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Hawaii agriculture tech firm receives federal grant

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Hawaii-based agriculture technology company Smart Yields and its partners at the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo were selected as one of only five teams nationwide to receive a U.S. Department of Agriculture innovation grant focused on artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The proposal — pitching a “CoffeeMD” computer vision platform that can rapidly identify the source of damage on coffee as being pests, diseases or nutrient deficiencies — earned $100,000 from the AI Innovation Fund, under the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service.

“Coffee is the second most valuable agricultural commodity in Hawaii, but with more than 1,000 coffee farms statewide and only one assigned extension agent, our ability to help farmers on-site is limited,” said ARS research biologist Melissa Johnson, who will serve as the AI/machine learning project’s principal investigator. “An urgent need exists for growers to be able to rapidly identify issues in their fields without needing to resort to an agent or having to search through lengthy documents online.”

“Artificial intelligence has recently captured the public’s imagination as new, generative large language models are poised to transform every sector of business,” Smart Yields CEO Ryan Ozawa said. “But the machine learning models we will be deploying are time-tested, proven tools that could someday diagnose plant problems faster and more accurately than humans — the most limited resource in a global push to revitalize farming as both an economic engine and a critical part of community sustainability.”

With the successful launch of the “CoffeeMD” project, which further expands the capabilities of the Best Beans app, Ozawa will step down as Smart Yields CEO, and lead founder Vincent Kimura will return to the helm for the company’s next chapter.

Ozawa was elevated to CEO in January 2021, as Kimura served as the director of programs and partnerships at the University of Hawaii Office of Innovation and Commercialization, which relaunched its incubator in 2022. Ozawa, Kimura and Isar Mostafanezhad, CEO of high-­performance computer chip designer Nalu Scientific, founded Smart Yields in 2015.

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