A conversation with Lorelei Davis, Head of Digital Innovation Accelerator, KWS 

Lorelei Davis will be hosting the Capstone Project: IoT, AI, Robotics – Right-sizing tech for smallholder farmers, together with Satish Rai, and Clarissa Biolchini. Read more about her background, vision and collaboration efforts with Thought For Food.

Lorelei Davis completed her PhD in Molecular Genetics at the University of North Carolina and has divided her career between the seemingly different fields of Human Health and Agriculture. The types of positions she has held have also varied significantly. 

She has finally found the perfect fit at KWS SAAT SE, a global seed company headquartered in Germany, where she heads a new team, the Digital Innovation Accelerator, that identifies and tests novel digital technologies for their application to the agriculture industry.

Tell us about yourself, your mission with your work with KWS and where do you see the potential joining Thought For Food’s Inner Circle?

I run a group within KWS, a global seed company, that focuses on digital agriculture – technologies that use data acquisition, data analysis, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and similar technologies to change the way our company operates, develops new products, or enables farmers to use our products.  For 150 years, KWS has built its business on a deep understanding of plant breeding, a biological tool. Today, breeding is increasingly supported by digital tools, particularly with the availability of genomic and phenomic data. I believe digital tools will impact agriculture in ways that we haven’t imagined; I hope that TFF connects us to people whose imaginations can help us see things we wouldn’t have seen on our own.

Where do you see the most pressing challenges in the food and agriculture sector?  

Clearly, we will need more food for our population in the coming decades.  But we also need to think of the nutritional content of that food, how it can be distributed to the people who need it, and how it can be produced without depleting the resources we need to continue generating food for many more generations of people. Large farms, mechanization, and long supply chains make it cheaper than ever to produce and access food in the countries that can afford those solutions, but make farming prohibitively expensive for those who cannot, deepening the economic divide. Labor is a limiting factor for most smallholder farms – even with the assistance of farm animals, smallholder farm size and productivity can be limited by available labor; many farmers’ labor forces are built by having larger families, further stressing the food supply need.     

How might emerging technologies help empower smallholder farmers in particular – and which examples already prove this?

The simplest starting point might be delivering information to farmers about their existing farmland and the markets that support farming.  Even from far away, satellites can deliver information about the productivity and needs of farm plots, potentially enabling some prescriptive measures for increasing yield and nutrient quality without ever setting foot on a farm. Real data on farm outputs, communicated between locally connected farmers, could enable better practices, sharing of equipment, and more power at the markets.

But maybe the right digitally enabled tools could do even more. Small farms don’t need big solutions – imagine a team of small, networked robots roaming a farm, planting seeds, delivering crop inputs, testing the soil. Or perhaps a string of interconnected sensors could detect viruses, mold spores, or invasive insects, alerting farmers when and where to target solutions.   

Where do you see the potential of next-generation start-ups collaborating with industry leaders, like KWS – in what way exactly?

Our team, the Digital Innovation Accelerator, is constantly in contact with start-up companies and we have funds dedicated to testing their solutions on our sites.  Other groups in KWS have similar initiatives for biological actives and for trait discovery.  Our goals are ideally suited to start-ups – they need proof-of-principle studies and first clients; we have the fields, labs, and greenhouses, plus the know-how, to put their solutions to work.

Could you share a little teaser of your Capstone Project at the TFF Academy 2018?

The interesting parts of the Capstone Project won’t come from me, but from the participants.  I will describe some of the problems that keep smallholder farmers from being as successful as their potential.  I will also describe some tools – precision farming, robotics, artificial intelligence – that are in development now.  The challenge will be for the participants to take those pieces and generate new ideas.

Take part in this Capstone Project at the TFF Academy to co-create breakthrough solutions throughout the week, and get your last minute ticket here.