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Techwatch | 24/09/2019

MEET THE INVENT FINALISTS: Micheál McLaughlin and John McElhone, Co-Founders of CropSafe

Two friends invented an AI- and satellite-based farming solution, CropSafe, while they were still at St Mary’s Grammar School in Magherafelt.

“We both come from farming backgrounds,” said Micheál McLaughlin, of himself and his co-founder John McElhone. “I’ve always loved messing around with technology and trying to build things. I started going to hackathons with John about three years ago. The one sponsored by Code4Good was focused on satellite imagery, so that’s how we got started.”

From there, John and Micheál began to sweep up hackathon awards, and coveted places on business accelerators, one after the other. Between them, they’ve won AngelHack in Dublin, including an accelerator based in San Francisco, and an accelerator at DogPatch Labs. John has earned a place teaching coding to younger students at Stanford University, through iDTech. He’s starting a General Assembly course in data science in Los Angeles. Meanwhile Micheál’s course in software engineering at Ulster University will keep him here. For the time being, at least.

“In five years, I’d love to build a team around CropSafe as it grows and expands into more crop diseases, moving the business forward. Probably living between Belfast, Dublin and Santa Monica,” he says.

Were they intimidated, being the only high school students amongst experienced crowds of software engineers?

“Not really, because I felt like we had a fresh perspective,” says Micheál. “Everyone was so friendly and supportive, maybe because we were young.”

John adds, “At our first hackathon we were the youngest people by about 10 years. The community in Belfast is brilliant, everyone is there to help you out.”

About CropSafe:

  • The application uses satellite images to detect diseases in crop fields
  • One example would be sugar beet fields, that are prone to a powdery mildew and a rust disease
  • CropSafe’s app flags up abnormalities in the crop, using its online dashboard
  • Using machine learning algorithms, it continually improves the ability to detect disease
  • The information means that farmers can pinpoint their sprays – using them less – to benefit the ecology and the economics of a margin-based business

“We have witnessed first-hand what the effects of crop diseases are,” says Micheál. “My grandad raises cows and wheat on his farm. We completed research on the impact of diseases in crops, and learned that £365bn is lost globally each year.”

I ask Micheál what his interests are, outside of farming. “I like to skateboard with my dog, play some golf and do a bit of web design — mostly trying to figure stuff out.”

John does video production in his spare time – “I live beside a nature reserve that not many people know about, called Traad, just off the western shores of Lough Neagh. So, I produce short videos from the nature reserve to showcase it,” he says.

John goes on, “I’ve always been interested in combining business interests with website design – even when I was younger, I was building sites and trying to figure out how to solve problems I saw with other websites I frequently visited.”

Was this all self-taught?

“There is so much information online, you can just Google it and figure it out for yourself. Youtube tutorials can teach you so much on almost any subject,” he says.

When I ask where he wants to be in five years, John says, “Some farmers aren’t able to partake in frequent surveying because of the large cost involved. We want to bring this capability to any farmer no matter how small, no matter what their income is.”

Crop Safe is now a finalist in the Invent 2019 awards competition, in the “Agri-Science” category, sponsored by Fujitsu. The Invent Final Awards night, sponsored by Bank of Ireland UK,will be held on Thursday 10th October. Tickets are available here.