Researchers receive $5 million award to develop AI platform to strengthen regional food systems

Special to the Banner-News

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. A convergent team of researchers and regional industry partners will receive up to $5 million in additional funding for a Phase 2 investment from the NSF Convergence Accelerator to continue development of Cultivate IQ, an AI-driven platform designed to empower smaller farms and strengthen the resiliency of regional food systems, bringing the total federal investment in the UA-led project to nearly $6 million.

The team, led by Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research (I³R) Assistant Research Professor Meredith Adkins, Ph.D. and comprised of researchers from across the University of Arkansas System, University of Florida, University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as local industry partners Cureate and Junction AI, is one of seven multidisciplinary teams from the NSF Convergence Accelerator's Track J: Food and Nutrition Security selected to advance from Phase 1, which focused on developing proof of concept, to Phase 2 in which the concept will be fully developed and deployed.

"This Phase 2 NSF Convergence Accelerator award obtained after completion of a very intense Phase 1 and a very competitive process, exemplifies the approach taken by I3R in selection of our projects to assure deployment of solutions to identified needs that will make a societal impact," said Ranu Jung, Ph.D., associate vice chancellor, I³R founding executive director, and a senior advisor on the project. "It is also an example of how we partner with our university, industry, and other subject matter experts taking the latest technologies like AI/ML to find solutions that scale."

Research is often driven by a compelling societal or scientific challenge; however, it may take the researcher community years to develop a solution. To deliver tangible solutions that have a nation-wide societal impact and at a faster pace, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) launched the Convergence Accelerator program in 2019. Aligned to the Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIP), the Convergence Accelerator is a unique program designed to leverage a convergence approach to transition basic research and discovery into practice using innovation processes--like human-centered design, user discovery, and team science--and integration of multidisciplinary research and partnerships.

"A collaborative approach between academic researchers, industry, government, nonprofits, and other communities is important to optimize the production of food and connections between farmers and consumers, researchers, and other stakeholders," said Douglas Maughan, head of the NSF Convergence Accelerator program. "A lot of great work was accomplished by all teams in Phase 1, but there is still more to be done. The teams selected for Phase 2 are expected to build innovative, tangible solutions and strong partnerships to address food scarcity, irrigation issues, supply chain inequalities and inefficiencies, and more."

"Our global food system is fragile and disruption in the system is a national security concern," said Adkins, the project's principal investigator. "Small and mid-sized farms and mission-driven local food distributors, such as food hubs, play an important role in strengthening our regional food systems, but they face real barriers including access to real-time marketplace insights such as pricing, supply, and demand. Cultivate IQ aims to enable these end users to compete more effectively by making regionally relevant data insights more accessible."

Driven by artificial intelligence and machine learning, Cultivate IQ integrates sales and production data from across the farm-to-market supply chain to help plan and manage regional food supplies. Local food buyers, including aggregators and distributors, host their growers on the platform, extending access to market insights, production planning tools, and purchase orders.

Greater access to meaningful data enables producers to better match food supply and demand. Striving to avoid both overproduction and underproduction minimizes food loss and can have a positive economic impact on smaller farms by opening up new market channels. This is particularly important in Arkansas given that agriculture is the state's top industry, the Arkansas Delta is one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the country, and Northwest Arkansas has one of the highest concentrations of small-scale farmers in the state.

The highly convergent project brings together expertise from various disciplines across multiple land-grant universities as well as industry partners. The Arkansas-based core team includes:

Meredith Adkins, Ph.D. (PI), Assistant Research Professor, I3R

Kristen Gibson, Ph.D. (Co-PI), Professor, Department of Food Science and Director, Center for Food Safety

Thi Hoang Ngan Le, Ph.D., (Co-PI), Assistant Professor, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Trey Malone, Ph.D. (Co-PI), Assistant Professor, Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness

Chase Rainwater, Ph.D. (Co-PI), Chair, Department of Industrial Engineering

Kim Bryden, CEO, Cureate

Vance Reavie, CEO, Junction AI

Philip Sambol, Project Manager, I³R

In addition to a broad support staff at I3R, multiple undergraduate interns and graduate assistants are also working on the project under the mentorship of the Co-Investigators, including Benjamin Sapaning, Sr., Graduate Assistant at I³R.

An interdisciplinary group of researchers will collaborate with the core team to support the success of the project. At University of Arkansas, this includes the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies, directed by Jack Cothren, Ph.D., who will support the project's geospatial data models for regional crop supply, as well as the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the School of Law, represented by Associate Director Carly Griffith Hotvedt, J.D./MPA who advises the project on engagement with indigenous communities. Dr. Marty Matlock, Ph.D., a food systems expert and ecological engineer who recently served as Senior Advisor to the US Secretary of Agriculture, also serves as an advisor to the team. Dr. Yasser Sanad, DVM, MVSC, Ph.D., leads University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's engagement with the project in the Central Arkansas Delta.

Two land-grant institutions outside of the state are also collaborating, including University of Florida, represented by agricultural economist Di Fang, Ph.D. and two team members from the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Erin Silva, Ph.D. and John Hendrickson, experts on farm viability and cost of production analysis by market channel.

Watch the team's Phase 1 video and learn more about how the team is "Unlocking the Power of Convergence Research for Societal Impact."

About the Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research (I3R)

Established through a $194.7 million gift from the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation, the University of Arkansas Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research is driven by purpose and pioneers solutions to wicked problems through convergence research across academic, industry, government, and non-profit sectors to make a positive societal impact by creating and deploying innovations to scale. Learn more at i3r.uark.edu.

About the University of Arkansas: As Arkansas' flagship institution, the U of A provides an internationally competitive education in more than 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes more than $2.2 billion to Arkansas' economy through the teaching of new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and job development, discovery through research and creative activity while also providing training for professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the U of A among the few U.S. colleges and universities with the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the U of A among the top public universities in the nation. See how the U of A works to build a better world at Arkansas Research and Economic Development News.

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