A supply chain management platform developed by five Penn State students could one day play a key role in fighting worldwide hunger.
The five students include Howie Andersen, Alex Bouril, and Michael Li of Penn State Harrisburg, as well as former Penn State Harrisburg students Brandon Daubenspeck and Pranav Jain, now at Penn State’s University Park campus.
Last spring, the team took their idea to Amsterdam to join other entrepreneurs at the Thought for Food Global Summit. There, the team pitched their concept to the international Thought for Food organization, which has the goal of feeding 9 billion people throughout the world by 2050.
Connecting people and food sources “was the perfect supply chain application for our platform named NuntAgri,” explained Daubenspeck, a computer science major.
The journey to Amsterdam began with a hackathon competition in fall 2016, followed by the the Penn State Smeal College of Business 2017 Supply Chain Entrepreneurship Pitch Contest, which was part of Penn State’s Startup Week. The contest judged 26 submissions from students from seven Penn State campuses. The Harrisburg team took second place and a $4,500 prize for the platform they developed.
The students were excited about networking with Thought for Food, which acts as a catalyst for bold ideas to address food and nutrition. The organization engages college-aged students to become the next generation to make inroads in solving food security issues and has helped launch more than 30 startups from locations in Australia, Brazil, Colombia, France, India, Indonesia, Uganda, the United Kingdom and the United States.
As Bouril explains, NuntAgri is not an app, nor is it a website. It is a chatbot, a computer program that mimics conversation with people using artificial intelligence. NuntAgri is designed to offer a quick, easy method of connecting players in the supply chain with a seamless platform of logistics via texting. The chatbot uses algorithms, mathematical instructions used for calculation, data processing and automated reasoning. The chatbot is an artificial intelligence that allows for coordination of services among various providers.
“It’s a service offered through SMS, short message service, that can revolutionize regional distribution logistics by using crowd-sourcing,” adds Michael Li, a senior majoring in information sciences and technology.
While the use of artificial intelligence and algorithms might sound complicated, it’s meant to be the opposite.
“It’s intended to streamline and simplify logistics,” says Bouril, who is a computer science major in his fourth year of a five-year integrated program at Penn State Harrisburg, where he’ll earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree. NuntAgri is ideal for operations that require quick turnaround, immediate response and flexibility, he adds.
One such organization is Daily Table, a non-profit organization that runs a discount grocery in the low-income Dorchester section of Boston. The students have had discussions with Daily Table, which is interested in the NuntAgri platform and could see applications for their program.
As Jain explains, restaurants, grocery stores, farm markets and others with leftover or near-expiration food can simply call or text to arrange for pick-up of the food products. The chatbot coordinates the pick-up with volunteer drivers, who deliver the food to those in need, at homeless shelters, church facilities, food banks and other sites. Canned goods and packaged goods like cereals that might have been thrown away after they reached their expiration date are hurried to those who are hungry right now. Produce that will be unusable in a few days can be transported for immediate use, so that a sudden overstock of rapidly ripening bananas or avocados can use seamless logistics to get the produce to those in need before it’s too late.
“We got a very good response in Amsterdam. They were very supportive of our idea,” says Jain. “Now the next step is to figure out how we can move this forward.”
While the NuntAgri developers continue to work toward their goal of matching excess food with those who need it, they’ve been able to prove the usefulness of their concept with their first real client. Harrisburg-based Dirty Dog Hauling junk removal business utilizes the chatbot to connect the three players in the junk hauling business: the client who wants to get rid of junk, the Dirty Dog company that will handle disposal of unwanted items and the haulers or drivers who pick it up.
A simple phone call or text message requests junk removal. That’s when the supply chain platform kicks in. The client lets Dirty Dog know what they want to get rid of, whether it’s an old sofa or clutter in the basement. The platform coordinates the pick-up with other pick-ups in the same area. The appointment is scheduled, the client billed and the junk is removed by the driver in that area, and then transported to a designated site for disposal. For the clients, it’s much easier than downloading an app.
As each member of the team advances in their education, they are considering how they will incorporate NuntAgri into their future careers. While they continue to work on their ultimate goal, they are continuing to test their business model through Dirty Dog and other local clients. In targeting companies for presentations, they have found that the in-person, one-on-one approach works best when it comes to sales.
“We have developed an ideal customer profile,” explains Daubenspeck, noting that their ideal clients are smaller, approachable, open-minded, low- or no-tech and located within a concentrated geographic area.
“This has been an excellent experience. We have learned how to make connections, how to network and develop a system that will effectively manage supply and demand,” says Li.