AI to test and grade fruits and vegetables? These Amazon and Snapdeal ex-staffers are doing just that
Agriculture employs around 50 percent of the population in India and contributes close to 18 percent of the gross domestic product. No wonder then, that it presents a huge opportunity to startups and entrepreneurs.
Among them are Milan Sharma, Nishant Mishra, Himani Shah, and Devendra Chandani. Their startup, Intello Labs, was founded in 2016, and uses image analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) to test the quality of various commodities.
And it's not just startups; agriculture has also been getting significant attention from the the investor community. Affirming this, Nexus Venture Partners and Omnivore led a $2 million funding round in Intello Labs.
“I come from a data science background. And wanted to build something using data science,” says Milan, who had earlier worked with Snapdeal.
He, along with Nishant, a former Amazon employee, launched Intello Labs to use image analytics and artificial intelligence for varied applications. The duo soon roped in Himani and Devendra as co-founders.
Focus on agriculture
The co-founders dabbled with different sectors initially, but decided to focus on agriculture. The reason for this, Milan says, is that while the agriculture sector is strong in India, transactions are often not transparent, and neither is testing for quality. The four co-founders’ idea was to bring transparency to the supply chain.
“We did our research across the supply chain, with a focus on the farmer to the mandi to food processors and other buyers. We built a proof-of-concept to understand where such a product would be of most use,” Milan says.
Every consumer wants high quality fruits and vegetables, which are not over-ripe, discoloured, or damaged. The process of quality testing is still done manually with inspectors physically checking a sample from every lot. This makes the testing subjective, allowing errors to creep in.
What does the product do?
Intello Labs has built a mobile app that allows anyone checking quality to click a picture of the commodity; the algorithm uses AI and image analytics to give a complete update on whether a fruit or vegetable is under-ripe, ready to consume, damaged, and also the quality of the entire lot.
“Retailers look for good quality food, and we are working to digitise and objectify the quality of the produce,” Milan says.
The team says every part of the supply chain - food processors, warehouses, retailers, and food companies - uses some form of quality checks. The team, thus, decided to work with B2B players.
They also realised that reaching out to farmers directly would be difficult. Milan says the risk of spoiled farm produce is high for businesses, which is why they are willing to pay, especially with the value Intello Labs provides.
“It took us seven to eight months to perfect the test for the first commodity: tomatoes. We now test over 12 different commodities,” Milan says. He says nobody in the core team was from the industry, and it took time to understand the different nuances of the commodities business.
Building the market
Milan says Intello Labs benefitted from having mentors from the industry, who gave the team guidance on parameters to look out for and focus on.
However, it took the team time to understand and examine which of these could be digitised, put in an algorithm, and a machine be trained to identify them. With its learnings, today, Milan says the team can add a commodity in less than two months.
Intello Labs’ image analytics and AI testing can give B2B players savings of between three and five percent, Milan says. While the team couldn’t name its clients, Milan said the startup is currently working with some of the biggest retailers, ecommerce players, auction houses, and food processing companies in India. Intellolabs, which currently has a 45-member team, charges a commission from B2B players to use its app for quality testing.
With the latest funding, the team intends to further build the product and add more commodities to make it more scalable.
Speaking on the investment in Intello Labs, Puneet Kumar, Vice-President, Nexus Venture Partners, says,
“Without the standardisation and digitisation of quality assessment of agricultural produce, e-Mandi, and digital agri markets will remain a distant dream. Intello Labs is revolutionising quality assessment and grading for agricultural produce utilising recent technology advancements in AI and ML. Digital quality assessment coupled with pricing algorithms can prove to be game changers for farmers, agri-commodity traders, and large corporates in the years to come.”
Several agritech startups have recently received funding. Last month, Patna-based DeHaat raised funding of $4 million led by Omnivore and AgFunder, while TartanSense announced it had raised $2 million in seed funding led by Omnivore, Blume Ventures, and BEENEXT. Pune-based agritech startup AgroStar also raised $27 million in a Series C funding round led by Bertelsmann India.
Speaking on the investment in Intellolabs, Mark Kahn, Managing Partner of Omnivore, says, “For years, Omnivore has been searching for an agritech startup disrupting the opaque and subjective system of commodity grading in India. Intellolabs will bring transparency and objectivity across the agricultural value chain, helping farmers to capture the value they create.”