06 Mar, 2020

AgriTech: Business Solutions for Smarter Farming

Ifac Food & AgriBusiness Executive Patrick Black attended the second annual Cork Agritech Conference which took place in the Castlemartyr Resort on Wednesday March 4th. Entitled “The Future of Sustainable Agricultural Business” as part of Local Enterprise Week. Here what Patrick thought of the event below.

Wednesday March 4th saw the second annual Cork Agritech Conference take place in the Castlemartyr Resort, as part of Local Enterprise Week. Co-ordinated by South Cork Local Enterprise Office the event built on the success of the 2019 event which was entitled “The Future of Sustainable Agricultural Business”.

A number of influential speakers from the sector detailed the trends that are having a major impact on the sector. Growth is currently being enjoyed by many Irish agri-innovators but there are also some factors limiting the growth of the Irish AgTech sector which were addressed throughout the day. Patrick Black from the Food & AgriBusiness team was in attendance and these are some of the key takeaways from the day.

Agritech Engagement

The opening panel discussion, hosted by Suzanne Campbell, featured the opinions of influencers from across the wider agriculture sector with a major focus on agritech engagement. Martin O’Donnell, Chief Commercial Officer with Terra NutriTech and speaker on behalf of the newly formed AgTech Ireland representative body, highlighted the lack of cohesion amongst the companies operating in the Irish Agtech space. The aim of this group is to have a consolidated approach that will ultimately benefit those operating within the sector. This will be structured in a manner that will see a unified voice speaking for the sector in terms of:

· Government lobbying, e.g. influencing and understanding the new CAP

· Promotion and engagement at farm level

· Building awareness of the sector

· Engagement with state agencies such as Enterprise Ireland, Local Enterprise Office etc.

· International buyer engagement

· Opportunity for young agtech entrepreneurs to gain advice

Karol Kissane, Nuffield Scholar and dairy farmer echoed the sentiment from Martin flagging the lack of representation for agtech in Ireland. Karol used Israel as a prime example of a region that has really embraced and engaged with agtech in recent years through the formation of SoSa. SoSa acts as an incubator for agtech innovations within the region and work with them through all the stages of from innovation to commercialisation. They are also very open to engaging with ideas and entrepreneurs from outside of Israel which has helped them position themselves as one of the leaders in global agtech.

Is there any reason why we, as Ireland Inc. cannot position ourselves in a similar fashion to innovators this side of the globe? Read more on Israel as an agtech nation in this article from Agfunder here.

Karol closed by looking through the farmer lens, telling the audience that there is a bridge to be crossed with farmers and that bridge bares the question of “why do we need this extra piece of technology?”. Influencers and innovators within the sector need to be aware of the farmer psyche and the best way to navigate this in order to increase adoption rates of these new technologies.

In relation to adoption Mervyn Harvey, Head of Commercial with Herdwatch highlighted that their customer numbers are nearing 12,000 farmers proving that there is a willingness amongst Irish farmers to not only adopt, but embrace technologies such as Herdwatch that can have a major positive impact on-farm in terms of efficiency, traceability and sustainability.

James Healy, IP and Business Development Manager, Vistamilk brought us through the role they play in supporting Ireland’s agtech sector by collaborating with educational institutes and innovation hubs such as TSSG to support the development and deployment of technology that will enhance the dairy supply chain.

Mervyn closed the discussion of the first panel by stating that adoption rates should be the number one KPI to evaluate to success of any agtech innovation.

Agritech Start-Up Panel – The Journey

The second panel discussion provided us with insights from founders operating within three different subsets of the wider Agtech sector.

Sinead Quelly detailed how her company, Virtual Vet was borne out of a combination of changing EU policy in relation to antimicrobial resistance and her own skillset in the area of software. They offer various solutions depending on what the end user requires including:

· Data collection platform to help farmers build a synchronised drug-book compliance read at the drop of a hat.

· Consultancy to unlock insights from the data gathered on farm.

Some of the key points Sinead highlighted from her experience of developing an Agtech business included:

· Nothing can substitute the product being used in action to test its relevance and usability

· Surround yourself with people who will ask “why” - Sinead did this through a Board of Directors

· Learn from your mistakes.

On the food side of agtech, John Paul Prior from Farmony discussed vertical farming, hydroponics and how his company are bringing this new way of farming to Ireland. He highlighted the importance of travelling and taking time to understand similar innovations abroad before jumping into your own investment. They are now supplying produce to some of Ireland’s leading chefs as well as displacing some imports by working with one of Ireland’s leading food importers.

The key takeaway from John Paul was the utilisation of data and understanding where its relevant and not so relevant. Using his operation as an example, there are over 180,000 pockets of data after each 3-week production cycle but the vast majority of this information isn’t relevant to the customer so there is no point getting bogged down in the detail when communicating with customers.

He also flagged another key learning from his own experience “Producers want to produce, and sellers want to sell” highlighting the importance of having the correct routes to market in place.

In terms of on-farm agtech solutions, the people shortage issue was the key driver for David Mc Donnell when developing the Anuland offering. Whilst travelling to research his offering which measures grass automatically by using cameras, sensors and AI he noted a much stronger appetite from US farmers than their Irish counterparts in terms of embracing agtech.

Closing off the second panel discussion Farmony co-founder John Paul Prior noted the three major hurdles he has seen to date since establishing his agtech business:

1. As you come along with a new offering your reputation and credibility will be questioned, be prepared for this.

2. You will be trying to sell the customer something new and innovative. They may not fully understand the product/service and it may mean changing their entire system to adopt this new tech so there could be an element of “don’t teach me how to suck eggs” from the customer.

3. Does your product do what it says it will do?

Building on the panel discussion we heard from three of Ireland’s leading voices on agtech from a state-body perspective.

Ireland – The Agritech Island

James Maloney, Enterprise Ireland gave us a comprehensive overview of the global and national agtech landscape. Agtech is regarded as the 2nd fastest growing sector in terms of start – up activity with $20bn of capital injected into the sector in 2019. Some of the reasons why Agtech has received so much interest from the non-ag community include climate change, increased population, water quality, labour and resources.

Agtech is perfectly poised to assist in tackling these issues with new technology being developed constantly. At home, some of the top line figures from the Irish Agtech sector include:

· Agtech exports to 140 countries

· €21m Agtech Fund

· Agri Engineering sector worth €500m

From an academic perspective Tom Flanagan detailed some of the services available from NovaUCD to assist those operating within the sector. More information can be found on these here.

While Kevin Doolin, Director of Innovation with TSSG based in Waterford Institute of Technology brought us through how they can assist agtech start-ups through the technological development of their product right through to the commercialisation stage see more info here on how TSSG can help.

The final speaker of the day was Dr. Fiona Edwards Murphy, founder of ApisProtect. Dr. Fiona gave us a brilliant presentation on how she brought her innovation (which is designed to help beekeepers prevent losses and increase productivity in their hives) from idea and research stage (as part of her PhD) to a commercialised product. Following a slot on Morning Ireland she received enquiries from beekeepers across the globe. In Ireland we may consider this a hobby business, but this is not the case in other regions with 2 million beehives needed in California each year alone to assist in the pollination of Almond plantations for example.

The bee sector, like many other agriculture sectors had been very labour intensive and lacked automation and use of technology up until this point. ApisProtect has changed this through the development of this ground-breaking technology.

Overall, the day provided great insights from speakers working across a number of different areas within the Irish agtech sector. It was clear that there is a serious appetite for growth within the sector, the required support networks are being constructed with the likes of the new Agtech Ireland representative organisation coming on stream, supports from the likes of Enterprise Ireland and a global need for solutions to be developed so we can continue farming sustainability and efficiently into the future.

To work with ifac on developing your food, agtech or agribusiness contact Patrick Black on 01 455 1036 or email patrickblack@ifac.ie.