Apic.ai founder Katharina Schmidt wants to save insects with artificial intelligence - and wins the Digital Female Leader Award in the sustainability category. But Schmidt actually wanted to start her own business with a completely different idea.
Katharina Schmidt didn't want to be one of those people who only look at all the problems from a distance and then do nothing. After completing her Master's degree in International Management, she decided to make a change in an industry where there is probably less to be gained than in the credit or beverage industry: nature conservation.
Because insects are in particularly bad shape. Some populations have declined by more than 80 percent in the past 30 years. Bees are particularly affected. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, this could even lead to a serious problem for the world's food supply: important foodstuffs such as coffee, apples or tomatoes could disappear from the shelves as a result.
Together with computer scientist Frederic Tausch and electrical engineer Matthias Diehl, Schmidt founded Apic.ai in 2018. The start-up developed a system that uses cameras to observe bees flying in and out of their hives. The system then evaluates the images using artificial intelligence. Based on certain flight behavior of the bees, such as the color and number of pollen they carry into the hive, conclusions can be drawn about environmental conditions.
The AI is constantly reviewing the images and can improve as it goes. "We have robust data as a result," Schmidt says. Despite growing technical possibilities, researchers today still tend to rely on snapshots, small samples or subjective assessments, according to the founder.
Schmidt laid the foundation for the idea after completing her master's degree at Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences in 2016, where she worked for a 70 percent position in startup support. "I get bored quickly," Schmidt says. So she found a hobby that has been in her own family for more than a century: beekeeping. Her grandpa and great-grandpa also raised the furry insects. "My first brush with insect mortality was when my grandfather's colonies collapsed in the 1990s," Schmidt says.
But the founder first had other plans with her self-harvested honey: she wanted to convince people with funny marketing ideas. Speaking to Startbase , Schmidt holds something up to the camera that is still a long way from artificial intelligence and databases. For she threw her honey jars into costumes. The "unicorn honey", for example, has a small unicorn on the jar, while others are adorned with handmade PhD or traditional Bollen hats from the Black Forest.
Schmidt applied for an accelerator programme with the idea. And was allowed to speak on stage there as a young entrepreneur. But in the midst of founders working with artificial intelligence, virtual reality and other data, she was suddenly embarrassed by the original idea. "When I thought about the core of the problem, I realized that behind insect mortality in the first place is a lack of knowledge about causes and connections," she says. "That's when I first wondered if bees and data couldn't be connected." Thus, the idea of the bee as a biosensor was born.
The company is also using the technology to try to get to the bottom of who and what is responsible for insect deaths. Light pollution, the use of pesticides or the monocultures of modern agriculture are suspected of causing species extinction, but this has not yet been proven beyond doubt. "I want to make all these hypotheses testable," says Schmidt.
Those who only point the finger at the agricultural corporations are making it easy for themselves, says Schmidt. This would not change anything. With Apic.ai she wants to go a different way. The biggest lever, she says, is to work with those who have a massive influence on shaping the problem.
With the startup's technology, companies can see what impact their work is having on insects. They will likely have to next year, given regulatory requirements. Stricter rules at the EU level are also a result of public pressure, according to Schmidt. For example, plant protection products must be tested more intensively before they are approved for the market.
Apic.ai uses honey bees as substitutes for wild bees or bumble bees for its studies. The company investigates whether colonies that have come into contact with a substance develop differently. Schmidt herself is surprised at how quickly she has become one of the leading providers in the market segment. "Since this year, we have also been accompanying studies with seed producers," she says. These are investigating what influences pollination of bees and what can be done to use the knowledge to increase agricultural yields.
What Schmidt likes about the Digital Female Leader Award is that it shows women as role models who are forging their own paths. However, she does not support the movement of promoting women in particular. "Campaigns that pretend that all we women lack is the courage to start ups I find ridiculous," she says. She believes that making a contribution to society is important to many women when choosing their studies and careers. "But especially in the tech field, there are hardly any opportunities for that," she says.
In the startup scene, she says, profit is often at the forefront. "No wonder there are so few women there, I don't find it attractive either," Schmidt says. If she has her way, the focus should not be on women, but on the added value that new technologies can bring to society.
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