Newcastle start-up company Hone is making ground in the ag-tech sector, with an iPhone-like device that's comparable to "a lab in the palm of your hand".
The company's founders - Antony Martin, William Palmer and Jamie Flynn - completed their PhDs at the University of Newcastle.
Dr Martin and Dr Flynn went to school together at Belair Public at Adamstown Heights and Kotara High.
They met Dr Palmer at university, marking the start of the trio's fruitful journey in agriculture.
The device, dubbed Hone Lab, uses "next generation spectrometers" to test the chemical properties of soil, crops and grain samples in real time.
Dr Martin, Hone's CEO, said the "dream or the vision is to get one of these devices in the hands of every farmer".
Dr Flynn, Hone's research and development manager, described the technology as "the transformation of lab grade spectroscopy into accurate, portable, easy to use instruments".
The device solves the problem of farmers having to wait three weeks for results for samples sent to labs.
Dr Palmer, chief innovation officer, said the technology "enables a decision to be made on the spot, instead of having to wait to make that decision".
In a major boost to Hone's prospects, agribusiness GrainCorp has agreed to pay $5.175 million to acquire 15 per cent of the company.
The GrainCorp investment followed seed funding and venture capital from angel investors and Sydney firm Tidal Ventures.
"That's all about scaling our production capacity," said Dr Martin, of the GrainCorp deal.
"We've still been quite small scale, doing pilots."
GrainCorp will provide crucial connections to industry.
"They've got 11,000 Australian farmers trading grain through their network.
"The target is to try and market the device to those 11,000 farmers."
Dr Flynn said the Australian agricultural industry was "progressive with uptake of new technology".
"Giving more knowledge and decision-making power to people actually growing crops is a big driving force for all of us," he said.
Dr Martin and Dr Palmer came up with the idea for the technology while doing their PhDs in crop science in sorghum fields in Queensland.
"We were asked to do thousands of lab chemistry measurements. That was going to take years," Dr Martin said.
"We didn't really want to do that, so we came up with this new method that uses a scan of light to do the measurements.
"You flash the sample with light, then measure that on a detector. That's spectroscopy."
They developed a concept for a device with an app store, like the iPhone.
"We started thinking, what else can we apply this to that has a real-world application? The list started getting really long," Dr Martin said.
"Every time we'd talk to someone new from some different industry, they'd get excited and say 'can you measure this and can you measure that?'."
They believed they could.
"We decided we'd build a piece of hardware and a software platform that enables people across different industries to use the technology for their particular application," Dr Martin said.
Dr Flynn said they wanted to make the technology "accessible and easily upgradable over time".
"Our mission is to enable anyone to accurately test whatever they want, when they want. Our instruments can be driven by mobile phone, desktop or web apps."
Dr Flynn said the hardware was designed to be robust "for farmers and agronomists that work in harsh conditions day after day".
"Additionally, the test results are simple to access, share and maintain across multiple platforms."
As they worked to build the platform, they signed labs in different industries.
"That's where the GrainCorp connection came from. Over a couple of years, we've developed the technology and tested grain in the GrainCorp lab."
The technology tests soil so farmers can make decisions around what crop to plant and whether fertiliser is needed for a healthier crop.
When the crop grows, the leaf material is tested for its health status. When it comes time to harvest, it's all about grain quality.
The farmer gets paid off the quality of the grain, and there are different grades of grain. The higher the grade, the higher the price.
"Currently there is no simple solution to measure this on their farm."