Motorleaf gives greenhouse growers an AI edge

For greenhouse operators, accurately predicting the amount of vegetables you’ll harvest is vital. Come up short and you’ll need to purchase more at a premium in order to give buyers what you’ve promised. Produce more than expected and you’ll leave money on the table. 

Until now, growers relied on a combination of sampling, weather predictions and old-fashioned intuition to come up with their estimates. Typically, that means an error rate of 30 to 40 per cent. So it’s no surprise that Montreal’s Motorleaf is turning many heads. 

“We’re the first company in the world to effectively use artificial intelligence and machine learning to accurately predict yield for large, commercial greenhouses,” explains co-founder Alastair Monk.

Established in 2016, Motorleaf develops “virtual agronomist” software that learns plant growth patterns by analyzing millions of points of real-time greenhouse data: temperature, humidity, CO2, light levels and more. From that wealth of information, it develops harvest-yield algorithms — and the more it learns, the better it gets.

For example, at SunSelect’s 70-acre greenhouse tomato operation in California, Motorleaf’s system recently cut the company’s yield-prediction error rates in half, providing hefty savings. Meanwhile, because the software’s accuracy improves over the growing season, Monk sees no reason they can’t reduce error rates by over 75 per cent.

In May, those results helped Motorleaf secure US$2.85 million from investors, including Radicle Growth, Fluxunit – Osram Ventures, Desjardins Capital and BDC Capital.

Although Monk and his fellow co-founders have backgrounds in product development, data science and agricultural engineering, they knew breaking into this market wouldn’t be easy. For support, they leverage the expertise of Bioenterprise. The agri-tech business accelerator conducted market research, identified candidates for Motorleaf’s VP of sales position, helped refine their pricing models and offered regular strategy sessions to gut-check their ideas. 

“It’s good to get their input as to where things are moving, because they see a wider landscape than we do,” says Monk. On top of that, he’s currently seeking insights from greenhouse growers to further strengthen their product offerings.

You’ll now find Motorleaf’s virtual agronomist in major greenhouses in North America, Europe and Japan. Meanwhile, the startup has grown to 19 full-time employees — not including Monk’s dog, Floyd, who enthusiastically greets visitors to Motorleaf headquarters. 

Monk is similarly enthusiastic as he looks forward. “I think we’re going to be in every vine crop greenhouse in the next couple of years with one or more of our products,” he predicts.