants also suffer acutely from lack of labor because people are unwilling to do these jobs.

Hydra is automating these tedious and repetitive tasks by helping organizations maximize their employee resources. Each Hydra is like a highly skilled quality inspector—it can do inspections 15 times faster, it can inspect more samples, it can adapt dynamically to business metrics, buying or selling conditions, and generate a full digital report for improved claim management and traceability. One skilled inspector or operator can now manage the inspection process across multiple hydras, increasing the overall operational efficiencies and profit margins.  

CEOCFO: Is it one piece of equipment that might inspect various food items, or would each one have a separate piece of equipment with separate solutions?

Ms. Jha: Hydra is a novel, patented system which can be used to inspect any commodity that we support from the AI perspective. The same Hydra can be used today to inspect samples of strawberries, almonds, cashews, raspberries, blueberries or baby carrots. The Hydra design is optimized for fresh produce and edible nuts. Certain commodities are not our focus.  Once we AI-enable a given commodity, then the same Hydra can be used to inspect it; there is no change there. Only the software changes. It is like turning on the software switch for a new commodity.

CEOCFO: How do you know when you have enough AI to be viable?  How do you know when it is ready to go?

Ms. Jha: AI is a statistical tool built with continuous self-learning and improvements. Nothing in AI is ever 100%. Our goal is to have the baseline AI solution be on par or better than a senior inspector for a given commodity.

Once the AI solution achieves similar levels of accuracy to senior inspectors, then we are ready to commercially deploy. Every Hydra from a customer’s perspective is like one of their most senior and seasoned inspectors but 15 times faster!

So, with each Hydra, our customers can significantly inspect a much larger sample size in less than half of the time, fully digitized with audit trails for better, faster and more objective inspections at scale with higher throughput—that’s where the ROI comes from. It is not just from the AI component but from a fully integrated turnkey solution which streamlines the entire quality inspection process.

CEOCFO: Has the industry been looking for a better way?

Ms. Jha: The food industry has been looking for ways to improve the quality assessment processes for better accountability and better-quality control.

Food organizations consistently face labor shortages, even when our nation is not in crisis. Maintaining a fully staffed facility to do quality assessments in the face of a pandemic has become increasingly difficult. The food industry has been looking for ways to mitigate this risk by augmenting the manual workforce with automation and also to improve the process for better accountability and better-quality control. There is a growing demand for food organizations to look for alternatives. With only a partial workforce, the industry won’t be able to do quality assessments and meet consumer demands.  

AgShift has stepped in to provide a solution for the food organizations by automating the quality assessment process. Now, more than ever, we know how essential food organizations are when it comes to feeding people. AgShift is providing an effective and much-needed automation to the entire industry.

The industry is starting to embrace the idea of AI across several components of business. For quality processes, AI is a natural progression. Agricultural products are, by nature, dynamic, with differences within each crop season. Having a system like Hydra that can learn and adapt to these dynamic characteristics in real time is very appealing to our customers.

The industry is looking to Hydra to help maximize employee resources. Taking a skilled but repetitive task out of a quality inspector's hands allows organizations to free up and cultivate that employee’s talents to maximize their workplace environment. We do that by allowing them to manage a QC process, not be the QC process.

CEOCFO: How are you reaching out to the right people who will understand the value of Hydra?

Ms. Jha: We are still in the early stages of the food industry, adopting disruptive technologies such as AI. To work with customers, you have to have a mindset to invest in technology, tools and automation, looking at it a few months or a year out. We typically work in a strategic collaboration with new customers and get them to the ROI they are looking for very quickly. It is not so much about solution A versus solution B; it is more about crossing that adoption curve where they want to start investing in automation and digitization for better operational efficiencies.

In the current pandemic, we are seeing a changing mindset across the food industry with many more conversations on automation and digitization.  

CEOCFO: How have you decided which food items are good targets for AgShift?

Ms. Jha: We focus on high value and high margin commodities where AI-enabled automation and quality grading can benefit the supply chain and, hence, be compelling enough to invest in AI technology. That is from the business metric perspective. From the technology perspective, we have to assess if the attributes and patterns of a given commodity are solvable. Every commodity has its own attributes, patterns and business requirements.

We are keen on building our portfolio support for perishables. Perishables contribute to a bigger percentage of food waste due to inconsistencies in quality assessment. To the extent we can improve the quality assessment, we will reduce food waste. And reducing food waste is at the very core of what we are about.

CEOCFO: Would you tell us about being recognized as a Red Herring Company?

Ms. Jha: Recognition from Red Herring was important for us. The food industry operates differently, so we still have our work cut out for us in terms of building the education and adoption curve for market adoption. Being one of the top companies in North America has helped us to create this awareness in the right forums.  

CEOCFO: Are you seeking funding, partnerships or investors as you move forward?

Ms. Jha: Yes, we are currently in a fundraising mode. We are working on raising a $3 million round of which one-third is already committed. This will help us invest in the R&D to start working on additional commodities, such as blueberries and strawberries. We are already fully commercialized on almonds. New funds will help us rapidly expand into other commodities.

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“Maintaining a fully staffed facility to do quality assessments in the face of a pandemic has become increasingly difficult… AgShift has stepped in to provide a solution for the food organizations by automating the quality assessment process. Now, more than ever, we know how essential food organizations are when it comes to feeding people. AgShift is providing an effective and much-needed automation to the entire industry.” Miku Jha