CSpotlight: Aditya Prabhu talks about his growing business

What sparked your interest in computer science?

I love the flexibility of computer science because you get to work in so many different technologies and areas. If you think about it, almost every industry you go into uses technology in some way these days. That versatility really made it a clear choice for me to pursue further. I also enjoy building things and making things with my hands. There isn't really this upfront physical cost of going on a computer and building an application that can solve a problem, which feels like a really good combination to me.

How did you know you wanted to pursue an entrepreneurial career in computer science? What was the experience like starting your own company?

Ever since I was 5, I always enjoyed making things. I always wanted to make an impact in some way that kind of moves the needle forward in our daily lives. It is a hard feeling to describe, but being able to go outside and see something being used throughout someone’s day that you might’ve built or contributed to is honestly a really cool feeling and a very inspiring feeling. I guess ultimately it's a feeling of being able to make a tangible impact. That's what got me really interested in entrepreneurship. You're trying to make an impact every day. In the case of computer science, you learn the skills that can be used to build things and create things. You see a lot of early-stage software start-ups that try to find problems in different industries by trying to break that process, automate it, and make it easier, especially because manual processes become painful for some people to do long term. Whichever way, you can make people's lives easier and make an impact. That's what got me really interested in entrepreneurship.

Tell us about Canopy Systems.

I’ve been working on canopy systems for about the last two years now. Essentially canopy systems are an end-to-end Internet of Things (IOT) platform for greenhouse growers. I’ve basically spent the last several semesters between classes and after class experimenting and developing my own portable greenhouse sensor. Most sensors on the market that are used in greenhouses require technicians to install and are quite expensive and time-consuming. I’ve created a wireless portable version that combines a lot of different greenhouse metrics that growers are interested in. I have those placed in multiple greenhouses so that growers can see what's going on in greenhouses. That data from the sensors gets routed to a virtual platform that is accessible to growers from anywhere, so they can be more proactive in prioritizing their operations. Because you tend to have several greenhouses and different kinds of plants that you are worried about, this is a way to help automate that with a little small portable sensors you can place anywhere in the greenhouse.

Soon, I plan to combine this with a little data analysis on the backend via machine learning from some classes pretty recently to help find and make predictions for growers and help find any anomalies within the greenhouse throughout the day-to-day operation.

What's your favorite thing about your job?

Building this platform has been a lot of fun. It's a mix between hardware and software. Believe it or not, the best part about this project is being able to have conversations with so many people. Speaking with both greenhouse engineers and system engineers in order to enforce and reiterate this design and interface to create something that growers are interested in using. That has been a really fun process. I also have had so many great conversations and I’ve learned so much about agriculture and the technology space over the last several semesters. I’ve been working on it a lot, and that's kind of helped me to love this space a lot more. Hopefully, I can continue to work in this space and use this skill I’ve developed in both technology and agriculture operations to do some cool stuff in the future.

What impact does your company have on the public/clients?

There have been three big impacts I’ve seen in deploying these little sensors in local greenhouses. They help offer greater flexibility, the current antiquated systems require technicians and setup. They offer greater visibility, so you can see in multiple points throughout the same greenhouse what's going on if you put multiple of these sensors around. They also offer greater coverage so you dont have to send a wire all the way to the back of the greenhouse. You can just bring this portable sensor to the back, push the button, and it’ll provide coverage for you. Because of that, I’m also working on extending the range of the sensors with wifi so you can cover a lot of space. There have been times in the current greenhouse where they have sensors that technicians have installed, but they have failed to undergo maintenance. The portability aspect of the sensor has helped them move the canopy sensor to help ensure coverage so they can still see what's going on inside the greenhouse. Ultimately it's that flexibility aspect that has been a huge advantage for growers.

What are your next steps for the company?

Machine learning is really great because it offers some predictive ability and the whole idea is to help growers be proactive. It's great that they can see from anywhere with the platform. They can open their computer from anywhere, even after hours or at home, and still monitor what their greenhouse is doing. But the machine learning aspect helped them see a little bit into the future, which is really helpful because it helps them be more proactive. What is really interesting about our space is that there are a lot of potential opportunities when these sensors get updated for a larger range. They can be used for a strawberry patch outside, a fruit orchard, or just a day-to-day backyard if they're trying to get into gardening. It can help larger landscapers prioritize their day with different readings because they have to go to so many different gardens in so many different areas. That prioritization aspect would be cool. It would be cool to extend that platform to those cases and provide that flexibility to areas where you haven't seen that technology outside in the field or gardens. There will be a lot of testing that will be done this summer in my backyard. And if it works and once the platform gets developed a lot more, we can get these out to a landscaping company to help prioritize their tasks.

What is your advice for computer science students?

My biggest advice is, while you're at the University of Minnesota, find something you think you'd be passionate about, explore it further, and do everything you can to learn about that space and develop those skills. Not only will you come out of that experience after several semesters knowing a lot about those specific experiences, but you'll also have learned a lot of valuable skills that you can apply to the industry in real practice. I think the biggest thing is to keep your mind open to the problems that people are saying out there. And find ways that you can use the skillset and the stuff you've learned in your class to try solving those problems. Because as an engineer and a computer scientist student, your main goal is to find ways ultimately in the future of the industry to solve problems. There are so many great resources at the University of Minnesota, so you might as well use those resources and get started early.

Anything you would like to add/highlight in the article?

Of course, at Canopy Systems, we have a lot of things planned for the remainder of the semester including potential outdoor testing and strawberry patches and then of course analyzing data from our current greenhouses from machine learning. If you're interested in that or interested in how we use our greenhouses for agriculture, check out our LinkedIn for updates and we will also be having a booth on Founders Day, which happens at the University of Minnesota on May 8th at Walter Library. Feel free to check out what we are working on!