Professor's high-tech traps, tracking pinpoint crop pests
Who they are
Johnny Park, a Purdue robotics and computer vision expert, had been doing research for Ford, Olympus and the Air Force when a graduate student working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture approached him about serving as a doctoral adviser. Before that, the closest the electrical and computer engineering professor had been to down on the farm was driving by Indiana cornfields.
The USDA wanted to see how technology might help reduce the time and effort farmers devote to labor-intensive tasks like pruning trees, in the case of fruit orchards, or managing crop-damaging insects. Bugs aren’t going to like what happened next, although people in the agriculture business and anyone concerned about pesticides and the environment should be happy.
What they're doing
Park is developing software and hardware that helps farmers and agricultural consultants pinpoint pest problems in the field in order to more precisely apply the right chemicals, at the right time, in the right place and the right amount. This can reduce the amount of pesticides necessary and save time and money spent on pesticide application.
MyTraps.com is a Web-based tool, available now, where farmers can enter, map and otherwise crunch insect data hand collected from monitoring traps in their fields to get a more detailed, precise and visual picture of problem areas. The data entry can be done on a computer or on a mobile phone. Z-Trap, the hardware side of the equation, makes the process even easier. The high-tech insect trap, headed for market in 2013, automatically catalogs target insects it captures and sends the data wirelessly to the grower's mobile phone or computer for analysis in MyTraps.
How they got there
As a result of his interaction with the graduate student, Park became a principal investigator at Purdue in a USDA project that helped fund initial development. He’s also received funding from the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission. His experience working with people in the agriculture business and Purdue Extension specialists made him think there was a market for something like MyTraps.com and Z-Trap. He started a company, Spensa Technologies, to commercialize the idea after disclosing the core technology to the Purdue Research Foundation (PRF) and its Office of Technology Commercialization (OTC). This is a requirement for commercializing intellectual property developed at the University, but it also serves to protect Purdue’s and the developers’ rights to benefit from the innovations. OTC and PRF can assist Purdue staff and student innovators in filing copyrights, patents and trademarks, as well as in setting up a company.
Park located Spensa in the Purdue Research Park, in part to take advantage of services such as mentoring from the research park’s experienced business development hands and marketing to potential commercial partners. The company also received an $80,000 award from Purdue’s Emerging Innovations Fund, a partnership between PRF and the University designed to strengthen early-stage companies that are working with OTC or are part of the research park network. Spensa’s location in the research park had another advantage. Allegro Dynamics, a key partner in developing the Web part of the system, is located in the same building. That’s how the two companies hooked up in the first place and it makes face-to-face collaboration easy. Park also used Purdue’s Center for Career Opportunities to find and hire engineering talent when Spensa needed to expand its employee roster.
"Don’t assume that just because you have a good idea it’s going to work out immediately," Park says. "It’s going to take time. Unless you’re passionate about it, think twice."