Aquatic AI’s $2M capital raise to scale high-tech marron system
Western Australia’s famed marron crayfish may become the next global food sensation thanks to innovative agritech startup, Aquatic AI forging ahead with a tech-powered, vertical farming system to ensure a consistent supply of the crustacean for export markets.
With the support of AgriFutures Australia’s Emerging Industries Program, Andrew Walker and Michael Storey the Co-Founders of Aquatic AI are seeking commercial investors to help research and develop an aquaculture supply chain for marron to rival the iconic WA rock lobster industry.
“The marron has a sweet, firm and delicious flesh with a beautiful texture that everybody loves – particularly chefs – but it’s challenging to produce in the traditional growing method of outdoor clay ponds, which are low-tech and quite land, water and labour intensive,” explained Andrew, whose family has been involved in marron growing for three generations.
“Our goal is to scale up marron production in a similar way to vertical farms like Bowery in the United States, which grows leafy greens in vertical stacks indoors in fully controlled environments that use high-tech automation to achieve a far higher yield per square metre than traditional farming.”
Developing a suitable diet for intensive system
Through AgriFutures Emerging Industries Program, Aquatic AI is developing a proof of concept for technology-enabled marron farming, focusing firstly on developing a suitable diet to feed marron in an intensive system. Where traditional farms have a stocking rate of 3-4 marron per square metre in their ponds, Andrew and Michael have already proven they can successfully run 100+ marron per square metre in the laboratory, using robotics to monitor the health and growth of the animals.
“In collaboration with the University of Western Australia, we’ve been working with a team of biologists, freshwater ecologists and microbiologists for 12 months to develop nutritional strategies that will achieve superior growth rates in an automated system, and already we’ve proven that this is a legitimate way to produce marron to export size,” said Andrew.
“We’re automating all animal husbandry, care and feeding, taking photos to check the size and condition of marron and weighing them, and using data to correlate growth with genetics, which is where the ‘AI’ in Aquatic AI comes in. Rather than take the robots to the animals, we’re moving the animals to the robotic technology in a warehouse.
“We now need to recruit an engineering and software team and source funding for equipment and manufacturing to really build and design for massive scale – not an enormous facility just yet, but to enable us to take the know-how from the lab to scale up a modular design to build a global food technology business.”
Aquaculture industry to benefit from feed research
The freshwater marron industry has significant potential for growth as a premium product, and Aquatic AI’s research could benefit other industries, explained Dr Olivia Reynolds, Senior Manager of AgriFutures Australia’s Emerging Industries Program.
“Marron is highly desired by chefs and as a wholesale product both domestically and internationally, and as part of their research, Aquatic AI is developing a nutritionally balanced feed that will be commercialised and available for all marron farmers, and potentially benefit aquaculture more broadly,” said Olivia.
“Our goal in the Emerging Industries Program is to sustainably grow up-and-coming animal and plant industries through research, development and extension that explores opportunities for growth and skills development for industry leaders. Through our growAG. platform, Aquatic AI can access the investment necessary to scale their intensive, novel marron farming system.”
Marron is one of the biggest freshwater crayfish species in the world and native to Western Australia, where the lion’s share [56 tonnes] of Australia’s marron is produced each year. Andrew and Michael see no reason why marron can’t compete with Western Australia’s rock lobster industry – worth half a billion dollars – on the global seafood stage.
Aim to optimise sale size and taste
“We don’t see anything that says that’s not possible in terms of size. Different markets require different sizes and we are aiming at fine dining, where you may have half a 100-gram marron for a degustation dish or a 150-gram marron for a main course,” explained Michael.
“We’ve done some modelling to try to optimise the sale size [of the marron] and this will continue to evolve as our genetics program kicks in and other cost drivers are reduced. The reality is the marron’s flesh and taste starts to diminish as they grow bigger. They then grow slower but eat more and tapering growth rates obviously affect the profitability of the business.
“And there are other things to consider, like market differentiation with other species. We really want to play to our strengths and not compete for size with prawns or red claw crayfish.”
Step change’ for industry to grow more marron, consistently
With more than 20 years’ combined experience in delivering technology from industrial automation to logistics management optimisation, Andrew and Michael went to great lengths to canvas the experience of local marron farmers. They freely admit that their proposal to use robotics and artificial intelligence in a high-tech ‘farm’ has been met with raised eyebrows in most quarters.
“There’s been a healthy degree of scepticism and the immediate response from some farmers when they hear robotics, ‘Can you help me automate x or y with our current ponds?’. We’d love to help but the reality is that it doesn’t make sense to invest in a robot when it might grow output by only 10 or 20%,” said Michael.
“What we’re really looking at with Aquatic AI is a step change for the industry. We have a simple mission, to grow more marron and focus on reliability of supply. We’ve learned so much from the people farming marron and we don’t see each other as competitors – growing the industry benefits everyone.”
Learn more about the investment opportunity here. Expressions of Interest close 29 April 2022.