Farmers use drones and data to boost crop yields

August. 13, 2015 Camilla Cornell Special to The Globe and Mail

Drones have long been used for military purposes, but Nova Scotia-based start-up Sky Squirrel Technologies Inc. has found a more peaceful use for the technology.

Sky Squirrel deploys small drones equipped with infrared cameras to cruise the skies over vineyards, sending back images that help growers monitor for moisture level, disease, rot, insect damage and general crop health – all things that contribute to the quality of the grapes and the resulting wine.

In the past, farmers would have had to walk their fields, taking samples back to send off to the lab. “If you have hundreds of acres, that is just not feasible,” says Richard van der Put, the Swiss-born co-founder and chief technology officer for Sky Squirrel.

In comparison, the company’s drone technology takes as many as 500 images during a single flight. “Our clients send the images to us via the cloud and we combine them into a map,” says van der Put. “Then we use a specialized image algorithm that allows us to assess crop health.” With the help of GPS positioning on their mobile devices, farmers, “can see where they are currently in the field and correlate that with the analysis” to pinpoint areas of concern, van der Put says.

The result: One client managed to reduce his water usage by a third. And the system has proven 97 per cent effective at detecting diseases like Flavesence Dorée – which mainly affects European vineyards. It also picks up leafroll – a disease that can devastate vineyards, wiping out 30 to 50 per cent of the crop.

Just six months into its first year of sales, Sky Squirrel had already achieved its one-year revenue target of $150,000, with clients in Chile, France, Spain, Romania, Switzerland and Canada.

And it is just one of the many Canadian tech companies that have taken a bead on the agricultural market, according to Doug Knox, vice-president of technology for Bioenterprise Corp., a non-profit business accelerator that specializes in agricultural technology. “The large corporate farm is here to stay,” says Knox. “And technology will increasingly be a driving force in terms of greater efficiency and production.”

Nonetheless, he contends, the agricultural market remains a challenge for young companies, mainly because it is so diverse and fractured. “Corn producers don’t have the same needs as wheat farmers or canola producers,” explains Knox. “The biggest barrier to entry to the agricultural market is creating awareness.”

Sky Squirrel overcame that barrier by targeting a specific niche (vineyards), with the intention of building out its solution to cover other crops in future. Similarly Resson Aerospace of Fredericton has teamed up with McCain foods to use drone technology to collect information that can help farmers reduce spraying and increase yields in potato fields.

Other companies have focused on technology with a wider application. Manitoba-based Farmers Edge Precision Consulting Inc. got its start in founder Wade Barnes’s basement 10 years ago with a general focus on precision agriculture and agronomics – basically using comprehensive data to boost farmers’ yields and lower their fertilizer usage. The company uses satellite images to identify where to plant, how much fertilizer to use and when and how much to irrigate – allowing farmers to increase yields and lower fertilizer and water usage (hence costs).

By 2014, it had been named one of Canada’s Fastest Growing Companies by Profit magazine and had received a significant equity investment by blue-chip Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB).

Food safety is another area of agriculture ripe for innovation, says Knox. He points to the “geofencing” software developed by Guelph-based startup Be Seen Be Safe with the goal of preventing the spread of diseases such as avian influenza (bird flu) and porcine epidemic virus from farm to farm.

Anyone with the Be Seen Be Safe app on their smartphone or tablet automatically triggers a signal the moment they enter a geofenced property. “When there’s a disease outbreak, we can basically hit a button and have it automatically show us where the people who’ve been on the potentially infectious farm came from and where they went,” says the company’s president and CEO Tim Nelson.

Mississauga, Ont.-based AbCelex Technologies Inc. has honed in on the burgeoning problem of antibiotic resistance in North America. Administering antibiotics to animals reduces food-borne pathogens that can cause illness, says president and CEO Saeid Babaei. But it also contributes to the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.

Babaei and his partner Dr. Ali Riazi – both molecular biologists with a string of degrees – founded AbCelex in 2010. Their aim: to modify a specific type of antibody found in the guts of camels to create an antibiotic-free additive for agricultural feed products or water capable of guarding against dangerous bacteria like Campylobacter and Salmonella.

The pair’s research focused on ensuring the anti-microbial additive could withstand the heat generated during feed production, as well as the digestion process in a feed animal’s gut. And it had to be cost-effective. Says Babaei: “People won’t buy a chicken in the grocery store if the cost goes up from $7 to $20.”

In 2014, AbCelex got a vote of confidence in the form of a $2-million in Series A financing from Cultivian Sandbox, a leading U.S. venture fund specializing in agriculture and food. The company is currently engaged in field trials and expects its feed additive to be on the market by 2017. “And that’s a conservative estimate,” says Babaei.


BIOENTERPRISE Building Ag-Bio Based Businesses

November 27, 2014 |

Safer chicken, coming right up Each year, millions of North Americans fall ill after eating chicken, thanks to Campylobacter. The corkscrew-shaped bacteria infects more than half the raw poultry sold in the U.S., making it one of the biggest causes of foodborne illness in the Western world.

To tackle the problem, AbCelex’s Dr. Saeid Babaei turned to the camel families. These desert creatures have a unique type of antibody that is small, stable and cheap to produce. Babaei and his partner, Dr. Ali Riazi, set to work creating fragments of these antibodies — so-called “nanobodies” — targeted at Campylobacter.

They knew any cost-effective livestock treatment must be delivered in feed. In the course of the last three years, the pair successfully engineered nanobodies that can withstand the high temperatures used to process animal feed and the low pH and enzymes in the chicken’s digestive system.

That’s when they turned to Bioenterprise. We connected them to industry players, conducted market analyses, and put together product costings. “Bioenterprise came to the rescue,” says Babaei. “It was perfect timing.”

As a result, AbCelex struck a $2 million venture capital deal and attracted high-profile partners. If field trials prove successful, safer chicken could be just around the corner.

AbCelex Technologies Recognized as Best Growth Company by PwC Canada

November 21, 2014|
AbCelex Technologies Inc., a privately-held Canadian biotechnology company committed to the discovery and development of innovative solutions to advance the health of food animals and human food safety, announced today it has been recipient of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) 2014 Entrepreneur of the Year Award as Best Growth Company.

The Entrepreneur of the Year award recognizes a company that has made great strides in the technology and advanced manufacturing sector within the last year. It will be awarded to the company that displays innovative business practices, development potential, and sound leadership. The awards presented by PwC, were handed out in three categories: Best Growth Company, Best Up-and-Coming Company, and Young Entrepreneur of the Year.

“HalTech’s goal is to support innovation in the Halton Region and we’re proud to honour three deserving companies that are at the forefront of technology” commented Haltech’s President, Stan Tsang. “The HalTech team was thoroughly impressed by the unique vision, sound leadership, and growth displayed by AbCelex Technologies Inc. By securing strategic funding and hiring top local talent they have solidified their place as an industry leader in the region and globally. We are confident that AbCelex will continue to be a shining example for life science innovation in the agri-business recognized by major global payers.”

“We are honored by this award as it represents our innovative approach to animal health and food safety and the dedication the AbCelex team has to making a difference in our food quality and safety,” said Dr. Saeid Babaei, President & CEO of AbCelex Technologies. “On behalf of our team, I wish to thank HalTech, PwC Canada and the selection committee who have recognized AbCelex’s accomplishments amongst Canadian success stories. We now have a solid foundation for growth and are ready to surge”.

About AbCelex Technologies Inc.

AbCelex Technologies Inc., is a privately-held Canadian biotechnology company committed to the discovery and development of innovative solutions to advance the health of food animals and improve human food safety. Employing advanced genetics and bioengineering techniques, AbCelex’s antibody based approach delivers antimicrobial solutions against various pathogens in several food animal species implicated in food-borne illnesses.
For more information, visit

For further information, please contact:

Dr. Saeid Babaei
+1 (647) 494-8787


From left to right: Stan Tsang, HalTech’s interim President,  Dr. Saeid Babaei, AbCelex CEO, and Teresa Giglia, Associate Partner at PwC.

Small nanobody drugs win big backing from pharma


Work that nanobody

“The field [of nanobodies] has matured a lot,” says Michiel Harmsen of Wageningen University and Research Center in the Netherlands, who has studied nanobodies for veterinary applications and in animal models of disease. “There was this initial thought that nanobodies were these weird half antibodies that wouldn’t be as effective as conventional antibodies, and the opposite has turned out to be true in many cases.”

At the same time as Ablynx’s nanobodies are showing their clinical potential, a handful of new pharma start-ups are hopping into the field. VHsquared, based in the UK, aims to develop single-domain antibodies for use in the gastrointestinal tract; Canada’s AbCelex Technologies is engineering small antibodies for diagnostic and environmental applications; and AgroSavfe, in Belgium, is applying nanobody technology to issues of food safety.

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