As the country braces for the effects of El Niño, a group of young engineers-turned-entrepreneurs from Davao are working on an innovation that could help farmers boost their output of high-value crops.
Franch Maverick Lorilla, 21, is among the engineers-turned entrepreneurs who developed the Heat Stress Analyzer – a “smart” heat and plant-stress sensor connected to a mobile “app” or application that alerts farmers when such stress is present and suggests measures to care for the crops.
The device monitors the temperature, light intensity, soil moisture, as well as the pH level in the ground. The sensor can help automate the activation of skylights, growing lights, exhaust fans, watering, and other farming components in a greenhouse that could address crop heat stress, such as that in the early stage of a drought.
“Crop heat stress is a condition that greatly affects growth, survival and crop yields, and this is due to the intense heat coming from the sun that causes drought and the intense light that affects the proper photosynthesis process of the crops,” Lorilla explained.
“Filipino farmers still use the traditional method to know the condition of the crop, called the feel method. This method is inaccurate, inefficient, and gives late response to crop stress,” he added.
Heat stress may pose a greater threat to farmers this year, when the weather anomaly known as El Niño unleashes its full effects. As had been reported by The Manila Times, the Philippine weather bureau Pagasa alerted the public early this year to prepare for the effects of a four-month dry spell that is forecast to affect 32 provinces across the country.
Farmers who want to use the Heat Stress Analyzer need to invest P30,000 to acquire the device, which should be good for five years, and P2,000 a year for maintenance, as well as subscriptions to SMS, data and cloud services, and analytics.
The payback period for the initial outlay is 15 months, which means farmers can recoup their investment within that period. Lorilla estimates that the innovation can boost crop yields by 30 percent per planting cycle.
As sophisticated as the sensor may sound, Lorilla is confident that farmers will learn to operate it quite easily. If farmers know how to access and use Facebook, he said, “then they’ll know how to do this.”
The target market is medium- to large-scale farmers, Lorilla said.
His group, which founded the startup CloudFarm Innovations Inc., has so far attracted a score of prospective clients after only a few months of business operations – after graduation earlier this year. Since then, the start-up has installed their device in banana and cacao seedling farms in Davao and in a lettuce farm in San Pablo, Laguna.
Trip to the ‘start-up nation’
Besides having caught the attention of local farmers, the young engineers from Davao have also figured in the radar screens of other interest groups here and abroad.
Lorilla, who just graduated from university this year, has won three awards for entrepreneurship, which he shares with partners Jan Rey Altivo, Rexon Lacaba, and Ket Villacencio.
They won first place in the IBM Pitching in the Cloud Competition. Their start-up was also one of 10 budding firms, out of more than 1,000 entries, selected by IdeaSpace, a foundation in the Philippines that helps entrepreneurs. IdeaSpace, whose founders include mogul Manny V. Pangilinan, gave Lorilla and company more than a P1 million in seed funding and acceleration support, which covered the rent for office space in Makati for several months, the cost of building a prototype, incorporating their firm, and attending various training programs that included a stint at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM).
CloudFarms Innovations also won a trip to Tel Aviv in a pitching competition – where entrepreneurs pitched ideas to potential investors – organized by the Israeli embassy in Manila and IdeaSpace.
The prize was for a representative of the company to attend last month the DLD Digital Conference, Israel’s largest international high-tech gathering. This year, some 3,000 delegates from around the world attended, including Lorilla, who represented his firm.
Israel today bills itself as the “start-up nation,” a slogan derived from a recently published book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer that goes by the same title. The book, a New York Times bestseller, attributes the economic miracle of Israel, a country with few natural resources, to a culture of innovation and an economic ecosystem that encourages start-ups to spawn and thrive.
Effie Ben Matityau, Israel’s ambassador to the Philippines, said in a statement: “We hope to create an environment of innovation and entrepreneurship. Tel Aviv is one of the biggest hubs of innovation. The start-up ecosystem in Israel presents opportunities for partnerships on the international level.”
The ambassador added, “I’m excited to see world-class digital solutions developed by Filipinos.”
Lorilla said going to Israel was a great experience, adding that it was an opportunity to meet venture capitalists and other young entrepreneurs from around the world, whose ideas were not only inspiring but also helpful.
Attending the conference was an opportunity “to show the proudly Pinoy game-changing idea to tech champs in the world that could potentially help us in recognizing, implementing and commercializing our idea,” he added.
From thesis to business
The idea for the Heat Stress Analyzer was actually a natural one for Lorilla and his partners – all whom come from families with farming backgrounds in Davao but chose to study electrical engineering.
The idea started as a thesis topic, although Lorilla and his partners have been collaborating on various other projects for five years now.
Their research, Lorilla said, showed that heat stress was a big reason why crop yields were declining in the Philippines. He added that 1.7 million crop farms out of 4.8 million have suffered falling crop yields valued at some P10.1 billion.
Three of the partners graduated just this year, the other one just a batch ahead. As part of their thesis work, the group submitted their idea on the Heat Stress Analyzer to the Smart Wireless Engineering Education Program, an annual event organized by telco giant Smart Communications. The program sought to improve the level of technology and engineering education in the Philippines, particularly in the field of electronics engineering.
“The Philippine participation in the conference is [a]start and a sign [of the country’s]growing cooperation in the field of technology and entrepreneurship,” Lorilla said after attending the digital conference in Israel.
Their group wanted to encourage other young Filipino innovators not only to make “cool and helpful things” but also to go into business, he added.
As for their start-up, Lorilla said he and his partners have big dreams of going global and offering their innovation to areas most affected by drought.
But first, they have to grow their own budding enterprise.
The young entrepreneurs’ priority for now is to raise more money for research and development, product development, and marketing.