Rassarin Chinnachodteeranun of ListenField tells us about striving to introduce novel methods and integrate existing technological tools.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Rassarin Chinnachodteeranun: Thank you for asking. My family and I have been very fortunate to live in Thailand. We are, so far, healthy and well.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded ListenField.
Rassarin Chinnachodteeranun: Prof Kiyoshi Honda and I co-founded ListenField in 2017. Prof Honda is our Chief Scientist Officer, while I am Chief Executive Officer of the company. Prof Honda, previously as my advisor, guided me to do a PhD dissertation on “API Integration Platform for Agronomic Models” at Chubu University in Nagoya. This research received grant support from the Japanese government. We are gratified that the Japanese authorities saw the importance of our work, and my dissertation is now a component of Japan’s Agricultural Reform Policy.
Accordingly, to further develop, refine and apply our technology, we set up ListenField Japan. I have also set up ListenField Thailand two years ago to promote the adoption of this technology more widely in my country.
Prof. Honda and I have, for many years, worked together to develop our precision agriculture technology. We started working together in 2007, building sensor systems to monitor soil conditions and weather conditions at farms as well as developing disaster early warning systems. We also did academic work together in various Agro-Environmental Engineering areas in many countries before incorporating them into the work of ListenField.
How does ListenField innovate?
Rassarin Chinnachodteeranun: Notwithstanding decades of investment and technical improvements in agricultural production, it is clear that the ability to understand, predict and control crop output remains limited, unlike, say, manufacturing electronic parts. ListenField strives to introduce novel methods, and integrate existing technological tools, formulating them into a predictive modeling platform that would be useful for many agricultural applications. The solutions derived from our model are aimed at achieving our goal of “Precision Agriculture”: to produce an abundance of high-quality crops in a way that saves on scarce resources, thereby minimizes costs as well as unwanted impacts on the environment.
Our predictive analytic model seeks to integrate all key variables in such a way that we are able to fully understand how these variables interact with one another. More precisely, we want to develop the capability to monitor and assess how key variables individually and collectively make plants grow, produce and reproduce, and do so remotely from anywhere in the world.
Under prevailing conditions with the COVID-19 pandemic, the most challenging thing for farming is that we cannot visit our farms. Our technology solution helps the “social-distancing” world remain operationally connected. We are gratified that our team in Thailand and Japan can continue to do important work, for example, in accurately assessing orange tree inventory in the US during the past year, and this project is continuing into 2021. We are proving that our technology can provide accurate and comprehensive tree health information at a much lower cost compared to the conventional manual on the ground measurements and survey now being used.
Our team has become more innovative in the way that we work remotely but stay connected with digital tools. We use Discord as our virtual office with office space, meeting rooms, gym and dining room. We found that we have been able to recreate a work environment that continues to motivate and support each other during this terrible pandemic.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Rassarin Chinnachodteeranun: One of the direct impacts is the increased uncertainty and the immediate constraints placed on our operations from various travel and other restrictions. Fortunately, we were able to quickly adjust our operations and do many more tasks remotely.
We also had to be more careful but also more flexible in our spending behavior. Our spending on onsite workshops and operations were significantly curtailed. In response to the many cancellations of face-to-face engagements. We have shifted our spending towards cloud technologies in order to operate and scale effectively.
However, 2020 was a good year, where we achieved a major financial milestone. As you may know, Kubota Japan has taken a stake in ListenField Japan and, in so doing, I can confidently say that we now have the financial resources needed to undertake all the exciting major expansions and R&D that we have planned for in coming years.
Our technology has also attracted wide-ranging interest from several development institutions and governments as well as major corporates around the world. We have been engaged by them to do innovative work that should also materially add to our revenue stream in 2021 and beyond.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources and what are the lessons learned?
Rassarin Chinnachodteeranun: We tried hard to protect our team from the adverse impacts of the pandemic crisis. We firmly believe that a motivated, innovative and secure team is the main driving force of ListenField’s success. Our team also needs to be agile and able to adapt its role to support the company when needed.
Fortunately, we did not have to make difficult choices in terms of downsizing the team. Indeed, we are very much in an expansion phase. Faced with growing interest and demand for our technology, we continue to look for new talent to add to our team.
This pandemic has reminded us of the importance of having a resilient and agile team. Apart from hiring for technical skills, we also have to put more emphasis on assessing emotional intelligence, as the uncertainties and troubles caused by the pandemic will be here to stay for many years to come. Therefore, self-managing teams are important to continuously carry out business operations. At the same time, we do acknowledge the fact that the pandemic has brought an unprecedented amount of stress and anxiety upon our team. We, therefore, make a constant effort to regularly check up on their mental well-being.)
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Rassarin Chinnachodteeranun: Face-to-face engagements with our customers, most especially the farming communities, have been a core part of our business operations. With the ongoing travel and business restrictions, we had to shift our workshops, training, and consulting sessions online. We have been utilizing Zoom and Google Meet to conduct workshops and training seminars. We have also been using LINE and Facebook Messenger to directly communicate with our farmers to address any queries or concerns. Moving forward, we also have to be strategic as to how we can continue to deliver value and satisfaction while being remote or socially distant.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Rassarin Chinnachodteeranun: ListenField is currently carrying out two innovation projects funded by the governments of Japan and Thailand. Since 2018, we have been working with Japan’s National Agricultural Research Institute (NARO) and Tokyo University to develop a data-driven breeding platform. This platform aims to accelerate and enhance the plant breeding process by implementing Machine learning/Artificial Intelligence-based analysis methods, which effectively reduces complexity and considerably shorten breeding cycle time. This project is under the Japanese government’s Strategic Innovation Program (SIP). ListenField was also awarded a grant by Thailand’s National Innovation Agency (NIA) to develop an integrated rice cultivation management system that utilizes satellite technologies.
These innovation grants have been instrumental in allowing us to improve our core products, as well as to develop novel tools and technologies that can meaningfully impact the agriculture industry.
During COVID-19, we also received a small grant from the Japanese Government to compensate for the slowing down of businesses and payment.
Your final thoughts?
Rassarin Chinnachodteeranun: Resilience, innovation, agility and creativity has become even more important in order to survive and grow in this much more uncertain world.
A most important lesson that also comes to mind during this pandemic is that collaboration and innovation to live your life in a way that makes this world a better place is as important as ever, if not more so.