An interview with Connecterra founder - Yasir Khokhar

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Yasir Khokhar is Founder and CEO of Connecterra, a company with a mission to create intelligent agents that help solve problems of planetary scale.

Before founding Connecterra, Yasir has held various roles with Microsoft across technology and business management overseeing annual revenues in excess of $700M. Starting in 1997, he co-founded his first company that provided e-commerce development consulting to international customers. His second venture, Interactive Software Ltd built content management systems for the broadcast industry. He later joined Microsoft in the Middle East overseeing the technology architecture of large regional technology projects.

Yasir is currently based in Amsterdam, Netherlands and has a passion for mountaineering. He talks to Lombard Odier about Connecterra, capital and Artificial Intelligence.
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1. How much can food production increase just by increasing efficiency using tools such as the Connecterra technology? How far will it go in feeding the extra 1.5 billion people?

We're seeing improvements of 20-30% in efficiency in farms where we have deployed our technology. However, this is an indicative number and as we move towards markets with lower farming sophistication, we expect to see these numbers increase.

The food value chain is complex and while there isn’t a silver bullet, we firmly believe that our fundamental approach of using sensors and machine learning for efficient farming will create a much more sustainable future.

2. To what extent is capital a vital part of feeding the growing population? Can innovations such as this survive without that capital?

Capital is the lifeblood of innovation.                                                                                                                           

We would not have been able to bring our start-up to life had it not been for initial seed capital provided by the EU Horizon 2020 program and take it to market without Venture Capitalist (VC) investment. Most VC’s and funding organizations invest in a specific list of areas, if we do not allocate capital towards these significant problem spaces, many ground-breaking innovations will never leave research labs or will not attract entrepreneurs to focus on them.

3. Tell us more about your story in terms of how you went from staring out the window at the neighbour’s cow to actually building a company that offers efficiency gains through artificial intelligence? How important was capital/investment in how that story turned out?

I started my first company when I was still in university and at some point, the itch to start again came back. I had worked with sensors and Artificial Intelligence (AI) several years ago but since then things had moved on a lot. I started tinkering with the new technologies like Arduino and some basic AI stacks. My co-founder and I were both clear that integrating these technologies was powerful but needed an equally significant problem to solve.

We did not want to invent problems to solve, but understand how we could solve big problems that impact us and our future generations.

That afternoon when I thought it might be a good idea to put a sensor on a cow to learn what it does all day was pivotal. It led me to talk to farmers and understand what kind of problems they face and when I had a look at their current solutions, “surely we can do better than that” was the overriding thought in my head. The rest is history.

4. How important is it that new innovations address an economic as well as social issue?

The two are far more connected than we think. In our current times, our most challenging problems either stem from social discord or impact us socially as a whole. Companies today cannot divorce themselves from the social impact of their activities, socially responsible products, services and operations are more than PR activities.

The economic benefits are a consequence when you try and solve issues that are impacting us today or will impact us in the future.

Energy, water, food, climate change and security will all impact us socially and there is a vast amount of economic value for those bold enough to tackle them.

 

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5. How else could the Connecterra technology be implemented to improve efficiency – elsewhere in the supply chain? Other forms of livestock? Could it be used to track human behaviour, such as truck drivers, to identify where efficiency gains can be made?

Our core technology stack was built from day zero to be agnostic to the industry and domain we apply it to. The core stack is able to ingest large amounts of sensor data and make sense of the data such that the output insights and recommendations are understandable easily.

We see future applications both in the agriculture space by adding more data sources, sensors and also towards logistics. For example, monitoring soil and creating insights for farmers on what to grow, how efficient is the soil and upstream, giving insights to logistics companies on quality, quantity and security of transporting food are all use cases we expect to explore in the future.

6. What role should artificial intelligence play in funding society? It replaces jobs and, by extension, tax payers. How do we ensure society is not worse-off in the long-term due to technological advances?

A tough question; there is a huge amount of debate and literature on this question, I’ll give my personal perspective on this.

Firstly, the sophistication of artificial intelligence today is generally over stated. While the field is making huge gains, these gains are in the realm of ‘specific AI’ or areas where artificial intelligence is getting very good at doing specific things.

Recognizing cats in images, driving cars and recognizing voice. A general-purpose, sentient AI is a long way off and that may require regulation by governments.

Second, all major technological advancements since the time of the steam engine have met resistance by society because they are misunderstood and incumbents have tried to maintain their way of doing things by peddling fear of the disruption. We should learn from our past and embrace what is going to be the future.

And lastly, we need to focus on re-tooling our future generations such that they are able to further a world where automation, AI and robots are pervasive. With the help of these technologies, it is my belief that we can push humanity in general towards a far more prosperous future.

Food, safety, security for all, interplanetary colonization and protection of our eco-system will unlock far more value than protectionist measures to maintain status quo.

7. Where do you see the biggest opportunity for investors – where is capital most needed to address a significant social issue – to help solve problems while also making capital gains?

Food, climate, energy and water are all areas of large opportunity with large markets. These domains are untapped by traditional VC/capital markets and are under served in innovation.

There are exciting technologies and brilliant minds working on these problems but they need to be partnered up with entrepreneurs and capital.

8. To what extent do investors need to rethink their approach to capital and the role that plays in society?

Investors need new models for their risk profiles. What has worked in the past in purely digital domains such as web based applications, social and more recently cloud computing / software as a service  (SAAS) applications will no longer work in these new areas.  Now we have intersecting technologies such as hardware and AI that work in tough environments like farms. This requires a new way to think about opportunity as its simply not possible to compare SAAS models with what business models that are required to tap into these next frontier markets.

9. To what extent does the growing population need to rethink its approach to food?

We’ve become increasingly disconnected from our food. With the rise of the supermarket concept, we barely know how food is grown or what it takes to nurture us. We need to become closer to this resource and closer to the people who grow our food.

Developing an understanding of the consequences of our food choices and the impact it has on our environment is key for the future.

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