Tim Youngblood   |   October 07, 2017

Botana: A Fully Customized Smart Tool Designed for Any Grower, in Any Garden

We had an opportunity to speak with Robert Schneider about Botana's Grow Journal app and its new addition, Bug Tracker, which helps growers monitor and control pest activity.
Tim is a technology journalist and was an editor for All About Circuits. His specialty as a historian at Boise State University was cannabis legislation. His favorite things to write and nerd out about are experimental technology, single…

We had an opportunity to speak with Robert Schneider about Botana's Grow Journal app and its new addition, Bug Tracker, which helps growers monitor and control pest activity.

CannabisTech: The Botana Grow Journal app is completely free to download. Obviously Botana Direct is a company that needs to profit in order to keep the lights on, so what inspired you to divert time and resources into a free tool to help growers?

 

Robert Schneider: Botana Direct is a revenue channel for us to keep the lights on. But we started this entire project as a way to develop tools for growers to improve and optimize what they're doing in their garden. Anyone that's been working in the industry as long as I have understands that the most important thing for growers is trust. So money will come, there's a lot of money flowing into the industry, and growers spend a lot of money and all that, but ultimately, we built these tools to create a relationship with growers. It's always been my belief and I've seen in my experience that we can help them first, then the money will follow. So that's why we started with the app.

 

Screenshot of the Grow Journal App

 

CT: In June, you announced the addition of “Bug Tracker” integrated pest management system to the Botana app. Since then, I haven’t read much about it. Could you elaborate on how it works?

 

RS: The Bug Tracker is very exciting for me because it's our first step into helping a grower walk through a problem to resolution in an efficient and fast way. One of the biggest challenges in the industry right now is there are reports of 75%, 80%, even 90% of all samples being tested at top laboratories are contaminated with some sort of pesticide or fungicide residue. In some cases, they're actually finding on these samples, residue of bugs and other pathogens. This is a real issue and prior to now, it wasn't an issue because nobody was testing our samples before consumption, so we just didn't know what a problem it was. So we designed Bug Tracker to start attacking this problem, and the first step in solving a major problem like the overuse of pesticides in cannabis is to identify the problem. Ultimately, we want to get to the point where we don't even need to use Bug Tracker because crops are healthy and vigorous, and defending themselves against these pests and pathogens. But right now, we've got a big problem with visibility and understanding of what's going on in the garden. This is the lowest hanging fruit and most important step to get these growers back on track. So we've really been focusing on refining the feature set of Bug Tracker and tying that directly to potential treatments that make sense for the grower, minimize pesticide use and focus on improving plant health.

 

Bug Tracker keeps a communal library of pests and solutions for dealing with them.

 

CT: Are bugs cataloged in a way similar to strains?

 

RS: There's a big difference between pests/diseases and strains. There are a few dozen pests and disease insects and fungi that infect the cannabis plant with only half a dozen or so being most prevalent. How they manifest in the garden is very specific to the individual situation. Whereas strains are the creative part of gardening for growers. This is where growers have the ability to generate intellectual property and create something unique. So the way that we treat them is very different.

 

CT: Your website, Botana.io has a great resource section to help users get started. Ease of use and accessibility must have been important factors for you and the development team. What were some of the goals that you had for user experience when you were developing the Grow Journal app?

 

RS: User experience is one of my favorite things to talk about. Ultimately, with any app the goal is to get your users to log in on a regular basis. My development team has spent a tremendous amount of time, energy, research, and discussions trying to understand how growers work. I’ve been working with growers for about ten years and growing myself, so I have an understanding of workflow. When we started developing this, we wanted to integrate a tool naturally into a grower’s daily work habits. We see Botana as being as important as a PH pen or a pair of scissors that a grower might use to prune their plant. Growers are in the field everyday working in their garden which is often not a clean place, or a sometimes a place where there’s sticky residue, dirt, dust, and water. We wanted to make an app that fit into the workflow of a grower. We spent a lot of time talking to growers and following them through their garden in their daily work, when they’re mixing reservoir, super-cropping a plant, or transplanting. So we tried to make a tool that was very fast and easy to use.

 

I think that one of the most important things to highlight is that we made a decision to do what’s called a native app. A lot of the apps that you see in the marketplace are basically a website wrapped up with an iOS or Android frame. The problem with this is that it relies on a fast internet connection in order to enter and retrieve data. We built a native app, which ultimately was harder to do but it created a better user experience by allowing a grower to access all of their most important data without having to worry about any kind of connection. Which may seem trivial in this day and age but one of the most requested features that we have is the ability to use the app offline because growers are often inside of a grow room that has a lot of electromagnetic interference or out in a field that doesn’t have a good WiFi signal. It’s these kinds of considerations that helped us build an experience that fits with a grower’s lifestyle and work habits.

 

CT: Since the app works offline, could you walk us through how somebody might take some photos of their strain in HD. Is that stored in their device and later sent to the cloud? Do you need to be near an internet connection for some things but not others?

 

RS: Most important to us are privacy, security, and the intellectual property of the growers. So we allow this offline mode for the sake of user experience so that a grower can log and retrieve their data offline, but ultimately, there’s a very significant value in connectedness, nobody stays offline forever. The way that Botana works is that growers can take pictures and log data offline and when they get back to a computer if they choose, they’re able to back up securely to an account which secures their data. Ultimately, if growers want to collaborate with a team, consultants, or suppliers by sharing some of their data, they have the ability to do so, but it’s always within the safety of a walled garden. Nothing is ever shared or displayed to anybody without the grower’s explicit permission. Like I said, nobody stays offline forever but what’s most important is that growers have access to their data in the field when they need it without having to worry about an internet connection. Other things, obviously, if they’re going to search for products and gain some of the collaboration functionality like messaging and things like that have to be done with a connection.

 

CT: Currently, the Botana Grow Journal app is only available for iOS. It’s usually easier to get apps published on the Android store. Why did you go for iOS first and will there be a version for Android coming out soon?

 

RS: Android is in private testing and development right now. We went iOS first simply because my co-founder is an expert iOS developer, so it was faster for us to prove the concept. But also, in order to build a really good native app on Android requires a bit more of a development curve because we have so many different devices and screen sizes and technology that we have to consider. Now that we’ve proven the concept on iOS and seeing good user engagement, we’re working on Android and that’s coming very soon.

 

Co-Founders Robert Schneider and Rahul Lalmalani

 

CT: Botana has over 9,000 strains listed in its database that users can search through. How long did take to collect all of that data?

 

RS: That’s a terrific question! Anyone that’s been around the business for a while knows that strain names are frankly a lot of bullshit. Any grower can find a seed in a bag or accidentally dust some pollen on a flower and generate some seeds and they name it after their favorite TV show or a bag of chips or something. This doesn’t really speak to the amount of work, energy, and intelligence that goes into properly breeding a stabilized strain. So when we look at other strain databases--ours included--there are a lot of strains with weird names. There’s also a lot of controversy around Indica/Sativa and what even makes a unique strain.

The differentiator is that Leafly and some of these other websites, their strain databases are generated primarily based upon the sale of the cannabis flower, the end product. This is a point of sale or retail position, and I know that for many years, and it’s still probably a common practice in certain circles that if a dispensary has a pound of Girl Scout Cookies that’s not selling very well, it’s not too hard of a stretch to suddenly call it Platinum Girl Scout Cookies and now it sells because there’s this impression that it’s a different flower, it’s a different plant. So I think that the difficulty that some of these websites have in maintaining accurate strain databases is that these names are changed from the point of a grower planting the seed all the way up to the point where it’s sold. The most exciting thing about how we’re curating the strain database is that it’s based upon what the grower is doing. This is the foundation of the industry, nothing happens in cannabis until a grower puts a seed or clone into some soil and lets it root. The grower has the most incentive to maintain that intellectual property and the integrity of these strains. This is the thing that they have the most control over, so our strain database ultimately is going to be more comprehensive and accurate, especially as time goes on.

 

Grow Journal tracks the variables for each day during the grow process. These are Girl Scout Cookies, not Platinum Girl Scout Cookies! Courtesy of Miss Rad Reefer.

 

CT: I saw that the Grow Journal app allows for integration with automatic environment sensors. What environmental factors are the app capable of tracking so far?

 

RS: We have about two dozen or so data points that can be collected in this initial version, which we feel are the most important data points for the health of the garden. We are adding new environment and plant growth metrics as we go along and as they’re requested by growers. As far as environmental sensors go, about 95% of growers still do most things manually and they don’t really have complex sensor systems, so we built Botana to work with any grower, in any kind of garden, with any methodology or systems.To us, it doesn’t matter. We wanted to build a platform that is 100% compatible with anyone. Very soon we’ll be launching our integration platform to allow third party sensors to collect more data and more accurate data depending on what the grower is doing and what kind of systems they have in their garden.

 

CT: Without giving away any trade secrets, could you walk me through the process of the sensors that you do have set up collecting environmental data and uploading it to the app?

 

RS: We’re not a hardware company. This is another decision that we made early on. As a platform, we focus on our core competency of connecting growers to each other, but also to connecting growers to their suppliers and to sensor devices and other systems like that. So everything right now a grower can enter data manually, that may seem like an old-school way to do things, but when you consider that most growers still manage their workflow and write their data on whiteboards and in notepads, it’s very very manual and very archaic still. This is simply a factor, not that growers are backward or anything, they actually embrace technology. But they have not been given the tools nor have they been able to make these long term investments in the past. This is a relatively new thing for growers, to leverage technology in this way. So like I said earlier, our first integrations will be coming soon but we’re compatible with any grower, in any environment, with any methodology. As we need, we’ll add these further integrations.

 

Some more screenshots of the Grow Journal App. Users can track multiple crops. Check out what time it is on the iPhone!

 

CT: One last question, what’s next for Botana? More features for Grow Journal and Bug Tracker? Something new entirely?

 

RS: “What’s next?” is always my favorite conversation. Android is coming very soon, so we’re going to expand the platform. The most important thing we’re focusing on right now is collaboration. Allowing growers to connect in teams, maybe internally among an individual company with multiple locations, or multiple workers working on one problem and sharing information. Also connecting to consultants, suppliers, and other stakeholders in the industry.

The big challenge for growers that I’ve seen and experienced myself is the ability to connect in meaningful ways. So we’re really focused on building out that functionality and we have some very exciting things coming in the next couple months related to that. We’re focusing on building a connected platform for growers. To the point earlier, we’re striking a balance between allowing connectivity while preserving data security and intellectual property protection.

 

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