Abstract: BioScout is an agricultural start up, founded through the University of Sydney, revolutionising treatment of disease-ridden crops. The BioScout sensor collects airborne fungal spores to analyse the morphological and colour signatures of the spores against their database of agricultural diseases. Due to early detection, farmers may apply appropriate quantities of fungicides to plants before they exhibit symptoms of disease; improving crop yield and reducing fungicide expenditure.
Keywords: Agricultural Engineering, Crop Management, Disease, Machine Learning
The success story
BioScout is a University of Sydney, Australian based AgTech start-up, pioneering integrated disease management systems in farming. Driven by the current devastating statistic that 20% loss of crops is due to fungal infections, BioScout are improving disease management practices for farmers by eliminating the need for biweekly sprayings of both infected and uninfected crops. BioScout have developed an innovative to detect airborne fungal spores before crop disease even develops. Ultimately, this technology has the potential to improve crop yield by 18% and reduce fungicide sprayings by 75%.
Where did we start?
The story of BioScout begins with a meeting of the minds in 2017, between three dynamic budding young engineers. Saron Berhane brought her expertise in pathology and healthcare. Henry Brindle proved to be an asset to the team with his knowledge of mechanical engineering and rapid prototyping, whilst Lewis Collins drew upon his PhD research into designing systems for airborne disease detection. With their complementary skillsets in engineering, pathology and complex systems, together they devised a plan to address the issue of increasing airborne pathological diseases in agriculture and the reducing number of agricultural pathologists.
BioScout Samplers may be installed at various points around a farm, where it utilizes machine learning algorithms to identify the types of crop fungal infection through images of the fungal spores. Berhane pinpoints that BioScout’s point of difference is ‘Microscopy in the wild’. “BioScout is the first company to take accurate images of fungal spores on a nanometer scale in an agricultural setting”, says Berhane. The BioScout Sampler precisely intakes atmospheric samples through a narrow opening where biological particulates are filtered out of the airstream and collected onto an adhesive cassette. A specially designed and automated microscopy system embedded within the box then images the biological particles and uploads it to the BioScout database where potential spore targets are analysed and identified. The BioScout Sampler is linked to the BioScout app which tracks and sends notifications on crop spraying patterns, spraying frequency and pathogen outbreaks.
The journey so far
After some preliminary investigations, Co-founders Berhane, Brindle and Collins, discovered that airborne fungal spores could be accurately identified through AI and immediately began creating a drone that could fly around crops sampling air and identifying fungal spores. After producing a viable prototype in 2018. At this point Joshua Wilson a software engineer and friend of the team joined as their fourth cofounder and lead software developer. With a full team and the technology proven BioScout joined the Sydney University’s INCUBATE program to assist in commercialising the technology. During these early days the team garnered a healthy collection of innovative research awards. Their first round of early seed funding was awarded after pitching at a student innovation competition. This money was invested into new lab equipment and 3D printers used to manufacture the intricate parts of the BioScout prototypes.
Berhane recalls when they first began cold calling farmers around Australia, looking to trial their prototype in the market “it was an interesting place to be in at that time as we believed that we were onto something that would be really useful to farmers. We believe we had solved a problem that most farmers thought could never be solved, identifying crop disease before it became symptomatic, but we weren’t getting anywhere with uptake”, reflects Berhane. Berhane explains that in hindsight, they neglected to take into consideration what farmers do in their day to day lives; legally farmers are quired to pilot the drone and always have it in their vision line. The BioScout team began to realise what an impossible task this technology appeared to be, given how vast farmland is and how busy day-to-day work is. Berhane continues, “our initial implementation struggles were resolved when one day a potential customer said to us ‘We’ll give you $10, 000 if you put it on a pole’”. In three months, BioScout converted their prototype to a land-based product, durable enough to sustain all weather conditions.
After making the transition to from drones to autonomous Samplers and going through the Startmate and Cultiv8 accelerators, BioScout has had considerable uptake across rural areas. BioScout has won the FoodTech 500 award in 2020, the Future Agro Challenge competition, Australian DeepTech Tech23 and the Science and Innovation Awards for Young People in Agriculture. BioScout was also awarded the NSW Physical Science Fund Grant. BioScout has started its expansion to the US, Canada, Brazil and countries in the EU and the product has been internationally patented with a full PCT from 2018.
Look into the future
Collins, the current CEO of BioScout, outlines that there are a few key areas that they are looking to develop such as “improving our manufacturing techniques to precise machining, in order to cut down the weight and size of the BioScout box as well as adding more diseases to the BioScout database to increase detection capabilities and improve the versatility of our analysis system.” Collins, is confident that “the unique technology developed by the BioScout team has the potential to revolutionise crop safety around the world”.
Thank you to Saron Berhane and Lewis Collins for agreeing to be interviewed.
 “BioScout.” The University of Sydney, www.sydney.edu.au/engage/industry-business-partnerships/sydney-knowledge-hub/member-stories/bioscout.html. Accessed 10 Aug. 2021.
Level 2 Merewether Building (H04), University of Sydney,
Investment Rounds (collected 20/08/21)
| Angel | 2020 | Multiple | $330,000 |
| Seed | Currently | Anonymous | $1,650,000.00 |
Main facts (collected 20/08/21)
BioScout was started as a research group in 2017.
The first product was delivered in 2019.
The company currently employs engineers, scientists and agronomists
The next milestone is to expand to more crop diseases and geographies.
Alanna Manfredini is a Mechanical Engineering Student at Duke University. Alongside traditional mechanical engineering subjects, she is passionate about the biomedical application of mechanical systems and is looking to pursue a Minor in AI and Machine Learning. Alanna is currently working on producing a low-cost colostomy bag for low-income countries.
In addition to Engineering, Alanna has done some work in marketing and consulting for Crimson Education events and Crimson’s affiliated companies.
At Duke University Alanna is a SPIRE Fellow and has also been selected as one of two to receive the Julie Anne Levey Memorial Scholarship.