Sprouting from university research projects, Easyrice Digital Technology Co Ltd has evolved into a deep tech startup specialising in artificial intelligence (AI) in agriculture, with a goal to revolutionise the Thai rice industry.
The company offers AI-based solutions to make rice quality inspection and related data management systems easier, faster and more efficient to reduce cost, time and errors in all inspection processes.
Easyrice was established in 2019 by a group of technology researchers. The company received many awards in 2022, including three Asia-Pacific ICT Alliance Awards as winner of industrial and AI, as well as first runner-up for startups.
Phuvin Kongsawat, the company’s chief executive and co-founder, said during his research projects on rice at university, he encountered issues or significant challenges within the rice supply chain, including the adulteration of paddy varieties and inefficient rice quality inspection.
The traditional inspection process requires human experts to examine rice kernels, mostly via visual inspection. This practice can result in errors and inaccuracy in the inspection process.
The inaccuracies can affect the rice price bargaining among related parties and the quality benchmarks of Thai rice, which impacts the livelihoods of farmers, Mr Phuvin, 31, told the Bangkok Post.
To deal with these problems, the company deploys AI to improve the inspection process, aiming to raise the standard of inspections, he said.
“By applying AI, we can elevate inspection standards, enhance accuracy and establish a strong database that can contribute to the advancement of the Thai agricultural sector in the years to come,” said Mr Phuvin.
PREPARE FOR INSPECTION
He said there are three obstacles limiting rice inspection, comprising the inconsistency and unreliability of the human inspection, insufficient sample sizes in chemical testing, and DNA testing being costly and time consuming.
Rice inspection mainly focuses on three areas: quality, moisture level and contamination.
The company introduced two services to address these obstacles. The first uses AI technology for quality inspection.
Easyrice said the AI inspection takes only 3-5 minutes per 25 grammes of rice, compared with 15-20 minutes for the traditional method.
The new method helps save cost and time by up to 30% and covers 25 Thai rice standards, said Mr Phuvin, making it useful for rice importers and exporters.
The company also launched an AI solution for inspection of paddy varieties, which it is marketing to farmers and cooperatives selling to rice millers.
This service has a seeds database of up to 84 varieties. The inspection takes 3-5 minutes per 600 kernels, faster than the traditional method, which can take 25-30 minutes per 100 kernels.
The inspection result ensures the purity of varieties to guarantee transparency and fair trade, he said.
“We offer the two services on a pay-per-use model, making them as accessible as possible,” Mr Phuvin said.
He said the company’s AI inspection can achieve 95% accuracy, is 10 times faster than traditional methods, and saves US$4.56 million in rejection costs per year.
In the past year, the services acquired a 30% market share of Thai rice exports, inspecting the quality of more than 6 million tonnes of paddy varieties and rice.
Rice inspection is a repetitive task and fewer young people are willing to work in this field, Mr Phuvin said.
He said the company trained AI with the rice data of more than 10 million grains to make its inspection accurate.
The AI tools assist humans in the inspection, but the results are still signed off on by human rice inspectors.
With AI tools, human inspectors can achieve more accuracy, higher efficiency, faster inspection times and higher cost savings, said Mr Phuvin.
“AI will not replace the rice inspectors as they certify the inspection. Instead, it helps them work faster, overcoming the shortage of inspectors,” he said.
“AI will enable seamless digitisation in the rice industry. Our aspiration is for our AI to play a pivotal role in safeguarding the value and profitability of jasmine rice by ensuring its unparalleled quality and distinctive identity.”
HAMMER MEETS NAIL
Mr Phuvin said while technology can provide the tools, startups still need to solve a problem, and this often requires industry knowledge of where the technology should be applied for the greatest impact.
“It’s like you have a hammer, but you still need to find the nail,” he said.
Mr Phuvin said some deep tech startups have focused more on conducting research to find new methods rather than making a real impact by solving industry problems.
He said technology can help farmers increase their yields and develop new products through product processing.
Technology can also allow rice mills to produce full rice grains, find new markets and ensure rice quality, said Mr Phuvin.
In terms of AI utilisation, Thailand has medical and agricultural data resources that can benefit the development of deep tech startups, but the latter still need funding to help overcome the country’s low purchasing power, he said.
Mr Phuvin said the company is set to launch a “Khakao” rice trading digital market, using AI to match overseas buyers with rice exporters.
In the proof-of-concept period, the company plans to purchase rice from its customers, selling it to buyers to gain a profit as traders. Easyrice will charge a commission fee for the matching service in the future, he said.
The company is also conducting R&D involving the application of generative AI to formulate new rice, based on more than 270 sources in the industry to gain insights from rice sources, varieties, nutrition and the geo-location of rice sources.
Mr Phuvin said Thailand relies mainly on jasmine rice and focuses on rice varieties, but the company is using AI to evaluate the sensory aspects of the grain. The goal is to match customer demand and create a more valuable rice, he said.
Easyrice has received support from both government agencies and industry organisations. The company secured total funds worth around US$2 million, including $1.5 million from InnoSpace (Thailand), Yip In Tsoi and AI and Robotics Ventures as pre-Series A funding early this year.
Easyrice plans to raise $10 million in Series A funding next year, said Mr Phuvin.
He said the company wants to develop technology to create the rice digitisation infrastructure for Thailand, which is a top three rice exporter along with India and Vietnam.
Easyrice was supported by the Global Entrepreneur Program under the Department of International Trade Promotion after starting its overseas expansion by establishing a head office in the UK to access laws that facilitate business growth and intellectual property protection.
According to the company, the UK is one of the largest agricultural hubs in the world, with the resources and opportunities that can allow Easyrice to learn and grow, while assisting it in a search for potential investors.
Mr Phuvin said the company plans to use the UK for some of its R&D facilities.
The company is also expanding to Vietnam, where it has 20 customers trying its service after opening a branch office there.
“Our goal is to digitalise staple food industries and promote sustainability for all stakeholders along the supply chain,” he said.
Mr Phuvin said the company is ready to expand its AI solutions to cover other foods, such as barley, oats and coffee.
The company wants to use cutting-edge technologies to create sustainability for the entire supply chain, he said.