How a former Microsoft researcher used AI to develop award-winning lettuce from 5,000 miles away

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Koidra’s Chief Business Officer Soojung Smith (left) and Kenneth Tran, founder, CEO and chief technology officer, outside of their Seattle WeWork office. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

It’s pretty impressive to grow award-winning lettuce in a greenhouse competition against 42 teams from nearly two dozens countries. It’s even more remarkable when you do it from 5,000 miles away.

Koidra, a Seattle-based “AI of things” startup, this summer won the international Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge — its second time claiming the title. The contest was held at the Netherlands’ Wageningen University & Research — perhaps the world’s top institution for greenhouse food production.

Add to all of that the fact that Koidra founder Kenneth Tran is new to farming and food production. Frankly, he can seem a little ambivalent about it.

“I came to agriculture really from the technology and industrial control standpoint,” said Tran, who is Koidra’s CEO and chief technology officer.

While not an ardent green thumb, Tran knows the technology piece in spades. He has degrees in math and computer science. His previous job was principal applied scientist for Microsoft Research for more than seven years. His passion is for reinforcement learning, or RL, which is a subdomain of machine learning. Reinforcement learning, he explained, is about real-time decision making and optimization, whereas most of ML is classification and prediction.

“I believe [reinforcement learning] is the new frontier of AI,” Tran said.

At Koidra, Tran is applying reinforcement learning to industrial processes, with an initial focus on agriculture. Using this sort of machine learning can increase the volume of food produced while reducing the use of water, fertilizers and pesticides, according to the company.

RGB images helped the Koidra team remotely monitor the weight and growth of the lettuce in real time. (Koidra Photo)

These are critical benefits. Improving indoor farming may be essential in responding to and reducing climate change. Hotter temperatures and more extreme weather events are already taking a toll on outdoor agriculture in many places. And agriculture is a significant carbon contributor: including livestock production, agriculture generates between 19-29% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

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Agtech is an increasingly ripe field. Investors spent $10.5 billion on agtech deals worldwide last year, according to PitchBook, setting a new record for the sector. In the first quarter of this year, agtech companies raised $3.3 billion.

In the four-month-long Netherlands contest, the Koidra team used its software to remotely adjust greenhouse parameters such as lighting, ventilation, heating, irrigation, fogging and blackout screens. Various monitors provided feedback on the greenhouse conditions. RGB (red, green, blue) images of the lettuce gave insights into its weight and growth in real time, while thermal images revealed the veggies’ rate of water loss through transpiration.

Tran found his way to greenhouses through Microsoft Research. While employed by the tech powerhouse in Redmond, Wash., Tran mentored teams figuring out how to optimize the energy efficiency of Microsoft data centers and forecast their power use needs.

“It’s such an impactful problem to solve. It’s not just some fancy tech problem, it solves basic needs.”

He enjoyed the projects, but wasn’t easily able to experiment with data center operations, given that they must always work reliably.

Then he noticed the indoor vertical farm growing in a Microsoft building’s cafe.

“That got me curious,” Tran said. “I got hooked into the problem of indoor farming. It’s a research friendly project.”

To get started in the sector, he consulted with agriculture experts from North America to understand plant biology and indoor farming. That included researchers at Ohio State University, Cornell University and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, the country’s federal ag department.

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While the ML problem solving drives him, Tran does appreciate the importance of food production.

“It’s such an impactful problem to solve,” he said. “It’s not just some fancy tech problem, it solves basic needs.”

Tran participated in the first international greenhouse competition in 2018 on a Microsoft team. They won with their superior cucumbers, beating out competitors from Tencent, Intel and elsewhere.

Thermal images give a sense of transpiration, or water loss, from the lettuce. The orange dot is a plastic ball that’s used as a reference as it doesn’t undergo transpiration and is always hotter than the plants. (Koidra Photo)

In 2020, Tran left Microsoft to form Koidra. The next year the startup entered the contest on its own and won with its lettuce, winning again this year.

The company has grown to 25 employees and recently hired Chief Business Officer Soojung Smith, a serial entrepreneur and former Microsoft exec.

Fellow Seattle startup Phaidra works in a similar industry, using AI to control industrial processes. Its focus has been on energy use and heating and cooling of businesses such as data centers, refineries, pharmaceutical plants and steel mills.

Koidra has about 10 customers of its greenhouse software. That includes British Columbia’s Winset Farms, which provides produce for Costco, and Montana’s Local Bounti. The startup raised a $4.5 million seed round earlier this year.

It has offices in Seattle and Vietnam, where Tran’s family lives. Koidra plans to build a greenhouse in Vietnam, which is a more affordable option than the U.S., Tran said. He is also a co-founder of Ayo Biomass, a woody-biomass fuel manufacturer based in Vietnam.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct that Koidra consulted with Ohio State University, not Oregon State University.

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