InSight Labs uses a combination of spectroscopy and chemometric analysis to identify and measure food quality characteristics. InSight Labs’ technology can replace more expensive, time-consuming and destructive analysis methods with real-time, actionable information at multiple levels of the food value chain.
CEO and Co-founder Sesan Ajina recently shared his startup story with us.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you became an entrepreneur?
I grew up in Nigeria. I immigrated to the US to attend Pace University in New York City, where I earned my undergraduate and masters in Information Systems. New York was a bit of a culture shock to me for an African kid coming to America but I eventually became enamored with the city and my new perspective on the American life.
Toward the end of my master’s program, I got interested in computer vision which turned into my master’s project, while making contributions to open source libraries for computer vision. I began to see the power of machine learning to convert videos into actionable insights for security and other applications. For example, we were able to use computer vision to identify individuals who entered a secured space.
I linked up with some friends who were here in California and I convinced myself to make the move. I had heard a lot about how great the startup ecosystem in the Bay Area is and how it is the perfect place for startups to thrive. I immediately met lots of really interesting people and eventually founded a company that focused on computer vision with two new friends; We had a prototype that we marketed and had some customers but struggled to get the traction that we wanted.
About a year into building the firm, Google and other big players got into the game, Chinese companies too. The market for computer vision in IoT started shrinking, and defining our target customer became more difficult. Although we were very creative and had a good product, we got drowned out by the big companies and eventually had to shut down and figure out what to do with the framework we had built.
One of my co-founders joined Google and the other went into academia.
How did you pivot to ag and how did you meet your co-founder, and CTO Mohammed Kamruzzaman?
The framework I took with me from my first company was the groundwork for InSight Labs. After about two months of looking for a good use for the framework, I had an epiphany about classifying objects in the invisible spectrum and Food/Agriculture was the intuitive application.
I started reaching out to my network to get access to tools like hyperspectral cameras and imagers. A friend who was a distributor of hyperspectral cameras suggested I meet Mohammed because we were working on similar applications. I called Mohammed, and we started talking about the future of quality control in the food industry. We have continued that conversation ever since. We founded InSight Labs in 2018.
When I met Mohammed, he had just completed his Doctorate and was doing post-doc work at UC Davis. He has multiple years of experience in non-destructive sensing techniques for the food industry and is referenced widely by his colleagues. In my view, he is the best in the world at non-destructive food analysis.
Please tell me about InSight Labs’ technology and how you work with your clients.
We use a combination of spectroscopy and chemometrics to develop a non-invasive method that can be used to measure quality characteristics of food. By developing models for desired quality parameters, this technology can replace more expensive, time- consuming and destructive analytical methods.
For each client, there are three steps. First, we talk to the client to learn exactly what type of food they are working with; second we learn what quality control parameters matter most to the client; third we go to the lab and create a model for these parameters. We convert these parameters to software that can be deployed into the operational process.
We use off-the-shelf hyperspectral/multispectral sensors and write the software that goes into the hardware. One of the good things about being a software company using widely-available hardware is that we can rapidly scale.
Did you have any early/pilot customers in California?
Yes. One of our early test cases was Camino Brewery, a craft brewery in San Jose. I like to go there. One evening I got talking to the owners about quality control and I found out that they used very rudimentary tools, even though they constantly needed to check parameters because their beer is unpasteurized. It literally is an art and the quality control is pretty old school. I learned that they wanted to better measure their parameters and so I came up with a framework for them in which they could measure pH, water content for their ingredients, and hydroxide ions. They are still using the system we developed for them. It replaced a whole box of tools with one simple camera. It’s much more objective and allows them to better compare different batches.
Can you tell us a little about your business model?
We provide both a service and a software product on a subscription model. The client simply purchases an optical sensor that corresponds with the application and loads the software we write for them. The real value is in the software license. We are also trying to initiate a pay-as-you-go model so clients can send us a sample and we can send them results. We believe we can beat out traditional testing labs with the efficiency and efficacy of our technology.
What other California customers or pilots do you have and are you looking at commercial rollout in the near future?
We are actually in due-diligence with a couple of VC firms. Right now, we really want to focus on customer acquisition and product development. We believe that, as long as we have the best product and client network and build that out, we will be very attractive to VCs. This fall we will have a pilot with the Morningstar Company, one of the largest tomato processors in California, at processing time. We are currently developing models for processing tomatoes, including pH, brix and soluble solids (viscosity).
We are reaching out to the fresh produce industry now as we go into growing season because this industry is most susceptible to waste and contamination.
We like to think of our technology as an extra line of defense for the fresh produce industry. This is because food inspectors can use our technology in a continuous manner to get real-time results. For example, if an inspector finds a box with contaminated produce, it can be isolated, and the source location can be quarantined right away.
There are other firms using hyperspectral imaging for food safety and quality. What would you say is your advantage over your competition?
The team and our approach to product development is our major asset. We see the whole spectrum for needs and solutions, both literally and figuratively and we have a proven technology and model for product development. We have the biggest proprietary library for food analysis and we provide seamless interaction with our clients, realizing that there is not a one-size-fits-all, to find practical and economical solutions.
Our new business development director, John Jefferson, has been a great addition to give us a business advantage. He was a director at AT&T for many years and was on our advisory board prior to coming on full time three months ago. During his time at AT&T, he worked with agricultural clients all over the Salinas and Central Valley in California which makes him a perfect fit for us.
What is your opinion of the innovation ecosystem for agtech in California?
Until John joined as a co-founder, we didn’t have many connections in the industry. Three months ago we were a “geeky crew.” We weren’t doing much branding or marketing. Now we have our heads up to work on business model and fundraising.
In the early days of the company, we thought our customers would be farmers, but we quickly found out they have slim margins and that we needed to go downstream in the supply chain. We approached several farmers, but as soon as we started talking technology, we got the impression that many had been “jaded” by technology. We completely understand where this can come from – farmers are inundated with new technology.
We’ve learned that the best way to appeal to customers is to make our technology simple and easy to use so that it complements their operational processes.
InSight Labs and other companies using non-invasive real-time analysis methods have the potential to truly “shake up” the food system.
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