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This startup uses space-age tech to lower costs for fish farmers, and it just got funded


Internet-of-Things (IoT) and data analytics startup Umitron is up to some fishy business. Based in Singapore and Japan, the young company helps fish farms optimize their feeding practices through data and AI, helping them lower their costs and prevent waste and damage to the environment.

It sounds like a worthy cause to put money into, and sure enough, Umitron today announced that it raised a seed round worth US$8.2 million.

Umitron uses a combination of underwater sensors and data analytics to monitor fish activity in fish farms. Running the data through a proprietary algorithm, the startup claims to detect when fish are actually hungry, allowing farmers to dispense the right amount of feed at the right time.

Umitron feels its product can help lower costs for fish farmers, for whom feeding is more than 70 percent of their expenditure, says managing director Masahiko Yamada. It can also have an environmental impact, as excess fish feed can create problems like eutrophication, or the process by which increased nutrients in the water cause an imbalance in marine ecosystems.

Yamada tells Tech in Asia that one of the key challenges in its approach is getting IoT technology to work underwater. Out there, it’s tough to get stable, reliable data connections and access to power.

That’s where the founding team’s training comes in: co-founders Yamada and Ken Fujiwara are aerospace engineers and have previously worked on satellite technology, while co-founder Takuma Okamoto is a software engineer. Problems like connectivity and power apply to space as well, so the team thought about how to implement some of the same lessons.

As a result, Umitron uses edge computing principles – this way, a lot of the data analytics and processing is done locally on the device installed at the fish farm, rather than being sent to a server. Data is compressed and sent out to the startup’s server in regular packages, so there’s no need for a continuous, stable connection. Solar panels provide power, allowing the team to control power consumption according to each location’s needs.

A lot of fish in the sea

Growth in the global aquaculture market has convinced Umitron that this is the right time for its product. The market was estimated to be worth US$176.45 billion in 2017 and is expected to grow to US$219.42 billion by 2022, with a compound annual growth rate of 4.46 percent according to a report by US firm Knowledge Sourcing Intelligence.

This is driven by factors including increased awareness of the nutritional benefits of seafood, rising demand for goods like fish oil in various industries, and the shrinking of naturally available fishing locations due to overfishing.

As expected, startup activity in the sector is ramping up. In Norway, Hatch a startup accelerator that focuses on aquaculture, is holding its first demo day on June 28. Netherlands-based venture fund AquaSpark has invested in over 12 companies in the aquaculture and agritech space since its inception in 2015, with deals ranging from US$290,000 to US$5.8 million.

Yamada says that Umitron doesn’t have a direct competitor at the moment because it’s difficult to create and run such a standalone IoT system. Other companies using IoT tech to monitor fish feeding include a young Indian startup called AquaSoul, but its solution is aimed at smaller fish ponds.

A US company called Aquaai offers monitoring and analytics services for aquaculture farms using fish-like drones that integrate into fish populations and gather data. Aquaaai calls it “fish-as-a-service,” appropriately enough.

The team will use the new funding to mass produce and improve Umigarden, its fish-feeding monitoring service. It will also hire more engineers and data scientists as well as ramp up its research and development capabilities.

Yamada declined to disclose details about the startup’s current clients. But he says that its initial projects have 100 percent retention rate, and the company is seeing increased interest.

The round was led by the Innovation Network Corporation of Japan, an investment corporation by the Japanese government and 19 major Japanese corporations. It was also joined by D4V, a Tokyo-based venture capital firm in collaboration with US-based design and innovation company Ideo. Some angel investors also participated.

Umitron was the winning startup at Tech in Asia Tokyo 2017 Arena pitching contest.

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