Valérie Robitaille was a grad student at the Université du Québec doing research on using lasers to look at fish underwater, when a shrimp aquaculture company in Vietnam contacted her more than a decade ago.
Ms. Robitaille recalls a representative from the shrimp company saying: " ‘We think we could use this [technology] to count shrimp larvae.’ "
Ms. Robitaille soon realized the aquaculture industry is huge – the fastest growing food industry in the world – with the shrimp farming industry alone worth $37-billion.
This was the early beginnings of XpertSea, a flourishing Canadian company that has transformed the shrimp farming industry. ExpertSea earned the 63rd spot on The Globe and Mail’s Top Growing Companies 2021 ranking, with three-year revenue growth of 963 per cent.
XpertSea’s smartphone app, launched in 2020 during the pandemic, allows shrimp farmers to track and grow more shrimp using just their phone’s camera. It’s a new data-driven online marketplace that connects farmers and buyers, ensuring farmers are paid faster.
“It’s really changed the dynamic where famers now have more power in the market,” says Ms. Robitaille.
Nearly a decade ago after hearing from that Vietnam shrimp farmer, Ms. Robitaille, chief executive officer of XpertSea, and engineer Cody Andrews, an XpertSea co-founder (and now Ms. Robitaille’s husband), realized they could develop technology to help shrimp farmers understand how their crops were growing beneath the murky brackish waters, either in man-made ponds or coastal marine areas.
The company accumulated more than four billion images of shrimp, and developed machine learning models that measure, simply through taking a photo of a sample on a smartphone, the growth rate and number of shrimp in a pond. “Every single farmer around the planet can do it,” Ms. Robitaille says about the venture. Previously, shrimp production was tracked and managed manually on white boards.
They sought venture capital dollars on the advice of Ms. Robitaille’s brother, François Robitaille, an accountant, also an XpertSea co-founder and now the company’s head of finance. In 2015, the company closed a seed financing round of $1.25-million. Ms. Robitaille’s mother, Sylvie Lavigne, an engineer and co-founder, is now vice-president of the company.
“We never saw it as a family business. It happened that the people I trusted all had skills and they were ready to take a significant pay cut to join this,” Ms. Robitaille says.
XpertSea raised $10-million in start-up funding in 2018. This past year, following 1,000 per cent revenue growth in Latin America, the firm raised $25-million, led by QED Investors and Atlantico.
Currently, 1,000 farms in more than 50 countries are using the smart phone app, the majority in southeast Asia and South America. With the cash flowing faster to farmers, they can grow 25 per cent more shrimp per year, says Ms. Robitaille.
The company earns money by taking a cut for every transaction – a fee which Ms. Robitaille says is frequently subsidized by the buyers.
The buyers export the shrimp to Canada, the United States, Europe and China.
“When you go to the grocery store, all of the shrimp cocktails that you buy – this is all farmed shrimp,” says Ms. Robitaille. “Most of the shrimp that we consume here in North America that you find at the restaurant or retail store, comes from shrimp aquaculture.”
XpertSea is now focused on scaling up in Ecuador, a $3.74-billion market, and expanding their business model to new markets. In January, the company hired a president and chief operating officer, Katie Sokalsky, who has expertise in finance and technology. Sixty employees work for the Quebec City-based XpertSea, with about half on the ground in Asia and Latin America.
XpertSea’s next steps involve looking into how technology can be used for greater transparency around sustainability in shrimp farming.
Ms. Robitaille says consumers increasingly want to know where their food comes from and if sustainable methods are used to produce it.
Organic waste, chemicals and antibiotics from shrimp farms can pollute groundwater or coastal estuaries, according to the World Wildlife Fund, an international conservation organization. Salt from the ponds can also seep into groundwater.
Ms. Robitaille says XpertSea is well-positioned to help bring more transparency and traceability to the seafood industry, using its existing insight and connection to shrimp farmers and international buyers. The company is using machine learning models to develop ways to measure the carbon footprints of shrimp farms, benchmarking volumes of wastewater and ensuring shrimp feed comes from a sustainable source.
“Seafood is notorious for fraud and opacity in the supply chain, and not always knowing where the seafood comes from or if it’s even the real type or species of fish that you’re eating,” Ms. Robitaille says. “The mission of XpertSea is to bring more supply of sustainable seafood to the market, and we’re starting with shrimp, where we feel we can make a very big difference.”
In this series, we ask some of Canada’s Top Growing companies to share advice on finding new and innovative routes to success in an unpredictable business environment.