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Could coffee be the world's first ever commodity traded with satellite data?

Fintech start-up, Trade in Space, thinks so…

With around two billion cups drunk every day (95m of those consumed in the UK), coffee is, by a country mile, the world’s favourite drink.

The largest producer, responsible for about a third of all coffee, is Brazil. And in a plantation in the country’s south eastern state of São Paulo, fintech start-up Trade in Space is pioneering the meshing of blockchain trading with satellite data – to drive efficiencies for growers to the end-user customer.

Trade in Space is based at The Higgs Centre for Innovation – a Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) business incubation hub, located at Royal Observatory, Edinburgh.

We catch up with founder Robin Sampson, to find out more about the innovative tech Trade In Space is developing…

Coffee and e-trading. What’s it all about?

“With coffee, location matters – the price of coffee on one side of a hill compared to the price of coffee on the other side of the hill, can vary greatly. This is dependent on many factors, for example weather conditions; the value of the brand…

“With our product, we use satellite data to look at things like land classification. Satellite data can give us geo-spatial information; things like the GPS co-ordinates and the area coverage. It can tell us what the local weather is. And from that information we can estimate the yield of each field; and derive information about when harvest is likely.

“We then fuse that information into what’s called a meta-data contract. What this means is that all of the data is described in one file – in this case a contract – which sets a market value for the coffee, based on the prevailing conditions at the time.

“What’s so game-changing, is that the farmer can set their own market price; and the end-user customer can bid against it. And by merging the satellite data into a blockchain-based trading system – a direct trade can be made digitally between farmer and end-user customer.

“This capability reduces the number of intermediaries in the chain, offering efficiencies for both the plantation farmer at the point of origin in Brazil, and the coffee shop owner in, say, Edinburgh who can buy direct from the farmer.”

What has been your journey into this space?

“I’ve been in the ‘space’ industry since leaving uni. I joined new space company Clyde Space as one of their first employees 10 years ago – initially working on upstream hardware – essentially the ‘stuff’ that’s sent into space (launchers, rockets and satellites). This was a hands-on engineering role looking at electrical-powered propulsion for launching spacecraft.

“I then moved on to working on, what we call, downstream applications. What this means is we take the data generated by the upstream hardware and turn it into useful applications for business, government and society in general. A good example of this is how Earth observation data is used for monitoring the environment and in meteorology and weather forecasting.

“It was thinking about the software application of satellite data that started me exploring what data from satellites could be used for, and specifically how it could be used to drive efficiencies in the trading environment. My Brother works in the financial sector, and we’ve had many late night conversations discussing the possibilities. An idea for ‘tradeable agriculture’ really piqued my interest.

“Initially I thought we would pilot the idea with wheat, but then a chance conversation led to an opportunity to work with a coffee grower in Brazil. I then tested the idea with a number of commodity traders – and I was really encouraged by their positive response. Trade In Space was born…

“We then pitched the Trade in Space idea and tech in a Dragon’s Den-style competition to find the next generation of financial technology entrepreneurs in Scotland – which was run by The Times, in partnership with Royal Bank of Scotland, the executive search firm FWB Park Brown and Dell Technologies. We were delighted to win the Blue Sky Fintech award for businesses trading for less than a year. Winning the award was a real validation of our idea and our tech solution to deliver that idea.”

Why the Higgs Centre of Innovation. What does business incubation there offer you?

“What is really attractive for us about business incubation at the Higgs Centre for Innovation, is the opportunity it provides to plug-in to the wider STFC network.

For example, a key driver for our growth will be to harness and use computing power to scale up our solution. STFC’s Hartree Centre specialises in high performance computing, data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies – and we want to learn as much from them as we can about handling the data challenges and optimising machine learning algorithms.

RAL Space and the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), part of STFC too, offer expertise and experience of space programmes. UK ATC together with the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Astronomy is based at on the Royal Observatory site too, and so there are networking opportunities daily, over lunch and at the many talks and seminars which are held weekly (when the current social distancing measures allow). The Higgs also runs an informal monthly coffee and cake meet-up, where start-ups, astronomers and engineers can get together.

“We are also excited about the opportunity to network with other incubatees, for example we are looking forward to meeting agritech start-up Crover – who are building a robot to monitor conditions in grain stores. We hope to learn from them more about the agritech industry.

“No other accelerator can help us to build these relationships and tap into the kinds of expertise and experience that will help us achieve our goals for the Trade In Space business.

What would you like to achieve in your time on the Higgs business incubation programme?

“The programme is a year in duration. In the first 6 months of incubation we would like to tap in to all of the STFC expertise to help us finesse our tech. In the following 6 months we aim to develop the Trade in Space system to automate sourcing, procurement and shipping. We are currently developing a plug-in API to automate the logistics.

“Our aim too is to double in size. Currently we are a team of 4, but we want to be 8 by the end of the year – and bring on board additional skills – a geo-spatial analyst, a geographical information systems developer, front-end developer etc.

“We are also actively seeking Board members to help us with the strategic direction of the company. In particular we are looking for people who can help us to understand the agricultural industry.”

It’s a really exciting proposition. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. What is your big ambition?

“We want to take the Trade In Space capability to enable coffee trading, not just from Brazil, but all over the world. And we want to be able to say we are “the World’s first ever satellite-enabled traded commodity!””

Karina Wardark, Business Incubation and Innovation Manager, at the Higgs Centre for Innovation says “It is always refreshing and exciting to welcome new tenants. We look forward to getting to know the Trade in Space team, to understand their goals and ambitions for their time with us at the Higgs Centre for Innovation. Having a close relationship with our incubator companies allows us to provide both technical and business accelerator support – which is tailored to their needs. We look forward to being part of Trade In Spaces’ growth.

Further information

British Coffee Association for more information visit: www.britishcoffeeassociation.org/coffee-in-the-uk/coffee-facts.

Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)

The Science and Technology Facilities Council is part of UK Research and Innovation – the UK body which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. STFC funds and supports research in particle and nuclear physics, astronomy, gravitational research and astrophysics, and space science and also operates a network of five national laboratories as well as supporting UK research at a number of international research facilities including CERN, FERMILAB, the ESO telescopes in Chile and many more. Visit stfc.ukri.org for more information. @STFC_Matters

The Higgs Centre for Innovation (#HiggsInnovation)

This ground-breaking new facility, created by the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and in partnership with the University of Edinburgh, applies business incubation best practice to big data, astronomy, particle physics and space technology, enabling start-ups to translate fundamental research into wider commercial impact. Incubated companies also have access to the Specialist Lab facilities and Data Visualisation Suite. The Business Incubation Centre includes a comprehensive support package for successful applicant companies to develop new products and services in areas related to space, big data and high precision engineering. #HiggsInnovation

The UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC):

Based at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh and operated by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) is the national centre for astronomical technology. The UK ATC designs and builds instruments for many of the world’s major telescopes on land and in space. It also project manages UK and international collaborations and its scientists carry out observational and theoretical research into questions such as the origins of planets and galaxies. @ukatc

Last updated: 11 June 2020

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