Creating A Science-Driven Solution To Improve The Yield Of Commercial Beekeeping
We typically think of the phrase “ripped from the headlines” when referring to movies or books, but for Dr. Fiona Edwards Murphy, the news of the moment ended up informing her Ph.D. research and, ultimately, a business. “During university, I got involved with the embedded systems network and fell in love with wireless sensor networks and the Internet of Things,” recalls Edwards Murphy, who completed her undergraduate degree in electrical and electronic engineering at University College Cork, Ireland. “I wanted to pursue a Ph.D., but there wasn’t a topic that set my world on fire. At the time—2012 and 2013—I saw how everyone was panicking about colony collapse disorder, and I wondered if anyone had looked into putting sensors into beehives. A little bit of research showed there had been some work in the area but nothing extensive, so I decided to focus my Ph.D. there.”
Colony collapse disorder is exactly what it sounds like: the collapse of honeybee colonies. Bees are the only insect pollinators that humans can manage on a commercial scale and are used to pollinate a variety of crops that contribute a huge portion of the nutritious part of our diet, such as almonds, avocados, and blueberries. According to Edwards Murphy, honeybees provide around US$174 billion of pollination to the world each year, so loss of the insects or of beekeepers, who leave the industry because of difficulties managing their colonies and maintaining profitability, creates a significant challenge to our well-being.
“The biggest problem facing the pollination industry is that there are so many problems,” says Edwards Murphy. “There isn’t one big disease that has wiped out all the beehives; beehives are very complicated, tiny balanced organisms. So contributing factors [to the bee falloff] are, for example, diseases and pests, decline in biodiversity, and lack of wildflower access. If there was just one issue, it could perhaps be solved.”
Where her Ph.D. research came in was on the utilization of sensors to monitor the internal conditions of hives, which would help beekeepers get the information they need from their massive fields of beehives to know which problems they should respond to and how to prioritize their efforts most effectively. With this idea, Edwards Murphy applied for funding from the Irish Research Council and, upon being granted a subsidy, spent four years working on developing the technology that would enable beekeepers to receive the crucial information.
A Business Idea Forms
After a slew of awards for her work, including recognition from the IEEE, IBM, the Irish Laboratory Awards, Google, and the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, as well as publications and media attention, the project began to take shape as a potential business opportunity. “I was interviewed on national radio, and then we began getting contacted by beekeepers who said they wanted wireless sensors in their beehives or asked if they could buy the technology,” explains Edwards Murphy. “That’s when I thought maybe this had use beyond just research technology.”
She founded ApisProtect in 2017, a company aimed at creating a science-driven solution to improve the yield of commercial beekeeping, with two cofounders: Dr. Pádraig Whelan, chief science officer, and Andrew Wood, chairman. “We’ve created a device about the size of a VHS tape, though I wish I could give a more modern example!” laughs Edwards Murphy. The device, which has temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, sound, and acceleration sensors, is inserted into the beehive and collects data. Then, a combination of several kinds of long-range radio is used to transmit the data back to ApisProtect.
“One of the biggest challenges we’ve had so far is communication,” says Edwards Murphy. “Beehives are in the middle of nowhere, almost universally, so a cellular network doesn’t always work. Once the data is transmitted back to our servers, we use machine learning to essentially identify what’s going on inside the beehive, which hives are performing well in relation to one another, and attempt to determine problems.”
The end result is a report back to the beekeeper that is meaningful in terms of how to maximize the pollination revenue and increase honey yield. This includes smart alerts with actionable insights to brief beekeepers on the condition of their hives, identify problem colonies, and suggest a variety of actions to keep colonies healthy, helping the proprietors to save time and cultivate healthier hives. In other words, “we don’t just give them raw data,” clarifies Edwards Murphy. “A beekeeper would rather just go inspect the beehive than go through pages and pages of graphs.”
As of the end of 2018, 200 devices had been installed in beehives, monitoring the health of nearly 10 million honeybees split among locations in the United States, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. With this split, ApisProtect is collecting data from different climates, beekeeping styles, and subspecies around the globe to improve their machine learning. The ability to widely roll out the technology was thanks, in large part, to a recent US$1.8 million round of seed funding, which provides not only financing but guidance. “What these investors bring is really good knowledge of the pollination services market, the agriculture industry, and the technology market, with specific expertise in the Internet of Things,” says Edwards Murphy.
Along with this growth comes expansion of the ApisProtect team. In 2019, the company will open its first U.S. office, inside the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology in Salinas, California. “California is the home of the pollination association, so getting to know the growers and beekeepers out there will be really important for us,” shares Edwards Murphy. The team plans to at least triple its staff in the next three years while making its presence known across North America and Europe with the rollout of their commercially available devices.
Based on the response to Edwards Murphy’s radio interview years ago, the expectation is that demand for these devices will be high. As such, ApisProtect anticipates a need to search pretty quickly for partners, especially in hardware. “Our current production volume is very expensive, because there are no economies of scale with 200 units,” she says. “The best thing to do is to get design partners and connections with people who have supply chain experience in order to streamline production.”
As she grows her company, Edwards Murphy credits her past experiences and networks, such as the IEEE, with helping her hone her skills as a chief executive officer (CEO), “I probably learned as much in the first six months of being a CEO as I did in eight years of university,” she muses. “It’s been really challenging, but in a fun way.” However, she adds, “what’s been helpful is that, since our focus is science driven and our technology is new and experimental, it feels almost like being in a research group as much as a start-up, and obviously, I’ve spent a lot of time around labs.”
One of the more valuable things she’s gained from networking is practice in advancing her presentation and interpersonal skills, which come in handy when doing interviews, pitching investors, and looking for partners. “I’ve been to a lot of conferences and traveled to different places, which have been a huge part of building my technical network,” she says. “I know people from all over the world now who work in wireless sensor networks and communications.”
“In the start-up community, in particular, there is great support,” she continues. “There certainly is in Cork, and I think it’s universal. I know a lot about hardware and technology, and I’m always willing to share my knowledge, and so it’s about meeting other people and asking questions—and everyone’s usually happy to oblige.”
This is also the advice Edwards Murphy gives to anyone considering launching a start-up business venture of their own: get out there, talk about your idea, and give it a go. “I’ve met a lot of people who are just too scared to take the risk. It’s challenging, but you’ll always be wondering afterward what would have happened if you tried.” She’s certainly glad she did—though, she adds, “I definitely didn’t think I’d be here six years later, with $1.8 million, still talking about bees!”
—Leslie Prives is a freelance writer living in New York City.
Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/MWIE.2019.2902997