Meet The Woman With The Perfect “Angle” For Success

By Paul Wood
The News-Gazette, Champaign-Urbana, Ill.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Becky Fuller is an associate professor in the Department of Animal Biology at the University of Illinois. Her app, “BassVisionTM”, helps anglers get a leg — or a fin — up on largemouth bass by showing them how their lures appear to the fish.

Champaign-Urbana, Ill.

Question: What gave you the idea to create this app? Do you do a lot of fishing yourself?

Answer: I originally had the idea to create this app when I was thinking about my own research. One of our projects focuses on the evolution of male color patterns in bluefin killifish. This killifish species is interesting because the color pattern is really variable among the males. The anal fins can be blue or yellow or red. Also, the blue color pattern is really abundant in swamp populations, but is absent in spring populations.

I decided that I wanted to figure out how their major predator, the largemouth bass, perceived these different color patterns in springs and swamps. But when I went to the scientific literature to figure out the basic properties of their visual systems, I was shocked to discover that there was very little known about the visual system of this fish. It was then that I realized that there was an opportunity here to bring tools that had been developed in the arena of visual ecology to the recreational fishing industry.

I fished a lot with my grandpa growing up, but it was pretty lazy fishing. My grandparents had a small cabin on a lake in Nebraska. We would drop a line with a worm off of the dock and then go to another little beach around the point to go swimming. We would come back and see if we had a fish on the line. These days I go frequently go collecting with dipnets and seines with my graduate students. In addition to studying largemouth bass and killifish, we also study darters. The killifish work is mainly in Florida, while the darter work is here in the Midwest. I also teach the ichthyology course here at the UI, so I am often in the field catching fish with the students.

Question: Who else is on your team?

Answer: There are five other people on my team. Cody Sullivan is leading the sales efforts. He is a UI alum with a degree in natural resources. He used to be the president of the UI Bass Fishing Club.

He’s a great person to have on this team because he fished professionally on the bass tournament circuit for a few years. He’s also getting his MBA at Eastern Illinois University, and he has his own duck-call business called Bad Boy Calls. We also have two faculty studying bass biology who are on the team. Cory Suski is from the Department of Natural Resources, and John Epifanio is from the Illinois Natural History Survey. There are also two former post-docs on our team: Muchu Zhou and Jamie Baldwin-Fergus.

Question: As you point out, many factors can affect which lures work best on any given day, including water clarity, water depth, time of day/year, and target species. Part of the puzzle is that most fish see colors differently than humans, making it difficult to anticipate which lure will work best. What are some of the ways your technology can help?

Answer: Our app simulates bass vision, so it allows the user to determine which lures should be most conspicuous to bass under different scenarios. The angler can use the app in many different ways. Some anglers talk about doing their “homework” before they go fishing. So here, they can choose the water conditions most similar to the ones where they will be fishing to determine which lures might be most conspicuous to the bass.

Anglers can also use the app when they are on the water to get new ideas as to which lures to use if they are having a slow day. The app also provides a “real-time visualizer” that allows you to see objects through the camera on the phone to estimate how a bass would see things. We anticipate that this feature will be helpful when people are shopping for lures in the big stores.

Question: Your company, BassInSight, has developed BassVisionTM, an app that compares fish vision to human vision to help anglers increase catches. How do you achieve a representation of fish vision?

Answer: There is a branch of science called visual ecology where people have been doing these types of things for years. If you know something about the spectral sensitivity of the cone cells, the color pattern of the lure, and the transmission of light through the water, then you can estimate how much light the cones are catching. Based on these estimates, you can determine how conspicuous an object should be to the viewer. Our lab has measured the sensitivity of the bass cone cells, so these data go into the algorithms that the app uses.

The trick here is to find a way to give the human a feeling for what it’s like to have a two-cone visual system — as opposed to our own three-cone visual system. The bass have only two cones, so colors like yellow and green aren’t really available to them.

Question: Your AWARE — Accelerating Women and under-Represented Entrepreneurs — grant is quite a coup. The National Science Foundation funds the program, but it sounds like the UI Research Park plays a major role?

Answer: The EnterpriseWorks out at the research park has provided an amazing amount of support for us. We took an I-Corps Sites course offered through EnterpriseWorks. They helped direct us towards the I-Corps National program. They have also supported us with an AWARE award and an I-Start award. Laura Bleill and Jed Taylor have given us a large amount of advice and guidance in how to navigate this new world we find ourselves in.

The other UI resource that was simply indispensable for this project was the folks out at Administrative Information Technology Services. They took the algorithms that I had created and then turned them in to a well-designed app. I think that this project would have fizzled out long ago if we hadn’t had the backing of the university.

Question: What do you specialize on in your work as a professor?

Answer: I am an evolutionary biologist who studies fish. I do lots of work on the evolution of color patterns and color vision as a function of different lighting environments, which is directly related to our project here.

I also study speciation in fish as a function of adaptation to different types of habitats and chromosomal rearrangements. I mainly focus on smaller species because I like to do crosses where I create multiple families of fish and raise them in different environments to ask questions about the roles of genetics and environment on trait expression.

Question: What made you channel that research into founding BassInSight?

Answer: There were many things that happened that led me to founding BassInSight. I had this idea that I could make a smartphone app that would be helpful for anglers. I knew that the National Science Foundation supported these types of tech transfer projects, so I mentioned it to my program officer at a conference, and he told me about the I-Corps project.

One of the things that I really like about running a startup is that it requires me to think in a slightly different way. Scientists spend their lives thinking about where the holes are in our scientific understanding of the world. We then make an argument about why it’s important to fill those holes, and then we go and do it.

The startup requires a similar type of analysis, but it’s more focused on the needs of the end user. What do anglers want? What do the lure makers want? What is the state of the recreational fishing industry? I love going out to boat ramps and talking to anglers and their spouses. The anglers are usually men. With the men, I ask them what their favorite lure is, and they’ll open up and chat. With their wives, I ask them how many lures their husbands own, and they will go on a huge spiel about all of the lures their husbands have. Those interactions can be super energizing for me.

Question: Your app recently became available for iPhone. What are some of the things it can do?

Answer: The app does a lot of things. First, it allows the user to see what the lure looks like to the bass (and the human) in different water types. So the way that the lure appears in clear water is different from basic lake water or muddy water or green water or swamp water.

Then, it allows them to see the effects of depth. As the bass goes deeper and deeper, the lighting gets dimmer but it also changes in colors available for vision. The reason that the ocean looks bluish is because the water absorbs the red wavelengths to a greater degree than it absorbs the blue. The app also allows the user to see the effects of the viewing distance on the perception of the lure.

The viewing distance is the distance from the lure to the fish. As the lure gets farther away from the fish, it basically blends into the background but the rate at which it does this varies between the water types. The best analogy of this for human vision is when you see things through fog. We have all probably experienced the sensation where an object “appears” out of the fog as we get closer to it.

Question: What else?

Answer: The user can also apply the visualizer to their entire tacklebox. They can scroll through their lures for a given set of conditions and figure out which lure is most conspicuous for a set of conditions. They can also user the real-time visualizer to see things through their camera as the bass would. You can imagine that a person who is shopping for lures at the big box stores might find this handy.

Question: How does light behave differently in water?

Answer: I am sure that the physics professors who read this are going to be aghast at my explanation, but here goes. In a vacuum, light travels forever. It doesn’t slow down. It’s crazy to think about, but in a vacuum, a little photon of light just keeps going merrily on its path of travel. But light can get altered when it bumps into things. This depends on the wavelengths of the light and the properties of the things it’s bumping into. In the air, light doesn’t bump into things as often, so it still travels a really long distance.

But in water, the light is constantly bumping into water molecules and those of stuff that has dissolved in the water. “Pure” water itself absorbs parts of the light. This alters the light that is available for vision.

As you go deeper and deeper in the ocean, there are fewer red wavelengths because they were absorbed by the water. In addition to this, you can have other stuff in the water that also absorbs the light. Algae, particulates like mud and dissolved organic matter, which make the water look like iced tea, all absorb and scatter different parts of the light. In addition to this, you have the effects of depth, viewing distance, time of day and cloud cover that make the problem of how animals see things in water very complicated.

Question: Bass angling is the largest segment of fishing in the USA — over 15 million people in the U.S. participate and spend about $3 billion for supplies, equipment and travel. Will you continue to add features to the app?

Answer: Absolutely! There were many features that I wanted to include in this original design that had to wait. One feature that I really wanted to incorporate was the ability to have the angler estimate the water properties right where they are fishing. Right now, the angler simply chooses between several different water types: clear water, lake water with a little bit of algae in it, water with lots of algae, swamp water, and muddy water.

We have some ideas for how to use the phone to get the light-transmission data right on the water. The other feature that I want to incorporate is the ability for the fish to look up or down. Right now, the app just simulates vision when the fish looks horizontally. But the visual scene is quite different when the fish looks up toward the surface versus when the fish looks down toward the bottom. We hope to incorporate these fields of view in the future. We also want to incorporate additional species.

Question: What’s your best advice for someone who’s just begun a startup?

Answer: Make certain that you enjoy working on your startup. You need to believe in your product. It’s tons of fun at the start because you imagine your startup being this wildly successful company. But then you hit a spot in the middle where it becomes real. How do we get the money for our ad campaign? How do we get the money to do the Android version?

Despite the fact that I am ridiculously busy with my research and my home life, I do genuinely enjoy working on this project. I love the idea of taking this branch of science to the recreational fishing industry where I think it has real applications. I like being at the boat ramps and talking to anglers. I also really enjoy working with my partners who help pick me up when I am feeling down about something.

Question: Did you ever make any mistakes in your early years?

Answer: One way in which being an entrepreneur and being a scientist are similar is that you always need to be prepared to learn new things and develop new skills. It is a never-ending process of learning new things and adjusting to new facts. There are still times when I fall back into the mode of being a dinosaur and doing what feels familiar. Sometimes, I still have to work at being less of a dinosaur.

Question: Social media?

Answer: Our Twitter handle is @BassVisionApp. Personally, I just follow a bunch of other scientists who are tweeting about things that they are excited about.

Question: Favorite app?

Answer: Either BringFido or DogVacay. BringFido is basically Expedia for dog owners. It lets you search dog-friendly hotels. It’s nice to read other dog owners’ takes on the hotels. DogVacay is this app that I discovered also while travelling with our dog. We had a big family Christmas party in a hotel that did not take dogs and all the kennels in the area were booked. We used DogVacay to find someone who would let our dog sleep in their house for a night. This lady had at least 15 dogs in her house on December 23 (at $30 per dog per night). It was a big dog slumber party. But it solved our problem.

On Facebook, I follow … My family and high school friends. For reasons I don’t understand, I use Facebook to stay in contact with long-lost friends and family. Twitter is for science.

Question: Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now?

Answer: I do both books and Kindle. On my iPad, I read the New York Times and the Economist. For my bedtime book, I am re-reading the “Percy Jackson” series. Did I mention that I am a dinosaur and like the comfort of the familiar?

Question:Do you have any wearable electronics?

Answer: Nope. This is one aspect of my life where I am a proud dinosaur. I have a watch with hands on it. This way, when I want to set the time, I simply pull out the pin and rotate the dial. I think that dials are very intuitive devices. The other good thing is that it does not beep at me.

Question: Do you have an entrepreneur hero?

Answer: I don’t have a favorite entrepreneur hero, but I do listen to the NPR podcast “How I Built This,” which I find both inspiring and also a bit intimidating. I hear these stories of these entrepreneurs overcoming these hardships, and it makes me nervous about what is in store for our group. My favorite story has been about Kendra Scott, who has this very popular line of jewelry. There were multiple times when she could have closed shop and walked away, but she soldiered on and persisted. Some of her gambles meant betting everything on the future success of her company. It was pretty amazing.

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