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.
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.