Food security is a growing concern for many, as we live longer and as the population grows. It goes without saying that technology can help; more interesting is how agriculture has been a slow adopter of some of the more leading edge (dare I say digital) technologies. I was lucky enough to attend the launch of the Alliston Centre at the UK’s Royal Agricultural University: as well as being host to general regional development as part of the Gloucestershire Growth Hub network, the centre operates as an incubation centre for AgriTech businesses, under the umbrella of the RAU’s Farm491 initiative.
So, will Farm491 deliver the kinds of innovations we need in both farming practices and underlying technologies? I spoke to Ali Hadavizadeh, Programme Manager for Farm491 and startup business mentor, to find out more.
1. What problem is Farm 491 set up to solve?
The challenge of global population increase is becoming more serious. If human numbers are to increase to 10 billion by 2050, this means that globally, we need to produce 60% more food, which needs to be nutritious, high quality and affordable. At the same time, our environmental footprint will increase exponentially, so we need to produce more food with less available production land.
Historically, we have been complacent in our attitudes to food production. In the UK, waking us up to reality is Brexit. We’ve come to realise that we’ve become so dependent on imports, we’ve almost forgotten how to grow food efficiently. We have to learn to be more self-sufficient.
2. So, were are the areas of focus?
Primarily, AgriTech is the ability of thinking innovatively, so we get more product, with the same or less impact. One starting point is decoupling food production from the land. Farming has relied on favourable weather, traditionally, so if you can prevent heat loss and provide light artificially, you’ve cracked it. With vertical farming and LEDs for example, you can give plants the correct wavelength to maximise photosynthesis.
We also want to get value from waste. We’ve spend a lot of energy producing it in the first place, so why not get maximum value out of it? This is where technology is coming in, this is a huge area of untapped potential. Consider Multibox for example — rather than vegetable waste ploughed into land or into landfill, why not feed it to insect larvae, to create fish food such that the fish can then enter the human food chain?
Many AgriTech startups are of this mindset, to take the challenge on. Young minds lap it up — identify problem, writing software, seeking investment and going for it. We try to nurture that mindset, providing a safety net so people can come up with a solution and see if it is viable. We want to put a business case around a good idea.
3. What kinds of AgriTech solutions do you see?
I like to ask, is your solution like an aspirin, or a chocolate? If an aspirin, you need to find customers with a headache whereas chocolate is more of a nice to have. Consider The Land App, which helps map out how agricultural land is used — that one is very much aspirin rather than chocolate! The Land App has just secured its first round of investment and have partnered with Ordnance Survey and other key influencers.
In some cases, it is a case of direct innovation in a specific area. For example, look at MagGrow , which is an engineering solution targeted at improving spraying coverage based on optimising droplet size. There is nothing new about spraying, but in conventional spraying you can lose up to 70%, as droplets lost in drift and miss their targets. If you can get active ingredients to hit 100%, you have then a win-win scenario, as you use less pesticide, less water and get better results.
4. How does Farm 491 help AgriTech startups?
Farm 491 is vital — it is the only agri-specific incubator in the country. We have an inspiring AgriTech innovation programme – we need to support 73 new AgruiTech businesses. If you’ve got a good idea, let’s test it and then try to help them seek clarity of long-term business survival and success. It’s like building a house — if you don’t do it properly, then it falls apart. Timing is also critical on introducing products to market. Too late and you miss the boat, but too early and people think you are bonkers!
One of the tools we use is to measure and advise across eight axes — product, market, channels, competition, financials, team, legal and IP. When they arrive, startups are often enthusiastic about product, but less knowledgeable on markets and channels. At the point when people say “I have no competition,” I get angry with them. That can spook them! Financials also often score very poorly, as do criteria around team.
When they come to us, many startups look like a pear on this eight-point spider diagram – our job is to create a balanced startup which marks high on all eight criteria. So, when they send a pitch deck to an investor, the proposition is de-risked as much as possible. Ultimately, perhaps the most important is about IP. Startups need to do something, even a trademark, to say “stay off our patch.”
5. What kinds of challenge do you see to incubating AgriTech startups?
At the moment, AgriTech is very new, it hasn’t been considered as a sexy technology area in terms of exploitation. On the upside, innovation can also come across from other sectors, as many verticals are quite advanced. So automotive, data, robotics — each offers massive potential to agriculture.
One specific challenge is to get more people to join the sector as innovators. We’re now partnered with AgriBriefing media (who produce Farmers Guardian) – hosting Agri Innovation Den. On this competition project we have partnered with BASF. 8 finalists will get business support & media coverage, plus a year of flexible membership with Farm 491 and possible investment from enterprise arm of BASF. These are incentives to look at the agriculture sector with new eyes.
To drive things forward, we have also helped form the Agri-South West network. Our specific role is to support good entrepreneurs, but this is for the entire supply chain. As a result, we will be able to ensure our startups get all they need after they leave, so they don’t fall off the end of a cliff.
We are working with a fantastic group of partners, including universities, LEPs, councils and private sector. The South West provides 37% dairy, 32% beef and 15% of the poultry for the UK, but we didn’t have a common voice: the network aims to do that, and has recently applied for a fund called ‘Strength in Places’ to support the agri-supply chain in the south west. We are at the beginning of that journey.
My take: a crisis is a problem with no time left to solve it
Despite many challenges, today’s western populations are very lucky to live in a time of relative plenty, as well as living through rapid technological change. The latter has driven huge market changes: it is highly unlikely that outsourcing and offshoring would exist on the scale we have seen, without the availability of global connectivity. Not only has this led to an ongoing worldwide rebalancing of resources, but it has also led to a level of complacency around how, and where, our food is produced. We can debate the whys and wherefores of this; meanwhile, we can recognise that it is unlikely to last forever.
This creates a problem, not for now, but for the future. We not only need to be able to know how to produce food; we also have to become very good at doing it, as we will have to do so with increasingly constrained resources. In life there are good problems, and bad problems, and this is currently a good problem: rather than waiting for the problem to become a crisis, we need only to take the initiative, to grasp the clear opportunity that presents itself. Not only can we work towards more sustainable farming, but also, there is a great deal of efficiency to be gained, and therefore money to be saved in the short term.