“I don’t know why the ant got the reputation for the hardest working creature – it is totally the bee,” declares Michal Roizman, 28, founding partner and product manager for the company BeeHero. “Bees are amazing, they are so hardworking and altruistic. They work themselves to death. I also work hard, most of the hours of the day – but I know when to stop.”
Roizman has been living deep within the world of bees for a year and a half now, so much so that she has earned the unofficial title of “bee activist”. The company that she founded along with two partners, Omer Davidi and Itai Kanot, deals with one of the biggest problems of the 20th century: “colony collapse” – the disappearance of huge numbers of bees from the world, an environmental disaster that affects the entire ecosystem. “They call it disappearance, but the bees are dying,” says Roizman. “It can get to 50% of the hives each year, huge numbers, with tens of thousands of bees per hive. It happens because of a cluster of problems relating to the modern world: spraying, parasites, air pollution, and monocropping, which is an agricultural desert for bees.”
Roizman and her partners created a product that helps improve hive output which will contribute not just to the production of honey – but also to the function of bees as pollinators, and will allow the continued prosperity of nature. How do they do this? “The BeeHero product consists of sensors that are inserted into the hive and monitored 24/7. We obtain information about the hive, and it goes into the cloud where it is analyzed with an algorithm and provides the beekeeper with insights about what is happening in the hive in terms of temperature, humidity, sound, light, etc. That way the beekeeper understands what is happening in each of their hives and can make adjustments for their optimal wellbeing. We tell the beekeepers – ‘you have a hive disease’ or ‘your queen is dead’ – 80% of what we tell them they already know how to fix on their own,” Michal explains.
The company was launched in California, the bee capital of the world, amongst beekeepers who make up 5% of the American market. “I just returned from a month in Florida, where I worked with the farms installing our product for them. At the moment we are monitoring 20 thousand hives in the USA. I manage the product, but a lot of my work happens in the field, with gloves on, with the hives.”
Do you get stung?
“No, I haven’t been stung yet, the bees seem to know I am there to help.”
The obsession: robots
Michal, a Hadera native, doesn’t come from the field of beekeeping, agriculture or zoology – she comes from technological entrepreneurship. She got her Bachelor’s degree at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya in interactive media. There she got a taste for product management, user experience, and her personal obsession – robots. “During my studies I realized how much robots interest me and I wanted to enter into their world, even to do a doctorate in that field. I participated in the IDC’s ‘innovation lab’, where I studied human-robot interaction, and conducted an experiment that examined how people respond to the robot I built.”
You built a robot without being a programmer?
“I don’t come from that background, but I learned it – I wrote code and programmed the experiment from start to finish. The robot played dice with people and we examined if they cheated when playing against it. I published a paper about it that was accepted to a conference in New Zealand and I flew to represent it there. What interested me was to find out if we can create technology that empowers people. Everyone is engaged with the regular questions – for instance, will robots ultimately replace us – but I realized that technology can empower us, it can be used in an ethical way. That connects with the BeeHero product – instead of replacing the bees or the farmers, we can grant them tools to sustain the art of beekeeping and empower them.”
Her start-up also came through the IDC’s greenhouse, in the IDC Beyond program to encourage innovation. There she teamed up with her partners, Davidi and Kanot, whose father is chairman of the Israel Bee Keepers Association. “Itai told us about the bee problem that he knows more intimately,” tells Michal. “We looked for an idea for a project and very quickly realized that this was interesting, here was an opportunity to create technology that doesn’t exist. The next step was to read studies and articles, to watch films on the subject, to visit hives, to talk to beekeepers – within half a year of research we saw that we had a start-up coming together.”
Would you have believed that this was what you would do with your life? Empower bees?
“I always wanted to do something good, something meaningful. I wouldn’t have thought that I would work with bees, but there are a lot of aspects of this project that really suit me. Through their pollination activity, bees are responsible for a third of the amount of food that we consume – this project has great significance.”
BeeHero is now at the peak of their growth: the development center is in Tel Aviv, but they have always been aiming at the American market, where the biggest opinion makers in the field are found. They have ten full-time employees, and they are about to begin significant additional recruitment, after raising a modest sum of half a million dollars in the first round of investments. “I learned to deliver a pitch, to explain the idea to people who have no idea about the field. It’s challenging because it’s not a product like taxis, where everyone is familiar with the problem – you sit across from someone who hasn’t the slightest idea how bees are relevant to him, and explain to him that this is not just about honey, but the entire future of food. It’s a market of $800 billion per year.”
One of the breakthroughs of BeeHero was the discovery that bees are so necessary for the eco-system, to the point that not all of their potential clients have to be beekeepers but will include other agriculturalists and farmers who rely on them. “We work with growers of avocado, almonds, citrus, cotton and sunflowers,” says Roizman. “They require good quality hives to pollinate their crops and they rent a number of such hives every year. We monitor their rented hives for them so that they can reach their optimal output – and we already have results of 20% increases in growing cotton and sunflowers, thanks to strengthening the hives. We realized that the market that needs us is huge – if beekeepers continue to suffer and are unable to manage their hives, it’s not good for them, and they will do something else, and all of us will be in trouble.”
Are there no artificial alternatives for pollination? You can’t just replace the bees?
“There are all kinds of experiments, people try things like artificial pollination, artificial bees. But they are trying to replace a process that nature refined over the course of evolution; it’s hard to create such a perfect process.”
How will you continue to do this five years from now?
“I hope that we will reach our goals and just keep growing. In any case I would be happy to keep doing good work.”
Translation by Zoe Jordan