Helping farmers detect disease in real time

Founding members of BioScout, Lewis Collins and Saron Berhane, talk about how they managed to fast track an idea to commercial production in just three years, and the experience of being a member of the Sydney Knowledge Hub.

Founders of BioScout, (L-R) Lewis Collins, Saron Berhane, Henry Brindle and Josh Wilson, with new team member and current student, Jesse Morris.

Launched in 2017 on the back of a PhD project, BioScout is a start-up that is shaking up Australia's agricultural sector with biotechnology that promises to detect disease among crops, prior to infection.

Growing the idea to commercialisation in just three years, the team behind BioScout put their early success down to the opportunities for student entrepreneurship available at the University of Sydney, which included the Innovation Challenge, INCUBATE and Inventing the Future programs.

We caught up with Lewis and Saron to find out more about their journey to success and how becoming a member of Sydney Knowledge Hub is helping them to develop their networks and tap into University resources.

Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with the University?

Saron: I started my undergraduate degree in engineering and medical science in 2013 and graduated with my honours degree in 2017. After that, I started working with Lewis on building out BioScout.  

Lewis: Very similarly, I started at the University of Sydney in 2013 doing a Bachelor of Biomedical Engineering and Mechatronics in the Faculty of Engineering. I started my PhD after my honours year in 2017 and that was actually the foundation of BioScout.

My PhD was looking at rust and how to detect it using drones in new ways, particularly using spore trapping by collecting airborne particles and analysing them. So I've been pretty heavily involved in the uni for eight years now!

Tell us more about the idea behind BioScout

Lewis: As I said before, Bioscout kind of started on the back of my PhD and Saron's honours as well as Henry's honours projects. We were all looking at different aspects of how to pick up what is in the world around us from the air.

A lot of time, you can't tell we're always breathing in particles, fungus, pollen, all kinds of lovely microorganisms. The question was really, how can we pick these up and detect them and enumerate them?

The focus started to become more on the agricultural side of things when my supervisor spruiked the idea that all across Australia, the number of pathologists who look at diseases in agriculture has been reducing year on year, and we're running out of manpower to monitor such a large continent.

We began in the drone space, flying a drone around to try and pick up particles on something like sticky tape and then running automated microscopy, which we had to build ourselves to look at what kind of particulates were being picked up.

How did you then pivot into a commercial enterprise?

Lewis: At the end of the first 18 months, we kind of realised we were onto something. We'd done some trials up in Northern New South Wales and we managed to pick up some diseases.

We would take the microscopic images and run some basic AI on them and we were pretty happy with the proof of concept. At that point, we were trying to look at maybe getting some extra PhD scholarships to make this into a proper research project, but we weren't successful.

Fortunately, we also decided to apply for the Innovation Challenge here at the University. For the research prize (which we won) we got five grand, which in mid-2018 was a lot of money.

At that point we thought, why don't we try and commercialise this? I'll get some external funding startup funding to try and keep this going. That was one of the key moments for us, which I think also helped us get into INCUBATE, which is the University's accelerator program. It kind of all went from there.

What did you take away from the Incubate program?

Lewis: During the INCUBATE accelerator program, we learnt a bunch of things about how to run a business. We learnt what customers actually want, what farmers actually want. Things like that.

After three months, we had cold-called around 100 farmers, and everyone seemed really keen and excited about this technology. Farmers lose a fifth of their crop to disease every year, but it's something they never thought could be solved. So it was an interesting place to be in and we were really excited, but we weren't getting anywhere.  

Then one farmer said, "I love your idea. I love the idea of picking up diseases two weeks before you can see the symptoms. But why are you guys using drones?" He said, "We'll give you $10,000 if you put it on a pole."

I think we all had a meeting about it straight after and we're like, why not? They love the technology, but drones, they just haven't been asking for that. So we had to pivot. Within three months, we'd stopped using drones.

How did you grow the business from there?

Saron: The small amount of seed funding we received through the Innovation Challenge and Incubator program taught us a lot about how to keep expenses down, or at least keep them to only really necessary things.

After that, we got accepted into the Startmate accelerator program, which is run in partnership with Blackbird VC, and received around $75,000 as an investment from them and we also had a bit of revenue over those months. We also had the farmer who paid us $10,000 to put the box in a hole and some little contracts along the way that sort of kept us going.  

Can you tell us more about Startmate?

Saron: Startmate is an accelerator program run in partnership with Blackbird VC, which are a venture capital fund based in Sydney. It's essentially a three month program that, as the name suggests, accelerates the development of a business. You have programs that you go through each week, you have mentors, advisors, kind of like a little team that helps you achieve the goals that you set out in the early stages of the program.

They really skew towards commercial development. So for the stage that BioScout was at, it really kind of pushed us into getting out and talking to farmers and trialling our technology, even if a lot of the times it felt really early, and we maybe weren't ready to really put our technology out there.

I think it was great for us at the time. You're working with some of the best minds in business in Australia. We learned a lot about business models and pricing and talking to customers and all that sort of stuff.

Why did BioScout decide to join the Sydney Knowledge Hub?

Lewis: When the Sydney Knowledge Hub was announced, the team at BioScout knew it was a perfect match for us. We share many of the same goals, including growing university research to a commercially successful business and collaborating with other researchers and industry to create world-changing technology.

In practical terms, we also saw the opportunity to place ourselves in the University's locus of innovation. To be surrounded by world-class researchers and business leaders was hugely exciting for us.

Another reason was that the thought that Sydney Knowledge Hub could present an easy and clear path for collaboration with the university and its resources, which was a huge and unique drawcard that no other space could ever hope to match.  

How has joining the Sydney Knowledge Hub been beneficial to you so far?

Lewis: Joining the Sydney Knowledge Hub was an excellent experience for us. We instantly had access to a great office space and a growing community. The networking and events allowed us to meet important government and industry contacts. Another great benefit for us is the association with the university, allowing us to begin collaborating with different researchers.

BioScout was a founding member of Sydney Knowledge Hub until July 2021.  

After seeing healthy growth, they are scaling up their manufacturing capability and have relocated to a warehouse that can support their expansion.

With BioScout able to analyse thousands of airborne particulates like pollen, microorganisms and environmental toxins, a plethora of healthcare applications looks likely in future.

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