WATERTODAY With Carrol Plummer, CEO & Co-Founder Vivent
WT: Vivent has recently been spotlighted as a Top Innovator by the UN’s Uplink. Congratulations! Please introduce yourself to our viewers giving us a glimpse into your background as a Canadian.
Plummer: I grew up in Banff, Alberta. I have always held strong values about sustainability and conservation. I studied Mechanical Engineering at The University of Calgary and then did an MBA at INSEAD, France. I’ve worked in manufacturing, mainly pulp and paper, and for many years as an entrepreneur. Over the years we have formed a small community of people who are serial high-tech or deep-tech entrepreneurs, and we often work together to turn ideas into businesses.
WT: Please give us a brief overview of Vivent.
Plummer: Vivent is based on trying to understand how living things use information to their advantage. Right now, we are totally focused on agriculture, and we are making great progress at decoding small electrical signals that determine how plants react to their environment. We have been able to record and interpret these signals so we can provide early warning of crop stress to farmers or help agrochemical companies develop environmentally preferable crop treatments more quickly.
WT: What was the journey that brought you to found Vivent with the other co-founders?
Plummer: Nigel Wallbridge, the other co-founder of Vivent came up with the idea, that is the basis for Vivent’s business, as part of work he was doing on one of our other start-ups which has now been sold.
Once we determined that the idea behind Vivent’s business was viable we called on a small team to develop a product.
Caleb Carroll, another Canadian on our team, delivered a large part of the first prototypes.
WT: What does the recognition by the UN mean for Vivent?
Plummer: This recognition has helped us in two ways – firstly, the UN recognized that “wearables for plants” are an emerging technology with the potential to transform agricultural sustainability. This is strong validation for the idea behind Vivent.
Secondly, the award for being able to contribute to agriculture in arid climates provides recognition that our solutions make a difference for farmers and agtech providers. It helps raise awareness and confidence in our solutions.
WT: Do plants have intelligence? How do plants talk to each other?
Plummer: If you were an alien in a spaceship passing by Earth and looking for intelligent life you would for sure try to talk to plants before people. They make up 80% of the biomass on earth so are super successful as a species.
Plants have evolved to be able to sense what is going on around them and then respond very effectively. They can sense temperature, humidity, light touch, chemicals in the air, soil, and water.
The list goes on. They can’t move around like humans or animals, but they do have many strategies for defending themselves against predators, like making their leaves taste bitter to insects. They also warn their neighbors by emitting chemicals we can smell.
When you mow the grass, the scent we smell is grass plants warning their neighbors that they are being wounded. The smell of flowers is there to attract pollinating insects.
Overall, plants are very intelligent even if they do not have a brain like humans.
WT: When was this intelligence first discovered?
Plummer: The signals we record and interpret were discovered over 120 years ago when Darwin brought Venus flytrap plants to the UK. It was not until we had affordable powerful computers and machine learning that we could successfully interpret these signals in a way that benefits farmers.
WT: How has Vivent built on this early research?
Plummer: We have built up the world’s largest and most diverse library of plant electrophysiology recordings covering over 50 major crops recorded while they are healthy and when they are stressed.
We use these recordings to build models to monitor crop health in real-time.
We’ve also been able to help our clients better understand when and how crop protection products such as bio stimulants are working. Farmers then have been able to optimize applications and timing to apply product when necessary.
WT: Please describe Vivent’s technology. How does this technology improve traditional farming? How does it protect crops from climate issues and other dangers to plant growth?
Plummer: Vivent has developed patented hardware that is used to record and process plant signals. It is a “wearable for plants” and tiny electrodes are attached to “represent plants” identified by farmers or researchers.
We usually measure plants over the whole crop cycle. The plant signals are transmitted to Vivent’s cloud when they are processed and then turned into intuitive graphics, from which users gain valuable insights. We interpret the signals using both statistics and machine learning algorithms that identify specific crop stressors like spider mites on tomatoes or drought on apple trees.
Our solutions mean that farmers receive alerts when excessive crop stress is occurring – day and night – so they can intervene more quickly. Early warning of high crop stress often means that interventions are more effective and subsequent crop yields are higher.
Users can view real-time plant signals and crop health metrics on our platform whenever they want. This gives farmers or plant scientists a convenient and simply way to check in on their crops at any time.
The system’s unique benefit is that we identify crop stress well before farmers can see there is a problem with their crops. They can treat earlier or send out scouts to the right places in the growing operations to check for problems and apply corrective treatments.
Providing timely and continuous information about how crops are responding to the environment means interventions like irrigation, fertilization or crop protection are completed at the right time.
Many farmers use feedback from our system to reduce the number of inputs and save money while maintaining yields. Other farmers use the system to identify stress, well before visual symptoms occur and to check the efficiency of crop treatments, especially products like bio stimulants, as we can see when the products are active, by checking for differences in plant physiology.
WT: How does the technology work for indoor growers? Outdoor growers? Academics and plant scientists? AgTech providers?
Plummer: For indoor and outdoor growers the system functions the same. We talk with farmers about the challenges they are facing and decide with them where to install sensors. Then the crop is monitored for the whole crop cycle. We provide real-time alerts, weekly reports and other reports at key points in the crop cycle plus access to a platform where users can check in on their crops at any time.
For academics and plant scientists, we discuss their scientific objectives and members of our plant and data science teams provide ideas on good experimental design.
We ship devices to the users, who install devices themselves in labs, growth chambers or test fields. We often complete the analysis of the first couple of experiments at Vivent and build specific machine learning models for our clients and then train our clients in the interpretation of the signals to meet their specific objectives.
Ag-tech clients are a bit of a hybrid – farmers, their clients, or Vivent may install sensors. We often push data to agtech clients' platforms if their objective is to provide agronomic insights for their clients. We build specific metrics that they use to determine optimal growing strategies.
For breeders we focus on identifying the most resilient crop varieties. For supplementary lighting suppliers or consultants, we focus on plant responses to lights whereas for structured water suppliers we focus on water and nutrient uptake.
WT: Is the technology suitable for other applications?
Plummer:We have used the technology to look at signals in humans and have also investigated information flows in biofilms. All communities of living cells are electrical signaling to share information, so the technology is suitable for many applications but right now we are 100% focused on plants and on making agriculture more sustainable.
WT: Can you give us some examples of how your tech has made a difference. Do you have a presence on the global stage?
Plummer: We do have wide geographic coverage with clients in over 15 countries but for now we are focused on Western Europe and North America.
We have helped growers make smart choices on whether to install supplementary lighting, misting systems and additional valves in irrigation and nutrition systems and then help them optimize the use of these systems resulting in higher yields and lower costs.
We’ve helped breeders quickly identify resistant varieties and even warned them when field trials were failing due to unforeseen insect attacks. We’ve helped AgriChem companies better understand the mode of action for their products and demonstrate when their products have impacted plant physiology. We’ve helped agtech clients demonstrate their products work and provide a great ROI for farmers.
The thing I feel most proud of is that the people we work with gain a deeper understanding of their crops and then come up with many more ideas on how to improve the way we breed and grow plants.
WT: What’s next?
Plummer: We are focused on providing great value to our clients. That will not change. What’s next for us is to expand our commercial team so we can work with more clients with a focus on Canada – where both I and our lead engineer are from. We will continue to build more algorithms and make our system more intuitive and engaging.