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SATURDAY SOAPBOX

Lessons on bee-ing innovative

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AS OLD ECONOMY AS IT GETS: The Flow Hive is completely lacking in any IT element - it was thoughtful engineering that made the difference, not sensors or apps to track honey output.

TALK about causing a buzz. A new invention from Australia is promising honey "on tap" - turning conventional beekeeping on its head, stinging an entire industry of veterans, and raking in millions of dollars in the process.

It's disruption at its finest, albeit in the most unexpected of spheres, and without an iota of techie-ness.

While the Flow Hive needs to be seen to be believed (videos are aplenty on YouTube), in essence, the contraption allows pure honey to be harvested directly from the hive. Unlike conventional beekeeping practices - which haven't changed much since the late 1800s - the reimagined beehive doesn't need to be opened in order for honey to be extracted. Simply turn a key and watch fresh, ready-to-eat honey flow out.

The Flow Hive's critical differentiator is its pre-formed, man-made plastic honeycomb, which can be split apart and joined back together. This transforms closed hexagonal cells into vertical channels through which honey can drain via gravity - a process that can be repeated over and over again.

Created by Byron Bay-based father and son pair Stuart and Cedar Anderson, the innovation simplifies the notoriously tricky, messy, and labour-intensive process of honey extraction.

It eliminates the need to subdue bees with a smoker, and no longer requires any filtering process since the honey is drained directly from the hive. Expensive honey-extracting equipment - which costs around A$500 (S$513) at the minimum - is completely removed from the picture too.

With the Flow Hive, bees are also left undisturbed through the extraction process. That's a huge improvement over current methods, where it is nearly impossible to draw the honey out without killing or injuring bees.

As it turns out, scores of people are digging the invention. During its debut on crowdfunding site Indiegogo last year, the Flow Hive took less than eight minutes to reach its goal of US$70,000; in the 24 hours that followed, US$2 million was pledged. This marked the largest amount ever to be pledged in that window of time, on any crowdfunding site.

By the end of its campaign, Flow Hive had raised a whopping US$12.2 million from customers in over 130 countries - making it the 10th-highest funded crowdfunding project of all time, and only one of two non-tech-related products to raise over US$10 million. A pretty sweet deal indeed.

Since then, they've launched another Indiegogo campaign succesfully - orders for that tranche are being shipped out this month - and to date, over 38,000 people have bought the system. Fans include seasoned apiarists as well as newbies interested in urban beekeeping. (What are they called? Newbees? Wannabees? Babees?)

As Singapore seeks to chart its way forward amid business shake-ups and technological disruptions, the Flow Hive story is instructive. Here are some lessons that stick:

  • Innovation takes time. The Flow Hive is the result of a decade of continual tinkering and innumerable prototypes. Success rarely happens overnight.
  • Disruption doesn't have to be newfangled or techie. Beekeeping is as old economy as it gets, and the Flow Hive is completely lacking in any IT element. It was thoughtful engineering that made the difference - not sensors or apps to track honey output.
  • The smallest change can spark a revolution. It's worth noting that the Flow Hive doesn't change the process of honey production at all; it's the plastic honeycomb that sets it apart, and transforms the way honey can be extracted. A small tweak, to be sure, but one that has made all the difference.
  • There will always be resistance to new ideas. While the response to the Flow Hive has been overwhelmingly positive, it has also seen intense backlash. Detractors, mostly traditional beekeepers, have voiced criticisms of all stripes: that the Flow Hive's selling price of US$699 is too high; that the US$12.2 million raised could have gone towards bee-related research instead; that the invention reduces bees to honey-making commodities and eliminates "communion between bees and beings"; that "bees don't like plastic". . . The list - and the Flow Hive - goes on.
  • True innovation comes from solving real problems. The younger Anderson, Cedar - a third-generation beekeeper - has noted that the Flow Hive didn't come about because of a desire to make money, but from a desire to solve a problem. In his own words: "For us, it was more about: 'I can't help but think there has to be a better way (than) pulling the hive apart, disrupting the bees, running across the paddock because the hive's angry and you've forgotten your bee gloves.'"

If there's anything the Flow Hive makes clear, it's that disruption is more than a buzzword. And that brings me comfort - knowing that the best is yet to bee.

  • The Flow Hive does not currently ship to Singapore. As far as BT understands, beekeeping is an unregulated activity here.