Leslie Hickle – FarmSense – Ep 36

Leslie Hickle, Co-Founder & CEO at FarmSense

In this episode of “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork,” we’re joined by Leslie Hickle from FarmSense, who we will be talking to about how her pest management technology is helping reduce crop damage and increase fresh produce supplies.



[00:00:00] Mitchell Denton: Hello and welcome to “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”. The PostHarvest podcast interviews people of interest across the food supply chain. Today on our show, I’m joined by Leslie Hickle from FarmSense. Who I’ll be talking to about how her pest management technology is helping reduce crop damage and increase fresh produce supplies. So with no further delays, let’s get started.

Well, good morning, Leslie. Thanks for joining me on the podcast. How are you?

[00:00:27] Leslie Hickle: I’m great, Mitch. Thanks for inviting me. How are you today?

[00:00:31] Mitchell Denton: I’m doing really well, thanks. But before we get into it, I was just wondering if you’d be able to tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do and maybe a fun fact about yourself. 

[00:00:40] Leslie Hickle: Yeah, I’m really just a eternal optimist who loves nature. I ended up studying pest management and pesticide toxicology at UC Riverside. But I really wanted to be an automotive engineer in race cars cause my dad’s an automotive engineer. But…

[00:00:57] Mitchell Denton: Wow. 

[00:00:58] Leslie Hickle: No such luck that time. So instead I studied bugs and, uh, have never looked back.

Mother nature is always providing a new challenge.

[00:01:11] Mitchell Denton: Yeah wow. What was the turning point, from looking at motors to looking at insects?

[00:01:16] Leslie Hickle: I think it was because, uh, most colleges and universities at the time weren’t looking at, uh, women as being in those disciplines. But to this day, my favourite sport is NHRA, which is the National Hot Rod Association and Moto GP, I don’t know if you follow those two sports, but they’re fast bikes and fast cars.

[00:01:36] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Okay. Are you at all a collector? 

[00:01:40] Leslie Hickle: I have a few cars, but they’re mostly just ones that I, uh, that I like. For instance, I still have my first car that I ever bought with my own money and its a ’73 Karmann Ghia Convertible. 

[00:01:52] Mitchell Denton: Oh that’s cool. 

[00:01:53] Leslie Hickle: Second owner on it. It’s not really an environmentally friendly car. Those air cool engines, but makes me happy and I don’t drive it very much and I offset it with hybrids. 

Right? The carbon footprint. So hopefully, uh, that’ll, that’ll help people understand Volkswagens.

[00:02:11] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Well, before we go down a complete path of Car talk, let’s talk farm to fork. So, you told us that you work for FarmSense, but would you mind telling us a little bit about your innovative technology and how it works?

[00:02:26] Leslie Hickle: So FarmSense is a spin-out, outta UC Riverside, and really the foundation technology is based on a spy movie that Eamonn, Dr Keogh saw. And if you think about it, it’s not really James Bond it’s, it’s better than James Bond, although M had some really cool technology. It goes back to real-life incident. This technology invented by a Russian scientist called Leon Theremin.

And, and there’s an instrument called the Theremin also that he invented, but his technology is a passive one where he had a membrane type of device that was embedded into a gift that the Russian Ambassador gave to the US Ambassador in Russia. And when the Russians would shine a radio frequency on this membrane that was hidden in this great seal of the United States.

The membrane had been picking up vibrations from, from conversations that the Americans were having. So, this is called the thing, if you look it up in literature and the thing, or it’s also known as, the Great Seal Bug was probably the first incidence of real spy technology, but it was a passive device that used, uh, radiofrequency, probably the predecessor RFID today.

And that’s how Eamonn got the idea of using optical pulses that created a pattern of acoustic pulses that you can analyse. And so what happens is our sensors have an optical curtain that the insects fly through, and this optical curtain catches these signals, and when it’s combined with other data, it turns out to be the fingerprint of that insect.

So you can put this sensor anywhere in the world once it’s trained to recognise that insect, and you’ll be able to see it. And the other thing is you can put multiple lures in this sensor and see multiple insect species. So it’s just an amazing technology and I first saw it when they presented it at a proof of concept at UC Riverside, which is my alma mater. 

And there’s a lot of us more seasoned entrepreneurs that have been going back to our alma maters and mentoring students and faculty. And for me, it was an epiphany because I had been weaned on sticky cards. Those miserable cards that you have, stick ’em all over. Right? 

And you put ’em in these little traps and then you count dead insects a week to 10 days or whenever you get back there.

So it was a start of monitoring insects in the field, but nobody was going to sit in the field 24/7 and really driving around counting bugs every week is not something you look forward to in a career choice. So we build these great models. To try and estimate populations of pests in the field, but we couldn’t populate ’em with real-time data.

So they sat dormant for many years. In fact, I think it’s only until recently that we’ve got technology that allows us to start building these models in real-time. So that’s the background of how I met Eamonn and Shailendra was at, was at this meeting on campus at UC Riverside, and thinking it could really help us create an IPM program, that would work. 

[00:05:45] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Wow. So FarmSense’s flight sensor technology is built on the back end of Cold War espionage? That’s, um, 

[00:05:53] Leslie Hickle: Yes. That’s a great story. But it’s true.

[00:05:58] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. No, that’s great. 

[00:05:59] Leslie Hickle: Talk to Eamonn, ’cause he, he is the genius behind the original thought. And then Shailendra, our co-founder, is the wizard that put the whole thing together so that it’s usable. Cause when Eamonn built it, it was the size of several shoe boxes and it needed a car battery. And if you look at what we have today, it’s a four-by-six-by-six device that hangs in the field.

And the battery is a tiny battery with a solar panel and it lasts uh, literally it’ll last four or five years with the solar panel, and all you have to do is change the lures that are in it. No more sticky cards. 

So, Shailendra is also an expert in wireless. So our data is literally available 24/7. It’s, it can be a text message, our app, you can program it.

If you wanna know exactly when your insects are, are flying and you want an alert, it’ll wake you up at three in the morning. And say you have Moths flying in field number seven, right? It’s, uh, it’s, it’s pretty neat. It’s a web-based app.

[00:07:06] Mitchell Denton: That’s really cool. You mentioned sticky cards already, but are there multiple forms and approaches to pest management and how does FarmSense kind of match up to those? 

[00:07:16] Leslie Hickle: Yes, there are multiple forms, but pest management, if we talk about integrated pest management, which by the way has been a concept since 1939, so we’ve been talking about it for eight decades. 

But it all starts with understanding what’s happening on your farm, and managing pests comes down to monitoring in real-time, understanding where their harbourage is.

Cause a lot of times its farm sanitation that will help prevent new populations. And then understanding the economic impact of that pest on that crop. So for instance, we’ve said in Naval Orange Worm on Almonds. There’s multiple generations, but you may not wanna treat all of them if the price of Almonds is $1.40 a pound, right?

But if it’s $2.40 a pound, you’re gonna pay much more attention to it. So it comes back to understanding the true economic threshold for that pest on that crop, and that’s what AI allows you to do. We’re a big data AI machine learning company, and it’s a little confusing right now, we’re in transition in Ag because nobody knows how to use big data.

But when you think about it, AI allows you to do three things. It clearly defines the problem today, so it’s descriptive, right? And then because you’re collecting real-time data and you’ve got these models, it allows you to predict. But prediction is only as good as what it allows you to do. So the end use for AI is prescription, and that’s where our journey is headed. 

We wanna be able to provide the grower with risk probability analysis for different types of treatments, that he or she has a choice of and reflect his economic returns because, in the end, the grower has to make money, right? 

And I think people forget about it sometimes with some of these new technologies, which are really expensive.

But in the end, the grower has to make money, he or she has to produce a good crop, and it has to make sense. And the irony of it all is that we’re developing new product. These new active ingredients, they’re expensive, they tend to be more stage-specific. In other words, we’re losing the broad spectrum pesticides of the fifties, sixties, and seventies.

And these new ones tend to be products that target maybe adults, the pheromone disruption, or they target the feeding stages or immature larvae, or they target the eggs, right? 

Or they target some other behaviour, and you really need to pinpoint what stage of population your pests are in, in order to use these compounds. So gone is the heyday of our broad spectrum, you know, DBT-type compounds, and we’re ushering in much more target specific, albeit safer materials to use. 

And actually, Mother Nature already did this, you know, before we got into these big broad acreages, these small acreages oftentimes could manage pests if they encourage the development of beneficials who are already out there, and that’s one of our hopes as well, right? 

So right now we’re targeting pests because that’s what’s on the grower’s mind. But at the end of the day, we would really like a better understanding of the total biodiversity that’s out there. Both the predators, the parasites, the natural diseases that all help keep this environment under control. All be dynamic control.

[00:10:59] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Okay. So we’ve been talking a whole lot about pest management. I guess I need to ask, how big of an issue is insect damage on agricultural production worldwide?

[00:11:09] Leslie Hickle: It was shocking to me to find out in a recent publication from FAO, the Food and Ag Association, that we are still losing 20 to 80% of everything we produce to pests, and that’s with all the modern techniques and products that we have. 

So, it’s hard to understand why we still have 800 million or 10% of the world population going to bed hungry when we’re losing 20 to 40% of everything we produce.

I mean, when you think of it, if we could just make pest management a bit more efficient, we could solve that problem today and it would give us a runway to figure out how we’re gonna produce enough food to feed the 9.8 billion people in 2050. So, It’s a huge problem and, and I’m talking just pests, right?

Insects, that doesn’t include all of the production we lose to diseases and, uh, to weed, poor weed control, or rodents or mollusc or all these other pests that are out there.

[00:12:10] Mitchell Denton: Hmm. Wow. So then what would you say is the biggest challenge your team has encountered so far with your innovative product and how have you overcome it, or at least are looking to overcome it?

[00:12:21] Leslie Hickle: It is a challenge. It’s the first time in my career and I’ve done multiple startups that we actually had a product that worked from the beginning, right? Very high-tech product. It worked. But we are at this nexus of big data, AI, which is very progressive, very fast. You have million-dollar revenue streams in six months.

You can debug in air-conditioned offices to our other industry, agriculture, which is traditionally conservative. You get one bite of the apple a year, right? And many of these crops, you cannot debug in air-conditioned offices. You actually have to get dirty and every crop, every year is different.

So this is the transition that all your IoT companies and your robot companies we’re all dealing with this because growers also expect that these technologies will be cheaper. Because they save labour, they save time, they give information. 

But in fact, the way we look at it is that by implementing them, you are going to save costs in the future. They’re not gonna be cheaper today, but they will save you money in the future. So that is our biggest challenge, uh, as an industry, is how do you value companies and technologies that are the future for your industry? But, uh we really may not know how to use ’em all right now.

[00:13:48] Mitchell Denton: Absolutely. Continuing this thought, during your time working in AgTech, what have you found to be the biggest surprise or revelation in the industry?

[00:13:58] Leslie Hickle: I think people would be surprised at how progressive Ag tech is, how progressive farmers are.

You know, we think of them as conservative because they’re producing food and they have to be careful and they have to protect their crop. But you know, if you have new technology and it works, they can be rapid adopters.

However, they’re also your worst critics because if you don’t have something that works, they have very long memories. So I think people would be surprised at how progressive Ag is, and especially specialty Ag.

[00:14:31] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, I agree. I’ve found that a lot of suppliers are open and willing to kind of take on new forms of technology and look into regenerative practices and all those types of things. They, they really aren’t these old guys in overalls out in the back of nowhere that have no interest in updating and changing their practices.

So, I agree a hundred percent.

[00:14:52] Leslie Hickle: Yeah. And, and even in third world countries, Mitch, I mean, in some ways they’re even more progressive because they’re all connected by cell phones, right? And their smaller acreages and their farming communities and they’re funded by their countries who are trying to become more sustainable in their crops they produce for their people. So, I think Ag worldwide is pretty progressive.

[00:15:18] Mitchell Denton: So obviously the problem that you’re tackling is a lot more at the forefront of the food supply chain, but I guess I just wanna ask you, are there any other big pain points or blind spots in the food industry that you think the industry really needs to be focusing on?

[00:15:32] Leslie Hickle: There are two, I think we really need to educate the consumer as to where food comes from and we destroy so much food because of cosmetic damage, right? There’s silvering on this orange, it’s a perfectly good orange, but cosmetically, it’s downgraded and sometimes even discarded. 

And it’s because we’ve educated the consumer to want a perfect orange. I think there’s more and more distance between where food comes from and the shopper in the supermarket. So I think that’s one area that the industry has to address. 

The other one is we’re moving in the direction of too much information. So we come from not enough information to all of a sudden we’re bombarding the, this farmer with too much information.

And some of it is not peer-reviewed, there’s no filter on some of it. Think of a funnel, right? And all the decisions that a grower has to make, all these different data points are coming in and there’s not a way to integrate it. And that’s what these farm management systems are trying to develop now, they’re trying to integrate all this information so that a grower can digest it.

And I think it’s an admirable task, but at the same time, it has to be customised for that particular grower. They’re still very independent, some of them are still have small acreage, their family farms. They’re gonna make a different decision, than the big guys. 

So we think that the direction is going to be toward more integrated data and as a insect company, we’re also interested in health, the trees and water, because that changes the whole spectrum sometimes of your pest population and also the economic damage that a tree will tolerate.

So we’re interested in other data inputs that will help the grower make better-informed decisions.

[00:17:32] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. So to continue this thought, you’ve talked about other data inputs beyond insects. Where is your future research going towards?

[00:17:41] Leslie Hickle: We are focusing on insects. Worldwide, there are enough to keep us busy for a long time and at the same time we have an interest in microclimate and macroclimate influences on insect populations and crop phenology. So we are really focused on bugs, it’s what we know best, we build sensors for it.

As an aside, we have some ideas, and also monitoring for disease which is the other pest that, uh, has a huge impact on pre and post-harvest crops. So we’re gonna stay there. We’re gonna focus there. We’ll, we’ll build out our system to work with any others. So people who want to use our data and our models are welcome to. 

Our API is very robust. We, we would like everybody to monitor. Essentially that’s what this sensor does. It takes the guesswork out, right?

[00:18:37] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, yeah.

[00:18:38] Leslie Hickle: The reason broad spectrums was used, and they’re still used today, is because you can treat and you have a, you know, a plus or minus week window to guess, right? But with these new targeted materials, you don’t have that luxury, but you can’t guess anymore.

You can’t go on a scheduled spray, you just don’t have the products that allow you to do that. So we wanna take some of that guesswork out.

[00:19:00] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Great. So then is there a particular group or innovation within the industry that you’re excitedly keeping a watchful eye on? 

[00:19:07] Leslie Hickle: We love robots. So, we just attended the first North American conference on agricultural robots, it was held in Fresno last week. Had almost a thousand attendees from 28 countries. 

And of course, labour is the number one issue right now in agriculture so most of these robots are all targeting those labour-intensive efforts in orchard management or field management, weeding, those kind of things.

But, you know, our IoT sensors aren’t that far away. Eamonn and Shailendra tells me when they start at, when our starts articulating, we can call it a robot, right now it’s autonomous.

So we’re watching the robot industry and then we’re also watching pretty closely what FAO and WHO are doing because they are linking the world with some of their incentives and unifying, I think some of the efforts and how to address these pests on an area-wide basis.

[00:20:04] Mitchell Denton: No, that’s great. I mean, chances are we may have interviewed some of the people you’ve been running into at these conferences we’re, we’re big fans of robots here at PostHarvest too, so… 

[00:20:14] Leslie Hickle: Yeah, there’s a bunch of, uh, Aussies there.

[00:20:17] Mitchell Denton: Yeah. Yeah. What’s one thing you wish you had known when you began your career in developing pest management technology? 

[00:20:24] Leslie Hickle: Well, I think the one thing I tell everybody to do is take a business and finance course because it’s all about the money. I, I’m matriculated as a traditional scientist. I love science, new technology, but it took me a while to, uh, figure out that to pay for a new technology, it has to make money.

So I, I would advise all students, I do advise all students to take business and, and finance courses in their coursework.

[00:20:53] Mitchell Denton: Yeah, and to add to what you were saying before about FAO and WHO and all those types of organisations. There’s a lot of government incentives, with grants and awards within FoodTech and AgTech. 

And I mean, we found for ourselves personally, applying for those types of things has been greatly beneficial in what you’re saying about, at the end of the day, providing a service that can actually make money, you know? 

But, uh, that’s really cool. So unfortunately, Leslie, we are coming to a close, but before we do, I just wanna ask, what is the main point you really want the listeners to take away from this episode? 

[00:21:31] Leslie Hickle: I would like your listeners, hopefully there’ll be some people who aren’t farmers, but to understand that farming is dynamic and it’s ever-evolving. It is an enterprise, it’s progressive, but farmers, they all know to practice good farming techniques, they’re, they’re not just spraying because spraying is expensive.

They are paying attention more than they used to because they have to, and they’re very responsive. So that’s how I’m thinking right now, cause I think farmers get a bad rap a lot of times.

[00:22:04] Mitchell Denton: No, I agree. I think that’s a good point to leave it on. Well, that’s all for today’s episode and “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”. Thanks for listening and thank you, Leslie, for joining me today.

[00:22:14] Leslie Hickle: Thanks, Mitch. I enjoyed talking with you.

[00:22:17] Mitchell Denton: If you’d like to know more about Leslie and FarmSense, check out the link in the description of this episode. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast so that you never miss an episode, and don’t forget to leave a review and share with your friends.

Until next time, you’ve been listening to “Let’s Talk Farm to Fork”, a PostHarvest podcast.

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