Sensaway - Helping Fish Farmers Foresee the Future
This April, HATCH kicked off its first cohort and welcomed eight aquaculture startups to Bergen for a three-month accelerator program. One of these startups is Sensaway, which helps fish farmers to make better decisions by supplying machine learning algorithms that predict problems before they occur. In his interview with HATCH, Afonso Ferreira, Co-Founder and CEO of Sensaway, talks about the challenging nature of running a small fish farm, how Sensaway’s solution will decrease the risky nature of the industry, as well as letting us in on how his aerospace background helps him succeed in aquaculture.
Sensaway is all about helping farmers make better decisions. The idea behind the company came to life when Afonso started working at his family’s sea bream farm and realized there were a lot of missing information needed to make good business decisions. He saw that fish farmers spend a lot of money on pumps and infrastructure without really knowing the best way to operate them for their needs. Afonso thus decided to look at the problem, and by combining hydraulics (engineering using the properties of fluids), with machine learning, he found a good way to help both his own business and other fish farms. Together with his Co-Founder André, who is also an aerospace engineer, Afonso therefore started Sensaway, currently located in Algarve in the south of Portugal.
How does your technology work?
We offer two different products. Our first product is a WiFi-device that fish farmers can connect to their sensors, sending information from the sensors via WiFi to their current monitoring system. We developed this product as a response to the discontent amongst farmers related to the process and quality of the data they were gathering. Our second product is a management platform system, which is under development. We aim to develop machine learning algorithms to help fish farmers understand their water flow and help them to prevent problems instead of just fixing them. Companies spend a lot of money on sensors measuring water quality indicators, such as pH and ammonia, or don’t do it at all, but such sensors detect a problem when it’s already happening. We want to do things a little bit differently, modelling the water flow and predicting when a problem is going to occur. This way fish farmers can avoid problems instead of fixing them.
“We have had quite an amazing response from the industry. By developing our products close to the farmers, we got a good understanding of what they really need and can adapt our products based on their feedback. We are now looking at also applying our wi-fi device to cage farming.”
How “market-ready” are your products?
We actually made our first sale of the WiFi-device a week before coming to HATCH, and we are currently in the process of closing a sale with a tilapia cage farm.
Does your aerospace-background affect this venture in any way?
Yes, absolutely! In Portugal the aerospace degree has several tracks to choose from, and in my case, I chose a branch that was mainly focused on automation and control. In the last year of my degree, I mainly focused on AI development, and for my thesis I developed a new algorithm to make robots navigate. A lot of the thinking I used to develop this algorithm, I have now applied when developing water flow models. Especially the way of approaching a problem, breaking it down and examining exactly what steps are necessary to solve it, has been quite similar.
Do you think your technology is disrupting the aquaculture industry? Are you trying to replace existing products?
The WiFi-device is mainly a cost competitive product, supplying fish farmers with technology they can afford. However, the management platform system I really believe is disruptive. The hope is that it will replace the need to continuously monitor every water quality parameter, and once the farmers have had it installed for a while, the platform will help them predict the future conditions.
How are you funded?
During the first six months we spent all the money we had saved from our previous jobs, but we soon got a grant of around 24,000 EUR distributed over one year, which helped us develop our first models and device. Right about two weeks after we ran out of funding HATCH started, and that helped us keep going. Our next step is to look for more funding to finish the development of our management platform system.
What is Sensaway’s market?
We started off looking at sea bream and sea bass companies, but our devices are applicable to almost any kind of farming. This includes cage farming, where tilapia and salmon are big industries, and shrimp farming, which we currently are looking into. Our water flow models are mainly focusing on pond-based farming, and we believe that we add the most value in intensive farming.
“Helping farmers better understand the water quality in their farms is an important task, regardless of the species they are producing.”
How will you win in the market?
We will win by approaching a really old problem in a new and different way. We have many competitors also supplying management platforms and user interfaces, but we have a different approach. We offer a brand-new solution and will supply it both through our user interface for farms that don’t have one already, or through an open platform that farmers can connect to their existing monitoring and control systems.
How much did you know about aquaculture before entering the industry?
I knew absolutely nothing about aquaculture before I entered my family business. My father started the company twenty six years ago, but he never really talked much about it. When he had to step aside, and my mother joined the management, I started to get involved, and quickly saw the need for improvement. I was, however, used to looking at companies in completely different industries from my time in private equity, so my lack of knowledge did not scare me. At first, I thought maybe it was only our company that had a lot of problems and missing information, but after some months I started reaching out to other fish farmers and saw that they all had the same questions.
“Some of the production-related questions, like what pipe sizes they should use, farmers had to wing it, which really made me frustrated. As an engineer I couldn’t just wing it, so I started looking into it.”
What do you see as the benefits and risks of starting up a company in the aquaculture industry compared to other industries?
Aquaculture is a growing industry with great possibilities, but also great risks. Running a fish farm, especially a small one, is really risky, were one disease outbreak can throw you out of the game. There are however many ways technology can help farmers manage risk, and it is exciting for us to take part of this development.
Do you see yourself working together with other startups in the cohort?
Yes, there are absolutely potential collaborators in the cohort. JALA is for example approaching the problem concerning water quality in shrimp ponds in a really interesting way, trying to help farmers with affordable technology. I can really see our technology work together with theirs, and I can see us cooperating in the future.
Do you also see yourself working together with Norwegian-based aquaculture companies outside of the cohort?
I really hope so! The disruptive technology we want to create is mainly focused on ponds, but we want to look into ways of helping salmon farming as well. Even though the farming methods are quite different, they face the same challenges when it comes to modelling unknown factors. Even though cage farming is not our focus at this point, we hope to get there some day!
What is it like to be a part of HATCHs accelerator startup program?
So far, it has been awesome! I actually got here a week late, and at my first night in Bergen the other teams told me how the HATCH team had helped them completely change their view on everything, from their market to their business model. I found that statement quite amazing and was wondering it that could happen to me too - and the next day it sure did! You meet so many talented people here. You get a broader view of what’s happening within aquaculture throughout the world, which is priceless.
What do you consider as the main benefits of the accelerator being placed at Marineholmen in Bergen?
My initial thought when being told the cohort is located in Bergen, was that I am not going to drink beer or dine at a restaurant for the next three months, haha! But yes, Bergen is definitely the right location! All the big players are here and it’s a clear meeting point for the aquaculture industry. You don’t just meet people from companies with their headquarters here, but you also meet a lot of people that pass through the city.
“Bergen is the perfect place to be, not just to get to know the Norwegian aquaculture industry, but aquaculture throughout the world.”
What do you have to achieve in order to become a Billion Dollar Company?
To become a really successful company we need to meet a real need and make it simple. Our goal is to address a variety of aquaculture farmers on their own terms, fully understand their troubles and pains, and help them thrive.