Emerging Agriculture Hackathon: creating connections, building business

Posted on March 17, 2016

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by Monica Gordon, Ag-West Bio

According to Farm and Food Care’s publication “The Real Dirt On Farming,” less than 2% of Canadians have a direct connection to a farm nowadays—a distinct change from a couple decades ago. While the number of people involved in farming is shrinking, the number of problems facing agriculture is not.

Fortunately, you don’t need a direct connection to a farm to help solve those problems. Thanks to the Emerging Agriculture Hackathon in Saskatoon, SK, hosted by the Junior Chamber of Commerce (JCC), all you need is an inquisitive mind and the ability to think outside the box.

Emerging Agriculture is an annual event open to students from any University of Saskatchewan college—not just those in agriculture—with the goal of coming up with creative solutions to agricultural issues. Over two or three days, students break into groups and attempt to “hack” problems submitted for consideration.  Anyone can submit a problem; from farmers to consumers (even the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture submitted a problem). Groups are formed based on who wants to work on which problem.

Rory Nussbaumer, the event organizer, is a commerce student majoring in Management in his final year of study at the University of Saskatchewan. He has been involved with the JCC for just over a year.

“The goal of the Junior Chamber of Commerce is to connect students from all different colleges,” says Nussbaumer. “There’s nothing offered at the university to help students in agri-business connect with students in engineering or computer science. That’s the goal of Emerging Agriculture: to connect those students.”

Nussbaumer says the JCC considered different types of events, but felt that a hackathon format would be the best way to connect students and serve as a catalyst.

“We looked at doing a case-competition format with all of the participants working on the same problem.  But there are so many ideas out there in agriculture that we didn’t want to focus on just one, so a Hackathon seemed like the best choice,” says Nussbaumer.

From what Nussbaumer has witnessed, Emerging Agriculture has been quite successful at doing that. “It’s kind of cool to see how, on the first day, all the students show up on their own and they’re shy because they don’t know anyone, but once you get them to choose an idea to work on and they’re in groups, the connections start to form.”

This year’s Emerging Agriculture Hackathon ran over three days. The first day involved participants selecting topics and getting into groups, and a keynote speaker. Day two was predominantly spent “hacking” problems, and included a panel discussion about the future of agriculture. The final day consisted of last-minute hacking and presentation of the groups’ solutions. Besides students, attendees included farmers, industry professionals, and patent lawyers who were there to act as mentors to the students.

Three prizes were awarded at the end of the Hackathon. The Grand Prize went to Luke McCreary, Charley Sprenger, Ian Paulson, Erik Tetland and Gavin Whitmore for their idea named, “Real-Time Green Seed Detection,” a combine accessory that would take a sample of canola and find the green canola seed count right on the combine. The design would allow it to be retrofitted to any combine.

The Award of Innovation was given to Brent Puchalski for his idea, “Early Warning System against Plant Disease.” His proposed device would collect and identify spores in the air, which would allow farmers to detect disease at least a week before signs of infection would be visible.

Lastly, the Rookie Award was presented to Corey Hickson, Zoe Mao and Uchi Uchibeke for their idea, “OnFarm,” a web app that would help farmers use the SaskSeed Guide more effectively by providing reviews of seed varieties. Farmers would help each other by reporting crop yield, what the season was like, where the crop was grown and any other data they deem relevant.

While some groups did better than others, Nussbaumer emphasized that the event’s focus goes beyond winning awards. “Our goal isn’t to have a single winning team—our goal is to create start-up companies and turn ideas into reality.”

This is why Emerging Agriculture might be looking beyond its three-day run in the future.

“Our goal next year is to create a GoFundMe campaign to help winning teams pursue their ideas further,” says Nussbaumer. The plan for future events is to use leftover funds to help groups turn their solutions into start-ups.

Plans are already being made for next year. One of the goals for Emerging Agriculture 2017 is to attract 150 attendees—double the attendance from this year. While doubling attendance is quite a feat, Nussbaumer is optimistic about Emerging Agriculture’s future. “We’ll just continue to build the hype and slowly get bigger and better each year,” he says.