A Conversation with...
Charles Veys is the Managing Director of Fotenix, which provides diagnostic equipment for the agriculture sector, to help growers identify disease symptoms and nutrient deficiency.
How do you generally introduce yourself and your company/the work you do?
I am the Managing Director of Fotenix, an OEM for the agricultural sector. We think of ourselves as an ability provider, enabling smart operation of farm machinery. We combine cameras, deploying colours of light, with machine learning to monitor crop status, such as disease, in real-time.
Fotenix acts as a conduit between the crop and the equipment used to cultivate it, focusing on building diagnostic ability across the sector and empowering machinery providers. An example would be a desktop camera that is used by plant breeders to identify disease; using it we halve the time taken to find performing crop varieties that are less susceptible, thus reducing our collective reliance on using large amounts chemicals when grown in the field. More recently we have partnered with some big names in the robotics sector to deploy this capability on farm.
What does a typical day look like for you and what are you currently working on?
What I do is still very varied, but I would not have it any other way. My main aim is to ensure the company continues to scale, and does so as a catalyst in the suitable production movement; that includes economic sustainability for the producers that use it alongside environmental benefits.
Aside from that my team and our partners do most of the heavy lifting, I just ensure that the technical development remains focused on adding value to our customers and not competing where we do not have an advantage.
More recent days have seen me trying to maintain the pace of innovation yet ensuring that our employees and customers remain safe amidst the pandemic.
Your profile on the Fotenix website says you are dedicated to disrupting the agri-tech sector. Why do you think that is necessary and how are you going about it?
I think being disruptive is a prerequisite to being a start-up; if we were merely looking to push at existing boundaries we would have stayed within academic research. The problem with the sector as a whole is the generations of siloed development, resulting in a lack of integration and compounded benefit.
Where Fotenix is different is that we continuously monitor where we fit with respect to the other industry players, and ensure we focus on the gaps rather than the fashionable areas, following an open innovation approach.
We do not offer farming services, and if we are doing our job right then farmers may not even realise that they are using our technology. What is important is that we enable the best machines, robotics and/or vertical farms to provide the next generation of precision farming, then the industry benefits as a whole.
What benefits do you expect/hope to see in the field of crop protection as a result of the recent collaborations between Fotenix and CHAP?
Our systems operate in a simple fashion, real-time identification of disease, provides immediate feedback straight to equipment (e.g. spot sprayer), significantly reducing costly delays in rectifying actions. When the infrastructure allows, we send back data on more novel symptoms and retrain the fleet of devices.
To be able to do this we first need to learn what a disease looks like on a particular crop, in a particular setting. This is where CHAP comes in.
With sites we have used in Rothamsted, Stockbridge and Dundee, they are able to cultivate controlled trials that provide an environment to accelerate our product design evolution with labelled data sets. Deployment of these capabilities leads to a significant impact on crop yield, soil health, reduction in the use of fertiliser and pesticide and a reduction in the requirement for specialised manual labour.
You are an inventor and an entrepreneur as well as a businessman – which of these three roles do you most enjoy?
I think you become a combination of your experiences and I seemed to have picked up a rather contrastive resume that spans research, commerce, agriculture, and technology. It is exceedingly difficult to compartmentalise the different hats you wear in a start-up, and it can take its toll if you are crossing too many roles in a short space of time. The benefit is that you can bring commercial explanations to inform design work, and you are able to understand the technical constraints when devising solutions.
I think the inventor and entrepreneur in me get on very well, as both involve solving problems, and lateral thinking. I never understood the academic approach, to carry solutions across different problems, and see which takes; although I admit some breakthroughs are achieved that way.
I think the entrepreneur and businessman are always going to be at odds, one in the source of inspiration but there is a pressing need to keep the lights on these days too, I found the input from advisors key in finding a balance.
If you could go back in time to before you created Fotenix, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Where do I start? I do know that I am headstrong, but learn from experience whether from success or failure, so I am not sure whether I would listen to my future self, or what the impact would be if I did.
I think an important message, that would stand the test of time, would be to maintain resolution and self-confidence. I often struggled to see where a machine vision engineer with a strong interest in food and biology and food would be able to find a suitable vocation; I didn’t know agri-tech existed then.
My parents, a radiologist and immunologist, always remind me, that I was always adamant I would not follow in their footsteps into medicine; the joke being that I created a company that uses diagnostic imaging to diagnose disease in plants. I suppose life is peculiar like that.
What do you think will be the biggest change in agriculture over the next five years? How will this impact on your business?
Now that is an easy one. Agriculture is something we all rely on and has continued to support the global population throughout unprecedented times. Despite this it has seen a lack of interest, exposure, investment and most evidently collaboration.
One of the few good things that will come out of the damage caused by the pandemic, is the opportunity to rebuild in a sustainable and resilient way. The biggest change to come to our industry will be that it will no longer be taken for granted, and it will be seen for the potential it has across the whole supply chain.
At Fotenix we strive to be a cog in the complex but invaluable machine that is our food system, and every decision whether product feature or market entry supports that collaborative mission.