Sustainable Farming: Developing a Monitoring System to Protect Crops from Disease

by Diana Drake

On this month’s episode of Future of the Business World, we meet Sabrina Zhang, a high school senior from California who is using data-fed machine learning to grow healthier crops that will result in higher yields and less food waste. Be sure to click the arrow above to listen to Wharton Global Youth’s interview with Sabrina.

Wharton Global Youth Program: Hello and welcome to Future of the Business World. I’m Diana Drake with the Wharton Global Youth Program at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Each month I get to chat with interesting young innovators to discover how they are using skills in business, entrepreneurship and leadership to change the world.

Today’s guest, Sabrina Zhang, is joining us from California where she is leveraging technology and data to improve sustainability and the business of agriculture. Sabrina, welcome to the show!

Sabrina Zhang, co-founder of AgriVision.

While you studied with us on campus this summer, and we’ll talk about that later, I actually met you online before that when you participated in our 2022 Comment & Win contest.

When I knew we would be talking today, I searched your first comment, which appeared on June 18 in response to the Global Youth article The Business of Urban Living. Your reflection started like this: “I was driving down Sunset with my sister when she shrieked in horror at a sign a couple feet away: “7 dollars?? 7 dollars???” Yes, it finally happened– the gas had reached a whopping $7.49, and when I googled other counties, the number just kept climbing. As a resident of Los Angeles, California, I’ve seen first-hand the struggles of urban living.” Clearly you grabbed my attention, for sure, with that comment. And beyond those astonishing gas prices, I was hoping you would tell us more about your life in California. Where do you go to school and what are your interests?

Sabrina Zhang: I’m currently a senior at Polytechnic School in Pasadena, Calif. I am an avid speech and debater, activist, business competition enthusiast, cellist and, of course, a huge foodie. I love to explore all the best eats in LA, not only along Sunset Boulevard but also the local eats, as well. That applies to anyplace I visit. So if you ever need any recommendations, I definitely have a full list to send you.

Yet, food is also a growing concern here in LA. Some of the “organic” produce at notoriously expensive grocery stores at the heart of the city are priced higher than complete meals. And that’s an issue I’m hoping that sustainable farming will help address.

Wharton Global Youth: That first comment I alluded to in my question was looking at urban living. As you continued to participate in the Comment & Win contest I started to see another thread emerging, which was about AgriVision, a product you have been developing for the agriculture market. Set the scene for our discussion of this technology. How is the problem of food waste related to crop loss? What is the problem you’re innovation is addressing?

Sabrina: When people think of food waste and the large organic landfills, they often think of the tossed-out produce at supermarkets or uneaten foods from school cafeterias and homes. But unbeknownst to most people, food waste occurs throughout the supply chain, including pre-harvest and harvest season. Crop loss accounts for over a third of food waste and within that, diseases are responsible for the loss of 40% of all harvestable crops in the U.S. We’re looking at 11.2 billion kilograms of methane that enter the atmosphere from this disease-induced crop loss. Most people currently rely on human vision and other sensory skills such as touch to identify issues with plants. But farms can be hundreds of acres wide, meaning it could take weeks to check every crop manually. And even if farmers could check on all their crops, by the time humans notice a sign of disease within a plant, the crop is beyond saving. What we’re seeing is a need for an effective monitoring system, one that can more accurately and efficiently survey crops to protect agriculture. And, at AgriVision, we hope that one bad apple won’t spoil the whole lot. Our technology starts to spot out and mitigate the impact of diseases among crops at the earliest stages.

Wharton Global Youth: Your solution is AgriVision, a system that uses hyperspectral image processing to monitor crops and diagnose disease. What exactly is this technology and how does it work?

Sabrina: A key component of AgriVision software lies in hyperspectral image processing, which is a more advanced version of normal image procession. Whereas in a normal camera you have three wavelengths of red, green and blue, a hyperspectral camera contains wavelengths ranging from 400 to 1100 nanometers. So all the details that we can’t see in plants with our human eyes, such as biological changes within a plant when it reacts to a pathogen or infection, those details are represented through significant color changes that appear in a hyperspectral image. Paired with robotics and drones, we hope to fully develop these autonomous systems so that they’re easily acceptable to farmers. So they only need to check a simple app on their phones for updates on crop status.

Wharton Global Youth: Have you been able to demonstrate its effectiveness? Can you give us one or two examples of the types of crops and diseases we’re looking at here and how this is making a difference?

Sabrina: After much market research and pitch-deck development, we’re now fellows under the George Olah Foundation and have won in some of the world’s largest high school entrepreneurship competitions, such as the Diamond Challenge, the Conrad Challenge and the Global Youth Entrepreneurship Competition. Right now we’re working on our MVP or minimum viable product, which has taken form in a mobile application so that we can better demonstrate AgriVision’s technology in action. Some examples can include lesions that appear on the leaves of corn or other crops such as tomatoes. And by the time humans start to see those streaks or discoloration, hyperspectral cameras could have captured some internal issues and changes within the plants a few weeks prior. So, we’re looking at better accuracy in terms of taking care of those crops and maybe even reversing the effects of the diseases, but more importantly preventing the spread of infections among the crop

Wharton Global Youth: You also point out that AgriVision is really adaptable and versatile as a product. I think that when we think of crops – at least I do because I live in New Jersey, which is the Garden State – we think of vast fields and really huge growing areas. You’ve talked about applying this technology to indoor farming and vertical farming. Talk a little bit about its application in so-called vertical farming. How will AgriVision target these markets?

Sabrina: This spring I actually visited a friend in New York and discovered that her apartment complex had a vertical farm. In contrast to traditional farming, vertical farms are grown vertically in stacked layers, and are often in controlled environments where you might see hydroponics or aquaponics applied to optimize plant growth. This type of indoor farming will be incredibly impactful for highly populated cities like New York, LA, or even New Jersey where people can easily access fresh produce. More importantly, vertical farms use less resources like water and soil to grow in comparison to traditional farms, making them a more sustainable option. However, part of the reason we don’t see vertical farms just yet is this notion of cost in relation to building the indoor farming systems and keeping the produce at a quality that matches traditionally farmed produce. With AgriVision’s monitoring system, we can ensure that vertical farms are healthy and of good quality. After all, how can we make sure that the plant growing 20 feet in the air is receiving enough nutrition? That’s where AgriVision comes to play. Paired with robotics, our hyperspectral image processing can evaluate batches of vertically farmed produce in an instant.

“Over the summer I flew to the Midwest and tried to survey crops in person. I still remember standing at the edge of a cornfield in Indiana and staring in awe at the endless rows of crops in front of me. In reality, a third of the crops that I had seen would be destroyed within the next week. And diseases would be the leading cause.” -Sabrina Zhang, co-founder, AgriVision

Wharton Global Youth: How did you get involved in this high-tech endeavor? Are you interested in agriculture? Is this a personal passion or is it purely professional and an interest in robotics and technology that you have?

Sabrina: Definitely both. Growing up in California I’ve been no stranger to the issues of climate change and environmental sustainability, especially with so many wildfires each summer and issues with accessibility to food. Exploring the intersection of agriculture and technology first emerged over family dinners. My dad had been reading a lot about vertical farming and I saw an article about Amazon acquiring Whole Foods and the implications of vertical farming in supermarkets. Through a casual conversation about emerging technology with farming, that really got me wondering well, what exactly are we missing? Vertical farming sounds great but what about traditional farming? Why aren’t we trying to improve the old system along with the development of a new one?

I dove into a rabbit hole of research and found myself reading about agricultural waste as connected to crop loss and diseases. My curiosity took me down this adventure of, OK, we have a problem but how exactly are we going to solve it? And the use of technology to help agriculture seemed natural to me. Technology can do what humans can’t. And if we can’t monitor acres of crops, then we should ensure that our technology can.

Over the summer I flew to the Midwest and tried to survey crops in person. I still remember standing at the edge of a cornfield in Indiana and staring in awe at the endless rows of crops in front of me. Looking around, I almost couldn’t believe that we weren’t able to distribute food to everyone in the world. But in reality, a third of the crops that I had seen would be destroyed within the next week. And diseases would be the leading cause. All of this is to say that while AgriVision is a startup, it’s really a passion project for me and a lifelong goal for our world to become a more sustainable place.

Wharton Global Youth: So, you must not be doing all of this work alone. Do you have a team?

Sabrina: I work with an incredible group of fellow innovators, including Winston, Ethan and Anthony, three other boys that go to school in Virginia. Working across the country presented unique challenges, especially since we don’t go to the same school and live in different time zones. Communication was particularly difficult at first. It also took time to figure out how to work with our individual strengths and weaknesses. While my teammates are incredibly talented in science and technology, they had a little less experience with pitching and presentations. With my speech and debate background, we ended up balancing each other out perfectly. Where one person wanted to dive into robotics, another wanted to explore their knack for marketing, and ultimately our team synergy lies in our respect and trust for one another, which has really just blossomed over the past year. Leading this team has taught me how to work in settings in which there are fewer women, which is especially relevant for the agribusiness industry. I’m grateful for all the support that we’ve been able to have for each other as teammates.

Wharton Global Youth: What sparked these collaborations? Was it the competitions you were in? How did you get together with these guys in Virginia?

Sabrina: This is a really fun story and I think, looking back, it’s absolutely amazing how the power of Facebook and referring to a friend of a friend gets you somewhere. All three of these boys, Winston, Ethan and Anthony, have been incredibly passionate about sustainability. When I reached out to a family friend and said, hey, I wanted to work on a project related to technology and agriculture. Do you know anyone else who has a background in this? From there, I ended up reaching out to Winston and Ethan and then we found Anthony, who is a grade lower than us. All of it came together naturally. I think it was by fate. One simple message about wanting to work in agriculture and sustainability just for a passion project and then discovering a competition to attend to see how we worked as a team…everything just ended up playing out perfectly. And now we are incredibly strong as a group and are super excited to move forward with AgriVision beyond just entrepreneurship competitions.

Wharton Global Youth: Collaborations move beyond just your inner circle. I’m sure you have partners and investors and people who are helping to advance this idea and innovation. Can you talk about those partnerships? I’d also like to know how farmers factor into this. I’m wondering if you did your market research by speaking to some farmers? Have you been on the front lines with the farmers? You mentioned going to the cornfields, which is great, but obviously they have to be significant to helping you develop the technology effectively.

Sabrina: All of this was a really long journey. The way farmers come to play is the fact that AgriVision’s product needs these datasets. We need to start collecting pictures of plants and crops at different stages so we can enhance the accuracy of our machine-learning model. Having partners in terms of having farmers who are willing to have us go out there and take pictures of all their crops and test out our technology, that’s where they’ve been able to help us. And if anything, entrepreneurship is just the embodiment of trial and tribulation. Power pitching for seed funding, seeking partnerships and investors just pushed us as a team to keep reiterating and refining the idea.

I remember one time when we were preparing for a pitch, I realized we had to nail down the hardware for our product, specifically the power supply, to demonstrate that AgriVision could actually operate effectively across hundreds of acres of land. From there, we fell into an extensive networking process. I would cold call and email several times throughout the day. And when we were searching for our first partnerships, most of my screen time was spent on LinkedIn trying to connect with a potential partner or supplier. I asked friends and family for referrals and reached out to teachers and fellow classmates who knew someone who then knew someone else. Finally, after weeks of outreach we found an individual who was involved in the manufacturing industry and we now have a company willing to support our prototype with lithium ion batteries. And so, this is a super exciting process, definitely really strenuous, but at the same time absolutely thrilling because when you connect with someone; when someone reaches out and says they want to support your idea, it really gives you hope for the future and revitalizes the vision that you have for your company.

Wharton Global Youth: In our Global Youth Meetup this summer I was able to interview a couple of Wharton alums. I remember one of them saying a real life hack or something that he wanted all high school students to know is that when you reach out to somebody through email, and if you have an articulate and well-crafted email, they will respond to you. He said, they may not respond to me. I’ve been in business a lot of years. But when there’s a young person who is very entrepreneurial and passionate about an idea, that will warrant a response. Do you agree? Has that been your experience?

Sabrina: I would say people are definitely super encouraging and they’ll reply to you 75% of the time. Maybe because I was working in agriculture, people were a little weirded out that a 16-year-old girl from LA was emailing them. But at the same time, even if they’re not able to give you that immediate support, it’s that process of expanding your network and having them say that while I can’t help you out, here’s someone you can contact to see if they can be of more support. For anyone who is looking to create their own company and bring their idea to fruition, just cold email. Go for it! There is no harm in trying.

Wharton Global Youth: A moment ago I heard you allude to the numbers. I’m wondering what you’ve learned about the power of data through your drive to create and commercialize AgriVision.

Sabrina: I think a lot of people will say this, but data is truly everything and data is our future. AgriVision has to gather enough datasets in order to train our machine-learning algorithms, like I mentioned. Data is the only way that we can teach AI and ML to recognize signs of disease within plants. The agriculture industry is only one example of the need for new technology to help make our lives more efficient and sustainable. Data, when used correctly, can certainly transform the world for the better.

Wharton Global Youth: I want to talk for just a minute about your experience on campus with us this summer. You were in our Leadership in the Business World program. Describe the entrepreneurial landscape in LBW and how you feel your generation is innovating and working to be the face of change?

Sabrina: When I first met my classmates in LBW, I was instantly amazed by everyone’s drive to problem-solve. Everyone was so invested in developing their own passions, and alongside that, finding ways in which their passions connected to the world. There’s this sense of initiative and collaboration. We were all so eager to interact with one another and learn from each other. We had group chats based on our interests in sustainability, social advocacy, educational equity, and several more, which sparked opportunities for us to bounce ideas off each other and discuss how we wanted to catalyze change. I think part of what it takes to be an entrepreneur is understanding this ripple effect that you can have on society and that’s exactly what LBW students embodied. Our generation seeks issues both large and small that need to be addressed and we’re dedicated to developing unique solutions by constantly reaching out, researching and of course working together.

Wharton Global Youth: AgriVision is clearly a social enterprise because of your focus on sustainability and your hope to address the food-waste problem. Do you see it also having a triple bottom line, meaning you also hope to generate revenue and income and build this out as a true revenue-generating business?

Sabrina: I can see AgriVision expanding out in two ways. Not only utilizing the hyperspectral image processing development and that technology development as a stream of revenue, but also having an extension in terms of a nonprofit arm where we can ultimately reach a point as a company to take our products and put them in countries that need it most, but maybe can’t afford it. I’m hoping that when corporate farms start purchasing enough of AgriVision and we hit a certain threshold for revenue, we can start distributing our product to places where the diseases are multiplying more and becoming more unpredictable. In that sense, we want to be able to address where the monitoring systems are needed most.

Wharton Global Youth: I heard you say passion project. I love all these passion projects that are emerging from high schools around the world and I obviously speak to a lot of students who have them. But I also see something happening, which is that they get developed to a certain point and then they fall away. There’s only so much time for that passion and then you have to move on with your life. I’m wondering where you see AgriVision in your future. Do you anticipate that you will follow through with this and implement it?

Sabrina: I think I’ve always been drawn to the entrepreneurial spirit and thinking in business and that is certainly tied to AgriVision and always will be. When I first entered middle school is when I started my first official business and it was on slime. As the first person to introduce the gooey substance at my school, I would buy these little trays – medicine boxes labeled Monday through Friday – and then I would stuff samples of my slime and take that around school to show people the diverse array of slime that I had to offer. I was just fascinated by the whole process. I loved experimenting with slime and thinking about creative names and then came this marketing and operations aspect where I found myself reaching customers from the U.K. and the Middle East. I had a vision for growing the slime business and a vision for each new slime that I developed. That’s how I feel connected to AgriVision and the business overall. Being a visionary individual who turns an idea into a reality.

Wharton Global Youth: One question I like to ask all my guests on Future of the Business World is if you could change one thing in the world what would it be?

Sabrina: I’d like to ensure that all industries and homes commit to sustainable practices. If people were always looking for ways to optimize their lifestyles and production while respecting the environment, we would see a drastic reduction in global warming.

Wharton Global Youth: Let’s wrap up with our lightning round. Please try to answer these questions as quickly as you can.

Aside from AgriVision, what is your favorite app?

Sabrina: YouTube.

Wharton Global Youth: What gets you laughing really hard?

Sabrina: Recently, raccoon videos and TikToks.

Wharton Global Youth: Define your leadership style in 6 words or less.

Sabrina: With empathy, passion and drive.

Wharton Global Youth: Something about you that would surprise us?

Sabrina: I’m a huge K-Pop and K-Drama fan. When I’m not working on AgriVision, you can probably find me learning a dance or choreographing to a new song.

Wharton Global Youth: Your most memorable Wharton moment, place, person or food?

Sabrina: This seems like a combination of it all, but definitely when my team pitched at LBW in Steinberg-Dietrich Hall [on the Wharton Philadelphia campus]. Shout-out to Rev Consulting Group and our mentors Flavio and Marissa.

Wharton Global Youth: The businessperson you would most like to take to lunch and why?

Sabrina: Jessica Jackley, for sure. Her founding of the microfinancing company Kiva and beyond has fascinated me for years. She seems like an amazing individual who only gives back to our world and has such an innovative mind.

Wharton Global Youth: Sabrina, thank you so much for joining us on Future of the Business World!

Sabrina: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been an absolute honor to talk to you today.

 

CONVERSATION STARTERS

Sabrina Zhang has done lots of research and development to move AgriVision forward. Are you in the agriculture industry? How might you help Sabrina to improve her innovation? What market research, if any, might she be overlooking?

Why is data fundamental to the success of AgriVision?

What questions would you like to ask Sabrina about AgriVision or her process of product development? Ask them in the comment section of this article and you just might get a response!

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