We created our entrance song with phenotyping data

We created our entrance song with phenotyping data provided by the team in the Digital Phenotyping Lab, writes Charles Veys, Managing Director of agri-tech start-up Fotenix. It was vital for us as we began as a brand-new spin out from university, so we needed to show what our technology was able to do.

When we launched, we were an unknown quantity outside academia, so needed access to a demonstrator, but more importantly, we needed a platform to showcase what we were doing. There is a bit of a split in this market between academics and the industry and CHAP straddles that gap between the two, which suited our needs perfectly.

Digital phenotyping is about building good quality datasets and demonstrating how that data can be used. We wanted to work with someone that not only knew the technology but would also promote it on a successful application.

Digital phenotyping for discovery work

Most people generally associate digital phenotyping with digital breeding techniques, but what Dr Tom Ashfield in the Digital Phenotyping Lab does is not necessarily breeding in this sense, he’s looking at it and he uses instruments to monitor the plants or items such as fruit, leaves etc. It would be called discovery work when we work with some of the larger multinationals.

The lab itself is perfect for use in crop trials/crop discovery trials. It has a range of very useful growth facilities, and the fact that these sit right next to the imaging equipment makes it an ideal set up for that sort of work.

The art of plant preparation

The main ask for our first collaboration with the lab was to demonstrate how the technology could be used on actual crops. We had the equipment, obviously, but we needed to have documented crop trials. Getting plants is, on the face of it, an easy task, but it really isn’t that simple.

People always underestimate that: what Tom and Faye (CHAP’s Research Assistant Faye McDiarmid) do – in terms of preparing plant material reliably – is an art. And we as a company are really reliant on that.

The tomato study that we did with Tom and John Caulfield at Rothamsted was basically our entrance song. It enabled us to show the value of the technology (to demonstrate the extent of its capabilities). People in academia knew about us – because that was where we began – but it was a different matter when it came to awareness in the industry. We were unknown because we were newcomers. It helped to show our capabilities.

Continuing collaboration

And we have since maintained a strong relationship with the CHAP lab and Tom: there’s always been a Fotenix device there following that first project and we have replaced it or upgraded it as necessary. Tom, along with CHAP Innovation Director Ruth Bastow, have managed to secure other projects that use that technology, so the initial work not only achieved the goals we set but has also gone on to give more over time, which is great.

The relationship we have developed means we have subsequently worked on quite a few projects with Tom. One of the first benefits was that we were offered some private contract work with the Small Robot Company (SRC) looking at controlling black grass, which went on to be trialled in the field. It was good to see how the work we did was complemented by another innovative company.

We were also involved in the Innovate-UK funded Infinite project, again as a contractor, which focused on vertical farming. Our work was to monitor crops such as microgreens and salads to improve vertical farming systems. Tom and Faye had to deliberately ‘stress’ plants so that we could record what happened to them when things don’t go to plan. That enabled us to gather data which was used to advance automation in vertical farming.

Equipment is nothing without the expertise

Essentially, the real value of the lab for us is that Tom and Faye can prepare samples for us that they have labelled, and we can learn from what they do using the reference kit that’s in the fine phenotyping lab. Ultimately, we can put it on one of the SRC devices without those devices ever having to actually touch each other. For us it is quite a useful layout.

As I said, initially we were looking for contract research. Originating from academia, we knew that we could go and collaborate with a Doctorate somewhere for free, but we actually had specific questions to answer, and also wanted to look at set crops, and it would be quite hard to dictate that otherwise. The research that Tom does is more consistent than we can expect from a student and provides us with better control over the methodology and timings.

What CHAP provides is unique, and I am interested to see how it develops, in terms of the networking platform and contract research.


To find out how CHAP, in partnership with Rothamsted Research, can help to take your crop research to another level, go to Digital Phenotyping Lab. To find out more about CHAP Member Fotenix read A Conversation with Charles Veys.

Reach out to the CHAP team to discuss potential project opportunities using the  Digital Phenotyping Lab: email us using the enquiries form at the bottom of our homepage.