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Belgian start-up helps tomato growers worldwide to protect their harvest

“We provide great peace of mind for our users”

This interview was originally published on Bloovi in Dutch

The path of each entrepreneur is unique. One person broods on an idea for years, finally launches it and after about two months notices that his product does not catch on, despite the favorable prospects. Another notices a problem that makes him think from a commercial perspective.

Like with Guy Van Looveren, who noticed after the purchase of a house that the boxwood hedges were wilting. He combined his commercial spirit with his great interest in artificial intelligence and developed an application that maps out pests and diseases in plants.

“Our approach is both ecological and cost-effective and saves tomato growers a lot of time and money.”

Guy Van Looveren – Founder & CEO Planticus

This is not Van Looveren’s test piece. Looking for Planticus online, we couldn’t find much more than the website and a few short articles, but some web browsing led us to the mobile application Ask Attis, the predecessor of Planticus.

Ask Attis was the app that Van Looveren developed to help hobby gardeners determine pests and diseases, similar to the principle of apps like Plantnet and Obsidentify.

Investigate and take the leap

Van Looveren is a pur-sang entrepreneur, a goal-getter if you will, a born strategist with a healthy ethical entrepreneurial spirit.

“Prevention is better than curing. Just like antibiotics in humans, plants are becoming resistant to pesticides. Today’s tomato growers face more and more challenges to protect their crops while trying to minimize the use of pesticides,” he says.

“The forte of Planticus is that, thanks to an innovative technology, we can detect incident diseases and carefully treat the diseased plants. You can fight the symptoms, but it is even better to detect the pests before they really break out on a large scale. This approach saves the growers a lot of time and money. It is both ecologically better and cost-effective.”

For the development of the software, Van Looveren first extensively analyzed the market for six months, and talked to a series of professors, growers, bio-engineers, companies, etc. “These conversations showed that the problem was much bigger than what everyone suspected,” he says.

“Due to the size of the greenhouses, tomato growers were unable to scan their crops daily for pathogens or pests. Now and then they spoke to an external company that came to monitor for a day, but that was it. All while continuous monitoring is necessary, because a disease or pest can manifest itself in two or three days in such a way that it affects the entire cultivation. So there appeared to be a great need for a process that collected, processed and immediately presented data to the farmer 24/7.”

Van Looveren knew that Planticus could help, but of course still had to develop the technology. “That’s why I immediately surrounded myself with specialists in the field: IT people, bio-engineers,…

The founding team consists of three people. In the meantime, there is a Board of Directors, which consists of a number of people with tons of experience and expertise. Today the whole story is gaining momentum, although it is not the intention to come out with a hard launch. It is allowed to grow slowly for once, with the right vision, strategy and ethics. ”

Bring your pedometer

When you think of a greenhouse, you usually see a hobby or garden greenhouse, where people grow a few different types of vegetables every year. The greenhouses that Van Looveren is talking about are a lot bigger.

“These are not small. These are gigantic greenhouses of around 11 to 12 hectares. It is almost impossible for a grower to monitor everything himself, because it concerns kilometers and kilometers of rows.

Early detection is extremely important in preventing a pest: the earlier you catch it, the better. That’s crucial. With Planticus we can check plants in real time and pass on the information. We provide peace of mind for the users of our app.”

“A tomato grower recently told me that he often woke up at night worrying because he had seen something in the afternoon, but did not know whether it was the start of an illness.

Then he would get up at night, get in his car and drive to the greenhouse to have a look. A very time consuming and stressful job, and not very efficient. It does however indicate the gravity of the fear among growers of losing their harvest.”

Sci-fi in the greenhouse

Is it related to the corona pandemic or have growers simply become much more cautious about contamination today? The fact is that Van Looveren himself noticed how tomato growers have started to treat their greenhouses as some kind of biohazard zone in the past year.

They minimize the risk of contamination with any substance from outside the greenhouse.

“When I entered a greenhouse in 2020, I had to put on a jacket and a hairnet. But today? The security measures are very strict. If you want to visit a greenhouse, you first have to strip down to your underwear.

You will be given a special, double sterile suit, and you will be hermetically sealed from the outside air. What’s more, if you want to move from one row to the next, you have to change into a new suit to eliminate the risk of cross-contamination. By the way, the first pack is burned.”

“Overdone? I do not think so. Not so long ago, one of the growers we work with saw his entire crop deteriorate in three days. One plague, and he got to destroy thousands upon thousands of pounds of tomatoes. If you can do anything to avoid that, you won’t hesitate, even if you seem to step straight out of a science fiction movie.”

Need time to scale

To say that Planticus is the right company at the right time is the understatement of the day. “It seems as if every tomato grower, even worldwide, was waiting for a technology like ours,” says the Planticus instigator.

“Every grower we visit wants Planticus in his company. Not only in Belgium, but worldwide. The requests really come from everywhere: I had only just returned from Portugal, and there were already requests from Russia and Australia. They have heard of Planticus as far as the Middle East.”

“It seems as if every tomato grower, worldwide even, was waiting for a technology like ours.”

“A good thing, yes, although we can’t be everywhere at once. The long-term aim is to make Planticus the worldwide reference for the detection of diseases and pests. We want to grow and scale up at the right speed. Today we are still in the start-up phase. We’re going to avoid “loosing our head” by making decisions that we can’t live up to. We don’t want to be victims of our own success.”

Peace of mind and more passata

You might ask: how come nobody came up with this idea before? “I don’t think we are the first,” says Van Looveren. “What is true is that AI technology has really taken off in recent years.”

“The reason why everyone is so excited about the arrival of Planticus is that there is a huge amount of money involved in tomato cultivation. Our addressable market alone is 17 billion euros. The great complexity does not immediately lie in the development of the hardware or software, but in detecting and determining the diseases and how they evolve.”

“We have therefore developed our application together with growers, and have been able to call on their years of experience. And it’s not just that: diseases and pests change too. Our in-house R&D team works together with labs and universities to investigate how these viruses evolve, similar to the covid epidemic. With all that data we can upgrade and further fine-tune the application.”

Plug & Play

Big bigger biggest. It is evident for large companies to knock on the door of this Belgian start-up, but can smaller growers also go there? “Of course they can”, says Van Looveren.

“There are more small growers worldwide than large ones; look at countries such as Spain, Portugal, Italy,… You can still find a lot of small-scale family businesses there, and they all face the same problem. All those companies together account for 140,000 hectares of cultivation, while there is barely 2,600 hectares for the Benelux.”

“As I mentioned, the installation and working process of Planticus is not rocket science. When we install the software, it takes about an hour and a half. The same day Planticus is up and running. It’s that ease of use that makes it so popular. The growers can see on the dashboard of the program exactly where a possible problem could arise. That way they can take very effective actions.”

Ideal timing

In the short term, Planticus wants to open an office in Spain, so it can be close to local growers. That is the plan for 2022, explains Van Looveren. “In 2023, we want to do the same in Italy and the US. The Benelux remains an interesting market, but the focus is on foreign countries. In the meantime, our R&D team continues to work in the background, so that in the long term we can also help growers of other crops.”

“In the meantime, our R&D team continues to work in the background, so that in the long term we can also help growers of other crops.”

“It is indeed the intention to become a world leader, but in a substantiated way. We have to build on the right foundation. The plan is there, the foundation is in place, and now it’s a matter of growth. Planticus wants to become the reference in pest detection and pest control. A challenge, that’s for sure, but it fits nicely in the global challenge that all plant growers face, by having to produce no less than 72% more food on the same surface by 2050. Detecting diseases quickly is crucial.”

“The timing of Planticus is actually ideal, because farmers worldwide are letting go of their reserves compared to technology as a tool. Agriculture and technology are becoming better friends, also thanks to pioneers such as John Deere and the like.”

Fast is good, slow is better

The right company in the right place, and at the right time? You bet. 

Planticus is there at a time when the world is groaning under a pandemic and indirectly denounces the way in which we grow food. Early detection of diseases and pests reduces the use of pesticides. Remove one diseased plant in time, and you are able to avoid an epidemic which requires you to completely cover the crop in pesticides.

“The exact impact is still unmeasurable for the time being, but don’t forget that all those pesticides end up in the ground, and – albeit diluted – end up in our water”, emphasizes Van Looveren. “By reducing the use of pesticides, we help improve the health of our entire ecosystem. In that sense, Planticus also has a sustainable mission.”

Whether he wants to quickly progress to the scale-up phase? “Not on the menu yet”, says the founder resolutely. “We have already had several requests to sell the company. Cashing in and on to the next project? No. I want to make Planticus a household name, worldwide, at the pace the company needs. Fast is good, but in this case, slow is better.”

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