As featured in Arable Farming Magazine

Incubators supporting a tech-led future

by Arable Farming Nov/Dec 2020 issue

The UK is one of the largest investors globally for agritech and is now home to a number of ‘incubators’ that support tech start-ups and farmers looking to invest. Alice Dyer finds out how these hubs are helping to propel the industry into a tech-led future.

The Government outlined its vision for the UK to become a world leader in agricultural technology, innovation and sustainability in its £160 million Strategy for Agricultural Technologies in 2013 and since then, hundreds of millions of pounds of public money has gone into agritech.

With the Government’s ambition in mind, the industry has embraced the challenge and a number of tech incubators have emerged across the UK with the aim of enabling fledgling companies to develop their ideas, scientists to link up with engineers, and engineers to network with investors and end-market users.

Government funding has seen the creation of four dedicated Agri-tech Centres of Agricultural Innovation, and a number of university’s and colleges expanding their remit.

Agri-TechE – Cambridge

Formally known as Agri-Tech East, Agri-TechE was established in 2014 with an ambition to facilitate an environment where farmers, researchers, technologists and investors could come together.

The business-focused membership organisation, which helps to give smaller organisations and early-stage companies a presence in the industry, has a number of initiatives and competitions for its members.

These include agri-hackathons, business plan competitions and a Young Innovators Forum, which brings together young farmers with early career scientists to start a ‘bottom up’ approach.

Agri-TechE also hosts the annual REAP conference, which covers emerging areas of agritech.

For Cambridge-based agritech company Yagro, its first calling point was Agri-TechE during the early stages of exploring business concepts and network building.

The company’s first customer was G’s Fresh, facilitated by AgriTechE, and one it still works with today.

Gareth Davies, chief executive and co-founder of Yagro, says: “The Agri-TechE team have always been a great sounding board for ideas and routes to market and we have generated some good awareness through our presence and coverage.

“Several farms of our National Steering Group for Yagro Analytics are members of Agri-TechE, reflecting the strength of relationship we have from the network.” Established in 2015, Yagro has grown significantly, now employing 21 people and offering two flagship tools for farmers.

These are Marketplace, an online sourcing of bulk farm inputs such as fuel and fertiliser, as well as insurance; and Analytics, a detailed cost of production analysis tool which was launched this September.

Analytics

Yagro Analytics is an online tool which processes data on variable costs and yields, to produce cost of production figures across crops, varieties, and down to individual fields.

Behind all this sits detailed analysis on prices, rates, and products – even analysing the quantity of active ingredients applied per field.

The new tool was developed alongside 15 UK farms which form the company’s National Steering Group and with financial support from the UK Government’s Transforming Food Production programme managed by Innovate UK.

Farm491, Cirencester

Based at and owned by the Royal Agricultural University, Farm491 is a technology incubator and innovation space focused on the future of farming and food systems.

It is the UK’s largest agritech incubator, with a total of 68 members which it has helped to raise over £31.5 million over two years.

The hub works with entrepreneurs throughout their stages of growth, offering networking opportunities, free workshops, strategic advice from in-house experts, support raising investment and access to new customers.

Events and competitions are frequently hosted by the hub, giving members the opportunity to showcase products directly to farmers and stakeholders.

The most recent challenge prize, ‘digging for innovation’, focuses on the question ‘can productivity and biodiversity co-exist?’.

It was launched alongside BASF in September and features a £5,000 cash award to the winner.

This is open to any entrepreneur, even at concept stage.

Farm491 is also involved in local and national policy on agritech and works with national and international partners to help reduce the fragmentation in the UK innovation marketplace.

Buildings

The centre’s three buildings act as office space for startups including grain marketing experts, CRM Agri, which moved its main office from Cambridge to Farm491 after managing director James Bolesworth saw that the hub’s network could help the business grow.

Mr Bolesworth says: “CRM Agri was started after we identified the need for both farmers and end users to have an independent source of opinion-based information on grain markets.

We do not trade or broker grain but provide insight and strategic advice on risk management in a bid to mitigate an increasingly volatile marketplace.

“The most valuable thing about our base at Farm491 is having that network around you.

You are sharing office space with people working in agtech and agriculture in all different sorts of businesses, from agronomists working on yield mapping software to vertical farming.

You get such a breadth of knowledge and skills, as well as highly motivated people who are all in the same place.

Introductions

“We also get a lot of introductions to people in the industry, whether we need services such as PR or marketing, accounting or business advice, it is all here.” He adds: “The Alliston Centre is a fantastic facility for running our training and client meetings and being right next to the university, you get a good feed of talent coming out of there.”

Getting impartial advice on adopting new technology

While developments in agritech are evolving fast, adoption by farmers is not.

Confusion over where to start or how to make the best investment are commonly cited reasons for this.

But the new Agri-Tech Centre at Hartpury University and College hopes to change that.

Taking a farmer focus, the facility, which opened in February, will act as the go-to place for farm businesses, big or small, at any stage of their tech journey, looking for impartial advice on technology that could benefit them.

It offers a free service to farmers looking to invest in technology through knowledge exchange, training, demonstrations and workshops and connects producers with companies offering agritech solutions tailored to their business.

Centre manager Ben Thompson says: “Ever since the Government announced that agriculture needs to start embracing technology the floodgates opened to a lot of innovators, which means there is some technology that isn’t viable or potentially does not serve a real-world problem.

“We are a base for farmers to see what is available and what they can invest in, as well as how to get the most out of new technology.” The service offers support for all tech-related decisions, from pre-investment to integration and use on-farm.

This includes considerations such as infrastructure, return on investment and how it could tie into future ag policy.

Mr Thompson adds: “Rather than making that investment into something shiny and new, it is about making an investment into viable technology and into proven solutions that are available now.” The service is available to any farmer across all sectors, at any stage of their ‘tech journey’, whether they have invested in nothing and want to get started, or somebody with more experience looking to make the most of what they already have.

“We can help with any size and scale of investment, from an app all the way to robotics and automation,” says Mr Thompson.

“We are there to elevate the companies that have done the hard work.

We are non-biased, so we welcome ag tech companies to get in contact.” The facility will also look to link up with other agritech hubs in the UK that are more business facing to help their members roll out new products, says Mr Thompson.

The centre will be launching a membership package available to agritech providers, who can use the facilities to host workshops, training days and to connect with potential customers.

Visit hartpury.ac.uk/commercial/ hartpury-agri-tech-centre, or email agritech@hartpury.ac.uk

 

Government-funded tech centres delivering return on investment

As part of a £90 million Government investment from Innovate UK, four Agri-tech Centres of Agricultural Innovation were formed – Crop Health and Protection (CHAP), Agri-EPI Centre, Agrimetrics and Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock.

Results from collaborations with CHAP include Crop Monitor Pro (see p28-29) and the pipeline SlugBot project for autonomous monitoring and precision treatment of slugs, already delivering the centre’s mandate to increase crop productivity for future generations through the uptake of new technologies.

Hub Agri-EPI Centre and its regional innovation hubs take a precision agriculture and engineering focus.

To August 2020, it had undertaken 71 externally funded commercial and R&D projects with a total value of £28.7m.

Solutions developed include Crover (see p28-29) and hightech grain quality monitor, CropScan 3000h which allows barley growers to maximise the proportion of their crop suitable for the premium malting market.

Agri-EPI has established partnerships with 24 farmers to trial such technology, creating the Agri-EPI Satellite Farm network where new technologies and techniques can be researched, developed, evaluated and demonstrated in commercial farming settings.

CropScan trials were carried out at satellite farms in Suffolk and Gloucester during the last three harvests.

There, the scanner has been used to measure the protein content of milling wheat crops.

Gavin Dick, Agri-EPI Centre’s farms and commercial manager, says the next step is to maximise CropScan’s potential, with a key target being the Scottish malting barley market.

Agri-EPI also currently leads SMART farm projects with academic and commercial partners in Paraguay, China and New Zealand.

Each involves trials of UK agritech products.

Its growing number of member companies and organisations currently stands at 150 and ranges from retail multiples, supply chain businesses, outof-sector companies such as Amazon AWS and several highgrowth start-ups.

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2020-11-06T13:48:06+00:00November 6th, 2020|Blog Post|
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