By Dan Duncan
Over the last few years, the term “Silicon Prairie” has become more prominent in tech and startup circles in Midwest cities like Lincoln. What role does the Nebraska Innovation Campus play in fostering this innovation, and what impact do these tech and startup companies play in agriculture?
NIC exists to help foster innovation, which emanates from collaborations between the university, other public entities and the private sector. Very little innovation occurs that does not have significant software, data analytics or sensor (robotics) technology deployment as a key component of the product or service. The stronger the region is in these three fundamental building blocks of most technology improvements, the greater the chance that sector specific innovation will occur.
As we see new product technologies emerging, most integrate software and sensor technology into the product with data analytics generating the science for continuous product improvement. In some cases, the data science helps determine the need for the product or service in the first place. At the recent World Ag-Tech and Future Food Forums virtually all of the new companies presenting their business ideas utilized all three technologies to make food production, storage and shipment more efficient and safe.
The LemnaTec High Throughput Plant Phenotyping system located in the NIC Greenhouse is a great example of how sensor, data analytics and software systems are deployed to understand in a much richer way how plants interact with their environment. This system uses several different types of cameras (sensors) to detect differences in how plants are growing that the human eye cannot detect. Algorithms are developed to take the data collected from these cameras and interpret the data to give researchers an understanding of what is happening at the plant level. Ultimately, this will lead to the development of plants with improved yield when under some type of environmental stress.
Companies such as Quantified Ag and IntelliFarm, both located at NIC, are great examples of using these technology platforms as the basis for innovation in agriculture. Quantified Ag has developed an ear tag that is sometimes referred to as a "Fitbit" for animals. These sensors located in a modified ear tag collect biometric readings that are transmitted to a central server where the animal's health is constantly monitored. When the software detects possible health issues, a text message is sent to a smartphone telling whoever is monitoring animal health that he or she needs to check the animal.
IntelliFarm is developing advanced robots to completely change how humans interact with machinery in the field. These new machines have the potential to further reduce infield labor and improve yields.
Both of these companies' products require cutting-edge software, data and sensor development that can only evolve in environments with a critical mass of highly skilled employees available to hire. Robust growing ecosystems where IT, engineering, business and biological skilled employees are available will be more likely to develop innovations that will keep Nebraska and U.S. farmers competitive and relevant in world markets.
NIC, by connecting the talents of university faculty, students and the private sector, is helping to broadening the scope and depth of the definition of the Silicon Prairie.
Duncan is executive director of Nebraska Innovation Campus. He is a Nebraska native and grew up on a farm and ranch in southern Sioux County. He has held several positions within the university during the past 30 years. NIC is a public-private research park associated with the University of Nebraska and designed to facilitate research and economic development activities between private industry and the university.