Reaping the rewards of innovative thinking

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2019 has been a memorable year for PlantTech shareholder Bluelab. Winning awards and national recognition for its innovative handheld Pulse meter, the Tauranga company is now planning to expand while keeping a close eye on opportunities for future collaboration.

Launched internationally in November 2018, Pulse is a handheld meter specifically designed for use in the hydroponics and horticultural industries. Measuring moisture levels, electrical conductivity and temperature in media, the sensor provides fast, accurate root zone measurements, sending data directly to mobile phones to better support growers measure crop health.

The product led to Bluelab being announced as a NZ Hi-Tech Awards finalist twice in 2019, receiving recognition in the ‘Most Innovative Hi-Tech Hardware Product’ and ‘Most Innovative Hi-Tech Agritech Solution’ categories.

It later went on to receive the coveted ‘Excellence in Innovation’ award at this year’s BoP Export NZ Awards.

The accolades are the icing on the cake for Bluelab after commercialising the Pulse meter in a process grounded in research, collaboration and exhaustive consumer testing.

Engineering manager Scott Rusby attributes the company’s success to skills within the Bluelab team, combined with an ability to execute their vision for a new product.

Central to this is the application of ‘Doblin’s 10 Types of Innovation’ and design thinking methodologies across the whole company.

“The approach requires rigorous customer empathy work to really see the problem from the customer’s point of view. This has been transformative and helped us keep ahead in technology and sales,” he says.

The Pulse product prototype was concept-tested in greenhouses and nurseries in the US and New Zealand before the scientific research was complete. Jono Jones, Bluelab’s Head of Innovation and Strategy, was at the forefront of this work in both countries.

Staff then focused on what the device could look like and what its strengths and weaknesses could be.

“We went back out to our customers with 3D printed prototypes and software concepts to check we were answering their needs,” says Scott. “This was repeated several times throughout the commercialisation stage and enabled us to develop the final production version.”

Importantly, the empathy work allowed Bluelab to discover what problems customers faced and helped solve them – even if the customers couldn’t clearly articulate or identify what their issues were. It was a process that demanded continuous feedback to ensure Bluelab’s product clearly addressed a customer pain point.

“To get this right takes a lot of work internally to get to a place where you can implement it and then ultimately, follow through with it,” says Scott.

Collaborating with Lincoln Agritech

During the development phase, Bluelab commissioned Lincoln Agritech to support its team with technical know-how, electronic design and underlying software concepts so the meter could work in various solid or liquid phase growth mediums.

Outsourcing certain aspects of the project enabled Bluelab to accelerate the product development cycle.

“We have a lot of skilled people at Bluelab, covering a range of technical disciplines but however big your team is, you will never be able to cover every base,” says Scott.

“The great thing about an organisation like Lincoln Agritech is that, as R&D specialists, they have a wide breadth of skills. Also, by being so closely linked to Lincoln University, they have access to extra skill sets that other research institutes may not. This means that even when things come up that are unexpected, they have access to more expertise to review the issue.”

With collaboration now a global trend, Bluelab expects that PlantTech will play an important role in the company’s future, especially in areas relating to data and AI.

“There will be continual change and technological evolution in our industry,” says Scott. “All the founding shareholders of PlantTech agree that having the ability to call on PlantTech researchers for support when needed will help us solve various horticultural challenges through artificial intelligence technology.”

With a focus now on delivering excellent customer support and developing new products, Bluelab is expanding its engineering team, both in New Zealand and the US where it has a main office near Los Angeles. It has also an office in Rotterdam in the Netherlands to support product sales across the UK and Europe.

Scott says Bluelab’s vision for the next five years is to deliver insights to customers and use data to help them make better business decisions.

“Ultimately, our aim is to make life better for our customers.”

The Bluelab team.

The Bluelab team.