UMITRON is solving the issues facing aquaculture by bringing in people, technology, companies, and funds that are seemingly unrelated to the field. One of its representative services, UMITRON CELL, is attracting attention as a tool to alleviate the problems faced by aquaculture using groundbreaking technology.
UMITRON CELL is a smart automated feeder for aquaculture that enables remote feeding management of fish pens via smartphones and cloud computing. It reduces on-site work, improves break/rest flexibility, lowers environmental impact by reducing wastes from feeding, and has been announced to reduce greenhouse gas emissions*. *https://pr-en.umitron.com/post/686544739637624832/lca
<<< Read Part 1
–Please tell us the story behind the creation of one of UMITRON’s main services, the smart automated feeder UMITRON CELL.
It started when the Fisheries Research Center in Oita Prefecture, which is also where I am from, introduced me to Ehime University. Ehime University operates the South Ehime Fisheries Research Center in a closed elementary school in Ainan Town, Ehime Prefecture. The research institute specializes in fisheries. A researcher there introduced me to aquaculture producers who are interested in new efforts.
Initially, I envisioned myself doing data analysis and environmental monitoring there. However, when I talked to the producers, I learned that feeding work is very hard and that they were having trouble with high feed costs. So, we decided to create a product to improve labor and reduce feeding costs.
The South Ehime Fisheries Research Center has classrooms with tatami mats set up to accommodate researchers. I rented a room for three months and worked on development while living alone. I would first make a prototype and bring it to the producers. The producers would then check for points we could improve on.
From then on, we made numerous improvements to the prototypes, going back and forth between the laboratory and the producers’ offices. The marine environment is harsh, and equipment is fragile, so we improved durability and usability, building prototypes up to the sixth generation.
–So, it was a co-creation process with the producers.
The good thing about this development process is that we got to know more about each other. At first, I went there intending simply to help the producers in need. However, from the producers’ perspective, I was the one who needed help since I suddenly appeared in front of them without anyone accompanying me, so they ended up worrying about me instead. I obviously was not an aquaculture expert, and the producers did not know what we could do together.
So, I brought them the prototype anyway, regardless of whether it would immediately break down. We then came up with more and more new ideas and learned from each other. The producers suggested all sorts of alternatives while we continued to make improvements. Our efforts eventually led to the creation of UMITRON CELL.
–In June 2022, you exclusively sold UMITRON CELL-grown sustainable seafood, ASC-certified red sea bream under your brand “UMI to SACHI”* to AEON and AEON STYLE. How was the response?
The response was great. Aquaculture has low awareness, and consumers have scarce opportunities to know the entire value chain, such as how farmed fish are raised and who is involved in production.
I am glad we got to have a major retailer handle UMI to SACHI’s ASC-certified red sea breams and promote its value, as it raised awareness of aquaculture.
–Why did you choose Singapore when establishing your branch office?
The challenges of aquaculture are not unique to Japan and should be considered on a global scale. Going back to UMITRON’s mission of “install Sustainable Aquaculture on Earth,” we must also work to solve such issues overseas.
Singapore is a small country that imports most of its food and is striving towards the huge goal of increasing self-sufficiency. Their government has set a target of 30% self-sufficiency in fisheries by 2030, implementing new initiatives such as aquaculture using narrow coastal areas and vertical farming using high-rise buildings.
Therefore, we established a branch office to provide localized services in Singapore, a country actively engaged in aquaculture.
–What is the outlook for your overseas business?
We are looking to launch UMITRON operations tailored to each region with thriving aquaculture and provide services consistent with the area’s aquaculture practices.
UMITRON REMORA is a service that optimizes feeding for large-scale salmon aquaculture. Meanwhile, UMITRON EAGLE observes and checks shrimp growth and health. We are currently deploying them for overseas markets.
Aquaculture is developed independently by people in their respective regions. Because of this, the required equipment scale, production volume, and processes are completely different between Japanese and Mediterranean Sea red seabream farming, even for the same Family. One of our policies for overseas expansion is to adapt our costs and supply chain to the destination country’s customs.
–Do you see a growing need for UMITRON’s services?
Yes. The labor shortage issue in production sites has been accelerating and becoming more serious over the past five or six years. The number of workers is decreasing, and most young people are choosing other fields. Because of this, the trend is toward increasing automation and creating a system that allows rest. In other words, the need for UMITRON’s services is rising.
–What is your vision for new businesses, and what is your outlook?
Aside from improving existing services and providing further value, we are looking to work on new initiatives with businesses that have had little or no contact with aquaculture. Some examples of our initiatives that have already begun include: partnering with Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance to conduct research and development of aquaculture insurance and collaborating with ENEOS to increase the amount of seagrass and algae in Japan’s oceans as part of the Blue Carbon Initiative.
Even if they have had no contact with aquaculture, more and more businesses feel the importance of sustainable food production every year. Such companies are looking to engage in sustainable food production. We would be happy if they would participate in aquaculture.
–What do you think is needed to spark innovation?
Although aquaculture is an attractive industry with room to boost profitability, its survival is at risk due to a lack of people. Innovation does not start with technology. It first requires people to come together.
I believe that when the industry itself becomes attractive, it attracts people, which naturally leads to new markets, new technologies, and innovation.
We will spark innovation by making aquaculture a business that attracts people and a field that future generations will want to engage in.
Ken Fujiwara worked in satellite R&D at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). After that, he joined Mitsui & Co., Ltd., where he engaged in business investments and business development support for satellite-based agricultural ventures. Fujiwara founded UMITRON Corporation in April 2016.
Tokyo Institute of Technology / Ms. (Eng), and University of California, Berkeley / MBA
Original Japanese text by: Shino Kawasaki