We talked to Ondřej Veselý of Plant.id about plant identification, and he had the following to say:-
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Ondřej Veselý: A lot of people can easily freak out about being at home for a long period of time. Not me, though, but I got lucky by having a baby just at the beginning of the first wave. Taking care of a toddler during pandemic times might sound stressful, but it is actually a convenient conjunction of two good reasons to stay at home. At least I feel no FOMO for not being socially active as I was before.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Plant.id.
Ondřej Veselý: We started in 2014 as a group of three friends, Ph.D. students with botany and IT background. For five years, we have been working with almost 50 botany and horticulture experts. We have been not only helping people to identify plants, but we were also gathering training data for our machine learning system for automatic plant identification – Plant.id. Our team grows, and so does the number of successful solutions we delivered.
How does Plant.id innovate?
Ondřej Veselý: Rapidly. Red Queen Effect makes all young startups deeply focused on innovations. Initially, we wanted to stay in the B2C market, but it would mean a lot of investment in marketing and support. That’s why we focus almost purely on R&D and let our business partners utilize our results. Mostly it involves research in various fields like systematic botany, phytosanitary and deep learning. Our added value is a tight cooperation between machine learning experts, software developers, and botany/phytosanitary researchers.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Ondřej Veselý: Fortunately, the pandemic hardly affected us. We are able to fully work from home and develop and provide our services online. People are curious all the time, even during the lockdown period. Plants are great for stress relief, so people tend to surround themselves with greenery and at least Plant.id can be there for them to know their flora better. The only downside was that we were unable to attend few agricultural and drone conferences since they were canceled. We wanted to promote our new products – Plant.id Sky and Plant.id Sensor, both connected to automated crop analysis from images for precise agriculture.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Ondřej Veselý: Sure. I’d like to stress that the well-known advice to hire just the best people we can, especially at the beginning of the startup endeavor, is a good one.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Ondřej Veselý: I love walking. A long walk usually drives me out of the stress, especially when combined with a sci-fi or fantasy audiobook. Also, playing with a baby is fun in its simplicity. Another form of relaxation is playing Dungeon and Dragons role-playing games with my friends.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Ondřej Veselý: There are many plant identification services out there, but only a few of them provide API for other developers. Recently professor Hamlyn G Jones from the UK published an article where he compares different automatic plant identification solutions (see What plant is that? Tests of automated image recognition apps for plant identification on plants from the British flora). The data quality and accuracy is the key for us. We also provide our customers with all relevant information about the identified species. In a few weeks, we’ll also introduce automatic plant health assessment; this will be a unique service.
Your final thoughts?
Ondřej Veselý: The machine learning market is still unexplored territory, especially if you are thinking about narrow markets like plant identification. The tools for data engineering and deep learning are quickly commoditized, so I’d recommend it to everybody — if you have proficiency in some narrow field — you might be the one who is able to help to disrupt it. If you automate your job’s boring parts, you can invest the newly found time into developing your own creativity. That’s what I believe we are born for.
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