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All around the world, wild animals are damaging crops and young forest, posing a dangerous threat to landowners’ livelihoods. We spoke to Flox Robotics CEO and co-founder Sára Nožková, to learn how they’re solving this problem and discuss the challenges deeptech startups often face.
Where did the idea for Flox come from?
Marco and Matteo came up with the idea for Flox in 2019. They were collaborating on a project at KTH, because Marco has a background in drone robotics and Matteo works with AI and software. It was a perfect technological match.
They’re both from Northern Italy, and at the same time the country started having huge problems with wild boars destroying crops, and people’s homes and gardens. It’s crazy! It’s actually become a political problem there, and a lot of landowners and farmers are quitting their jobs in central Italy. They thought about how they could leverage what they were working on to address the problem, and got help with some market validation. The more they dug into it, the more they realized that this is a huge problem here in Sweden too, and in many other countries, like the US and Australia.
They were very into the tech side of things and needed someone who could work on the business side, which is where I came in. I’ve been working with drones and autonomous vehicles and their applications, bringing emerging technologies within smart cities to the market, and whereas it will take a couple of years until we see large-scale drone traffic there, the possibilities to use autonomous drones in the fields in sparsely populated areas are opening up already. I knew Flox had enormous potential from the start.
Tell us more about the problem you’re trying to solve.
Even before working with autonomous drones we all saw the scary predictions when it comes to climate change and how it affects wildlife and local communities as the balance between them is getting harder and harder to maintain. Winters are getting milder because of global warming, destabilizing animal species and biodiversity. Due to deforestation and human population expansions, we are taking more of the wildlife's natural habitats. As a result, the human-wildlife conflict rises and it will get much worse - that is if we do not do anything to restore the balance in a mutually-beneficial way, and maximize output of the cultivated fields and reforestation areas.
Some species are rising in number (wild boar populations increase 30% each year) and there's no way around that really. Animals are encroaching further and further into arable land, causing billions of euros of damage to crops each year. They also often eat newly planted trees which also sets us back from a climate perspective. We also need to feed a growing global population which is a serious concern. The research shows that human-wildlife conflict will continue to rise unless we can redefine the boundaries.
How does Flox prevent this from happening?
We provide tailored, easy to set-up autonomous drone solutions that use AI, deep learning and robotics to prevent wild animals from damaging crops.
We install a charging station in the area that needs to be protected, and the drone takes off to patrol the area and returns every half an hour to charge. They can cover about 200 hectares before they need to charge again, and it just continues on the same mission to provide continuous protection and mapping. We use thermal cameras and AI so the drones understand the difference between people, dogs and wild animals. If it’s a person or a domesticated animal, nothing will happen. But if it detects a wild animal, like a boar, it will automatically head towards them and switch into repellent mode, where it omits a sound a specific frequency that only the animal can hear which is super annoying for them and drives them away from the area. These deterrent sounds are tailor-made for each species and the whole process is autonomous.
Our customers can also use our app to track all of the activity that’s happened on their land and review video footage to see what sort of animals appeared and where they came from. This provides valuable insights and statistics, and also evidence for insurance companies if farmers need proof to support compensation claims. This data is also great for different wildlife associations so they can track how many animals are in different areas. At the moment they just interview farmers and it’s not very data-driven. Now authorities can make decisions based on our information.
What are the most important things you think you've learned so far on your startup journey?
For us, it’s that everything takes more time than expected. Especially working with the technologies we do. We’ve also learned that you will break and destroy equipment and have to start over again until you get it right!
But I think the major learning is the team. Launching a startup is such a bumpy ride with lots of ups and downs, but as long as we have a really strong core team with different capabilities and expertise we’ll figure things out.
We come up against a lot of skepticism as well, which is okay, because a lot of people don't really understand what we are doing yet. People say things like ‘oh this will never work because boars will get used to anything’, but it’s natural to be skeptical of brand new technologies. So we focus a lot on educating our customers and providing concrete examples of it working in action. And I really like that, because we get to talk to our customers a lot and run different demos for different stakeholders - so it’s like building relationships and branding at the same time. We’ve also learnt that how we brand ourselves is super important, and we really need to be careful about what we say and our vision. Biologists, farmers, hunters, and agronomists all have different priorities and opinions and our messaging needs to resonate with all of them - after all, we started Flox with the vision to help protect our planet, starting with both local communities and wildlife. This is what drives us every single day.
Has Sting helped you on your startup journey?
We really like all the coaches, they are brilliant. We were also quite surprised about the level of support you get, and there’s so many things to choose from. You get a lot of hands-on support and it feels like the coaches really care about our business. There’s always an expert on hand too, for example, Karin really helps out with impact and sustainability, then we can talk to Raoul about IPR, then ask Julia about PR - so that’s super nice to pick up different brains.
Would you like to learn more about Flox?
Head to their website or contact Sara Nozkova, CEO at Flox at email@example.com.