Red Deer entrepreneur talks Ag tech with Bill Gates

By Troy Gillard (Twitter: @Troy_Gillard)
May 10, 2017 - 11:09am

What’s it like to talk agriculture with the richest man in the world?

A local entrepreneur found out last week when he gave a presentation in Seattle to Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates.

Rob Saik founded Agri-Trend in Red Deer twenty years ago. He spoke to Gates and a select group of 15 others, including world-renowned inventor Lowell Wood, about whether agriculture will be able to produce food for a world population expected to reach nine billion people.

Saik says Gates first learned of his work after watching a Ted Talk presentation he gave in Red Deer in 2014.

“I guess [he] saw that talk and so I got on his radar,” he explained. “Since then, I've been doing a lot of international work in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and that all culminated with an invitation to talk about smart agriculture as it pertains to how we can utilize technology to help farmers in developing nations."

Part of Saik’s talk focused on GMOs and what he says is a public misunderstanding of them. 

“The reality is, if you understand GMOs, you understand the technology, you would not be against it, and you can't be against it. It's an advancement of the breeding process. It does all of the things that we want farmers to do,” he campaigned. “It helps us to conserve moisture, it helps us to reduce pesticide load, it makes crops more nourishing, and it can fight diseases without having to spray on insecticides and fungicides.”

Saik’s company created Agri-Data Solutions, an information management software program for farmers. Renamed Trimble Ag after Saik sold his company to California-based Trimble Inc. in 2015, the program and smartphone app is currently available in seven different languages, soon to be nine.

Not surprisingly, Saik says Gates was quite knowledgeable on the topic of agriculture.

“Discussions were quite pointed. We talked a lot about imagery acquisition, in other words, how do we get pictures of fields and crops while the crop is growing in season? We talked about the problems with satellite imagery because cloud cover is a major issue for us. We talked about utilization of drones, which hasn't been that successful. We talked about fixed-wing aircraft and putting lenses on those to do imagery acquisition during the crop season.”

Gates also showed great interest, Saik says, in how he uses his smartphone to simultaneously manage farms in Saskatchewan, Alberta, Nigeria and Uganda.

Admittedly, Saik says he was nervous to start his presentation, but became more comfortable as he went in. Following his 25-minute talk, the group spent six hours together sharing ideas.

“It's going to open a lot more discussions. The reality is if we have the data from the field, we can use our smart phone technology tied together with things like anomaly detection and algorithms and machine learning to really help to scale my brain, for example, as an agronomist to help more people around the planet.”

Saik says he came away quite impressed with the Bill and Melinda Gates Building, home to 1500 employees, and how Bill and Melinda themselves take a leading role in day-to-day operations.

“[They] go to work every day, they go to the sixth floor to make the world a better place. They've got health campaigns and water campaigns, agricultural campaigns, and I was just so impressed with their work ethic. The dedication of the people at the foundation was really remarkable to see."

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