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Oregon tech association takes design competition national with agriculture innovation challenge

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A set of tinted eyewear designed to enhance wine production won the Technology Association of Oregon’s weeklong virtual Agricultural Innovation Design Sprint Challenge. 

The association created the agriculture-themed design competition to bridge the divide between rural and urban communities and, more specifically, between growers in the mid-Willamette Valley and the broader, local tech community. In partnership with the city of Independence, Oregon, and SEDCOR, the group’s goal was to prototype solutions that would solve regional agricultural challenges, make Oregon agriculture more competitive and potentially provide additional revenue streams for growers in the area.

“As a region, we produce more than 250 food products. Many of them are specialty crops with unique opportunities to use technology to position the mid-Willamette Valley as a leader in agricultural innovation,” said Shawn Irvine, Economic Development Director of the city of Independence and the event sponsor. 

Originally intended as an in-person program, TAO shifted to a virtual event and expand participation to people nationwide. Cara Snow, TAO’s Community Engagement Officer, saw the shift to a virtual event as an opportunity to rally a national entrepreneurial spirit and innovation for an essential industry. More than 70 people from nine states joined in throughout the weeklong competition.

There were five innovation challenges presented to the design sprint participants, including an automated solution for spot-spraying weeds to ensure clean grass seed, a data hub to host information about all crops produced in Oregon, an app that allows consumers to interact directly with growers, and a solution to simplify the agriculture approval process. 

Bruce Sonnen, Vineyard Manager at Van Duzer Vineyard, requested a solution to help field workers differentiate between ripe and almost ripe Pinot Noir grapes in order to improve the quality of the final product. Sonnen pointed out that many of the small vineyards in Oregon cannot afford expensive automated sorting systems and often have only a few employees responsible for thinning, picking and sorting grapes. 

The challenge team, based in Ohio, wanted to design a product that was easy to replace if lost or broken, and affordable to purchase for multiple field workers. They also had to factor in that there was no internet connection in the vineyard. Since grapes become darker as they ripen, the team decided that color was the key. Ultimately, they designed a set of glasses that can highlight specific pink colors so that the viewer can determine that a grape is not ripe enough and remove it from the production line. 

“This team did a great job in their research and they landed right in the right place,” said Gary Neuschwander, trade development manager for the Oregon Department of Agriculture and one of the guest judges. “The wine industry is so competitive and a product like this would give farmers an edge at a relatively low cost.”

This is part of a regular guest column written by the Technology Association of Oregon in the Portland Business Journal.

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