Interview by Tuinbouw Ondernemersprijs
There are fewer and fewer crop specialists and an increasing demand for healthy and sustainably produced food. Blue Radix is an AI-tech company that operates at exactly that intersection with its Crop Controller service. ‘Algorithms are valuable because they can automate a huge amount of thinking and actions,’ says Ronald Hoek, managing director of Blue Radix. With that, Artificial Intelligence (AI) offers a solution to take work off the hands of growers, digitally scale up crop knowledge and help the grower autonomously realize the most sustainable and profitable crop strategy.
In 2013, part of the AgroEnergy team began working with algorithms to take some of the energy management out of the hands of growers. ‘After an exciting run-up, this became very successful, but algorithms can add much more value for the horticultural sector than just in the area of energy,’ says Ronald. ‘The Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge in which we participated together with Delphy accelerated it. There we saw the added value of combining knowledge in the field of cultivation, AI and energy. On that basis, I founded Blue Radix with my colleagues Rudolf de Vetten and Laurens van der Spek, and we entered the market with Crop Controller and started to scale up.’
Introducing revolutionary technology into an established industry is always a challenge. ‘Every grower has their own crop strategy, so our starting point is what the grower wants to achieve,’ Ronald explains. ‘We use that as input and starting point for Crop Controller. The output is the result of sixteen factors that we recalculate every fifteen minutes to calculate and realize the optimal climate. These include weather forecasts, the status of the crop and the principles of the grower’s strategy. The AI system enables the grower to look into the future based on his strategy. That gives peace of mind and therefore you create much more balance in the climate profile, you have lower disease pressure and a better moisture balance for the crop.’
Currently, Blue Radix’s focus is on autonomous climate management for cucumber, tomato and bell pepper. ‘In the very near future it will also include irrigation and we will also directly optimize energy costs,’ Ronald continues. ‘The greenhouse is increasingly becoming a data-driven ecosystem based on the grower’s strategy. That is the future of horticulture. AI frees the grower from operational work and allows him to manage more acres and focus more on the strategic aspect. The grower has more time left over to deal with scaling up, innovation and improvements in cropping strategy and other operational processes.’
Applications, such as those of Blue Radix, are making greenhouse horticulture increasingly attractive to young talent. ‘We deliberately didn’t set up in the horticultural area, but in the Van Nelle factory in Rotterdam,’ explains Ronald. ‘Because we work at the intersection of food production, sustainability and technology, this is an inspiring place for young programmers and data scientists. We now have a very diverse team of twenty people, who come from all over the world. And to form the bridge between this digital development and the grower, we have Autonomous Greenhouse Managers, who guide the growers when they acquire our technology, so that it can all land quietly and in a controlled way. It’s AI with a human factor in every aspect, from development to implementation and support.’
The greenhouse is becoming more autonomous because of technologies Blue Radix is coming to market with, but it is also making the grower more autonomous. ‘We believe in an ecosystem in the greenhouse where the grower determines what should be digitally connected,’ concludes Ronald. The grower wants to choose solutions and determine a strategy. We ensure that he has the most accurate information for this in real time. AI and data-driven horticulture is the future of sustainable food production. Growers are proud of their crops, we ensure – together with our partners – that they can make optimal use of all the data in the greenhouse, so that in combination with our algorithms they can grow even more from their vision.’