Data helps drive optimal outcomes

28/10/2019 - 15:09

From the use of big data to recycling plastics, WA businesses are developing a sustainability niche, but the path to commercialisation can be tough.

Ivor Gaylard (left) and Rod Campbell founded Swan Systems. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

From the use of big data to recycling plastics, WA businesses are developing a sustainability niche, but the path to commercialisation can be tough.

Western Australia’s vast landscapes are known worldwide for their bountiful natural resources, but one of life’s most important commodities, water, is often in short supply.

So perhaps Perth is a good place for SWAN Systems to be based, with the startup using remote sensing and big data to track water usage and improve efficiency.

“We’re the second driest state in the driest continent ... we’ve always been attuned to a lack of water supply,” co-founder Rod Campbell told Business News.

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Swan unites data such as weather projections and crop or grass types to help farmers and businesses schedule their application of water and nutrients.

“People overwater by 20 to 30 per cent, it’s just what you do,” Mr Campbell said.

“If you’re overwatering you’re wasting fertiliser, you’re letting it leach into the groundwater.

“We inform the user exactly when and how much water they need to put on.”

This is beneficial to agribusinesses in helping to optimise yields.

Wine production was one particular market segment Swan Systems was targeting, Mr Campbell said.

He said Swan could be specific in managing water usage based on age and variety of grapes, which would improve quality and perfect the level of sugar content.

Users could choose locations within a field for different water volumes.

Other applications for Swan’s services included local councils managing their bore water allocations for maintenance of parks and other community infrastructure, Mr Campbell said.

The business was founded in 2016, evolving out of consultancy AFS Agriculture.

Swan won a $590,000 Accelerating Commercialisation grant from the federal government in early 2018.

Since then, Mr Campbell said the business had grown from seven customers to about 25, which now included Pardoo Station and Melbourne City Council.

“We’re now in full-scale commercialisation,” he said.

“And we’re just in the process of raising some funds … up to $4 million.”

Mr Campbell said venture capitalists Delta Eight Group had been appointed adviser for the raising, and while Swan was working towards a potential initial public offering, he maintained the business was still too early in its development to make that leap.

“We need to be able to show two or three years of solid scaling,” Mr Campbell said.

A more likely option would be a trade sale to a big business.

“We’ll be collecting a lot of data, and analysts will be able to do a whole lot of smarts,” he said.

“It’s not too hard to get some machine learning, artificial intelligence around [the data] to synthesise and determine yields.”

Big data is also at the centre of Fremantle-based Ecocentric’s business model.

In collaboration with the CSIRO, Ecocentric developed a device called Numen to collect data on energy usage in buildings, which can then be processed using machine learning analytics to make power usage more efficient or to predict faults for preemptive maintenance.

Chief executive Tim Bray said the company wanted to be like a ‘search engine’ of energy.

“When machines are performing as they should, they aren’t wasting excess energy and the risk of catastrophic failure is reduced,” he said.

“Numen is an early warning system for machine failure, which has the potential to result in significant damage.”

Business News understands the company will also soon close a capital raising.

Another environmental technology business, Emapper, was spun-out of environmental consultancy Astron.

Emapper founder Julian Kruger told Business News it was a platform to collect biological and geographical data.

“It brings in a whole range of different digital monitoring technologies,” Mr Kruger said.

“Drones, internet of things sensors, digital field data, satellite imagery, and centralised into a place where people can procure those services and also use it as a management, monitoring, and decision support tool.”

The company was set up in 2016, and has six months left on a two-year commercialisation program.

“We picked up a grant from the federal government through Mets Ignited in conjunction with Roy Hill, Mt Gibson Iron and Anglo American,” Mr Kruger said.

Mets Ignited chipped in $1.2 million, matched by the industry collaborators.

“We’re pre-commercial … we’re in beta testing at the moment,” Mr Kruger said.

“We’re selling some of the data services already; we’re not selling subscriptions to the platform but we’re generating revenue.

“We’re working closely with the partners, getting their requirements built into the platform for monitoring and reporting purposes.”

He said there was a good reason WA was home to a number of data-driven, remote monitoring businesses.

“WA has a lot of natural area,” Mr Kruger said.

“The expanse ... lends itself to using these remote technologies.

“Having an ability to have better data, quantitative data out of satellite imagery, WA has got that in spades.”

Niche

Other businesses offering innovative sustainability services include Wide Open Agriculture, Power Ledger, Kooda and Greenbatch.

Power Ledger uses blockchain technology to track movements of electricity over distributed energy systems, and raised $34 million through an initial coin offering in 2017.

The company’s technology has been trialled in Australia, Austria, Thailand, Japan and the US.

In June, Power Ledger announced a deal with Clearway Energy Group to develop a platform to trade renewable energy certificates in the US.

Environmental health services company Kooda is focused on the collection and processing of food waste into compost at scale.

Founded by Carly Hardy, Kooda was part of Spacecubed’s Plus Eight accelerator program in 2018, and received about $400,000 of seed funding.

Williams-based Wide Open Agriculture raised $5 million and completed an IPO in July 2018.

The business operates using a regenerative agriculture approach, which focuses on soil health, carbon storage and biodiversity.

Since the listing, Wide Open has inked distribution deals for lamb and beef with 20 local restaurants, was granted a licence to grow industrial hemp, and launched a part time food delivery service in Perth.

Mt Claremont-based Greenbatch reprocesses plastic waste to create 3D printer filament, and was founded by Darren Lomman, a 2007 40under40 winner and former WA Young Australian of the Year.

Challenges

Many sustainability innovators have had to work through tough times, with Carnegie Clean Energy a good case study.

Carnegie developed technology to generate electricity from wave movements, with one iteration of its products used at Garden Island.

Over the eight years to 2016, Carnegie spent $100 million developing that technology, and was granted 70 patents.

But tax changes and an acquisition gone wrong meant the company entered administration in March.

The focus since has been on a recapitalisation, with hopes to raise up to $11.5 million.

In the company’s prospectus, released in July, chair Terry Stinson said wave energy was one of the largest untapped sources of clean energy.

Carnegie plans to refine its approach to be much less capital intensive, relying more heavily on machine learning to sharpen-up the wave generators.

“Carnegie will seek to integrate elements of machine learning, advanced electrical machines and advanced hydrodynamics into (a new) prototype, with an aim of bringing the CETO Unit power production costs down the cost curve far more rapidly than incremental in-sea deployments,” the prospectus said.

A further project would be machine learning software that can solve fluid dynamics problems in real time, much faster than traditional software.

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