Vancouver firm headed by Ottawa chemist combines pheromones and technology to protect orchards, vineyards
By Scott Simpson, Postmedia News March 22, 2013
VANCOUVER — Michael Gilbert knows which way the wind is blowing. Gilbert grew up on a farm east of Ottawa. Now his Vancouver-based company, Semios, is using wireless communication to change the way the world grows fruit and nuts.
If it’s successful — and early indications are positive — Canada could show the world how to build a “smart” farm that automates pest control methods that haven’t changed a lot since Sumerians dusted crops with sulphur in Mesopotamia around 4500 BC.
The company is combining chemistry, computer software and wireless networks to disrupt breeding of common agricultural pests such as codling moths — the bugs that cause worms to grow in apples.
The technology falls into the category of machine-to-machine, or M2M as its known in the wireless industry, because it involves machines communicating autonomously with one another — and taking actions based on the information exchanged. Electric smart meters fall into the same category, as will other smart devices installed in household appliances, automobiles, even factories, as the technology becomes more widely adopted.
Semios is using pheromones, a well-established alternative to pesticides, to confuse insects during their breeding stage. Then it’s adding solar-powered communications, thermometers, barometers, wind vanes and a cloud-based computing network that turns each orchard and vineyard on its system into a full-time remote weather and insect monitoring station.
Over time the company will amass a trove of information that should strip away any lingering mysteries about the behaviour of the bugs it’s trying to deter — and make Semios the curator of a proprietary and marketable databank.
Its approach starts with the sticky traps that gauge insect populations in an orchard. Farmers need to inspect the traps every few days to see when codling moth breeding season might be peaking. On that basis, they spray pesticide. If they don’t look at the right time, they could miss the peak. Often, farmers over-spray pesticide just to ensure their crops are safe.
To improve the process and reduce dependence on pesticides, Semios mounts a tiny camera on the roof of each trap, then sets it to transmit every 10 minutes an image of what’s stuck on the floor. It’s like a closed-circuit security camera network, except it’s designed to detect bugs rather than burglars.
For now, Semios has entomologists on staff who count the insect levels in traps by examining the photos on a computer screen in the company’s office in East Vancouver. Soon, says the company, the bug count will be handled by a computer program.
Once a surge is detected, either by a human observer or an algorithm that reads images, an order is transmitted back to the orchard, where a shoebox-sized container that holds a canister of pheromone has been installed. The canister emits a puff, the male moths catch wind of it and confuse it with the scent of a female moth who’s prepared to mate.
The males don’t find her, the eggs she lays on the surface of an apple don’t become fertilized, and the apple is safe from a burrowing grub that never fails to invoke a reaction of disgust from someone who bites into its adopted home.
Gilbert was raised on a goat farm in Clarence Creek, east of Ottawa, working there and on nearby diary and corn farms in his teen years. He went to high school in Orléans and studied chemistry at the University of Ottawa before moving on to the University of British Columbia for a doctorate and the University of Vienna for further studies.
Before starting his own company he was a chemist specializing in the development of molecules for the pharmaceutical industry — notably with Vancouver’s Cardiome Pharma before its sale for $800 million U.S. to Merck & Co. in 2009.
“Once we did that deal I decided to go into my own space,” Gilbert said in a recent interview. He looked around for a sector that was open to change, and settled on agriculture.
There were already pheromone-based products on the market — notably, small pheromone-impregnated dispensers that are hung from trees. Gilbert decided he could do better, designed his own codling moth pheromone molecule, and attracted $6 million in capital: about $1.5 million in seed financing from investors and $4.5 million in government support.
“I partnered with some investors who have a lot of technology experience in automating and wireless technologies. We looked at the solutions. We said we need more than just better chemicals for agriculture, we need a better way of delivering them,” he said.
“So we put together this product we have now, which is a wireless communication and delivery system.”
This year the Semios team will cover between 3,000 and 4,000 acres, taking in about a third of the Okanagan Valley plus orchards in Ontario, Washington state, California, Pennsylvania, Spain, Italy and South America. It recently opened an office near Vineland, Ont., to be close to fruit growers it works with.
In North America, the apple industry alone covers 400,000 acres and is worth $2 billion a year.
“It’s the solution that was needed right now, and that’s why we got lots of traction with investors, with government bodies saying we want farmers to have this solution today,” Gilbert said.
Semios this year will manufacture more than 200 devices, including traps, pheromone puffers and solar-powered “gateway” communication devices that incorporate a weather station and a wireless transmitter that connects the puffers and traps to a database in the cloud. Each acre of land gets its own puffer. The pheromone is so powerful and effective that a half-litre canister lasts a full growing season. Farmers can log into the database from a hand-held mobile device and view a pest profile grid — sort of like an overhead view of the orchard — that’s less than 10 minutes old and can be scrutinized acre by acre.
The product is timely, Gilbert said, because of increasingly strict regulations for the application of pesticides — which are neurotoxins. If you can curtail pesticide use through other technologies, you’ll save time, money and regulatory hassle.
Residual pesticide levels allowed in food sold in Europe will plunge next year to a fraction of what’s allowed in Canada and the U.S. Greater restrictions are expected here, as well. That means farmers will need innovation to protect crops.
Gilbert said trials last year in the Okanagan indicated his company’s system was 98 per cent effective in controlling reproduction of codling moths.
He said switching to the automated pheromone system costs “approximately the same” as a full regime of pesticide application. It won’t eliminate pesticide use entirely, but it will curtail it enough to qualify with tighter regulations for conventional, if not organic, food production.
The added value is in time saved, and in building a valuable database for farmers. Semios has been assisted in marketing by Wavefront, the Vancouver-based centre of excellence for Canadian wireless technology research.
James Maynard, Wavefront’s chief executive, took Gilbert on a tour to Europe last summer in which the organization put some of Canada’s best machine-to-machine innovators in front of potential investors.
Interest in Semios was strong, Maynard said, particularly among wireless service carriers who sensed an emerging business opportunity.
“We were in Brussels. People were driving from Amsterdam — they were coming from all over Europe,” Maynard recalled.
“We took the same group to South America. Word had gone ahead of Semios. There were people waiting to meet them.”
In a recent study co-authored by the National Research Council of Canada, Wavefront noted a wide array of technology opportunities in B.C.’s $19-billion agriculture sector.
Innovations could range from robotic milking of dairy cows and radio-tracking of cattle herds, to greenhouse climate control technology and maximizing the harvest in B.C.’s world-leading blueberry industry.
Andrew Koran, B.C. commercial sales manager for Rogers, described the size of a growing region such as the Okanagan Valley as “massive” in the context of wireless service delivery.
“Machine to machine is a transformative technology that’s changing every sector of the economy,” Koran said.
“It allows organizations to gain access to critical data and really streamline their operations. For an individual user, he added “it’s going to touch every aspect of their lives going forward in many ways we may not know or even necessarily understand.”
For orchard operators using technology, a reliable, secure communications link is “critical,” Koran added. “These (systems) cover immense areas. You’re not talking about a little parking lot where you can put up a Wi-Fi hot spot zone.
You’re talking about acres and acres and acres. That’s why a carrier-grade solution is really a necessity.”
Robert Dawson, a second-generation apple grower, will need to be convinced the technology will succeed in undulating terrain such as his 85-acre orchard in B.C.’s Similkameen Valley.
Pheromones have been more effective curtailing pests in land that’s more flat — and where an adjacent orchard isn’t a regular “hot spot” for insect breeding.
But he’s watching closely.
“Obviously a non-spray program is preferable,” Dawson said. “I hope that the pheromone dispersal works. It’s cheaper, easier. Certainly going out in the middle of summer three or four times on my sprayer is not exactly what I look forward to.”
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