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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”