Agritech’s growing momentum

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Recent initiatives reflect the volume of activity expected this year from the new agriculture and technical grouping Agritech New Zealand launched in 2018, says Bay of Plenty-based executive director Peter Wren-Hilton.

Agritech NZ’s membership involves virtually every key player in the New Zealand agritech sector. And the organisation is also a core member of the NZ Tech Alliance and works closely with other NZ Tech Alliance members, including NZTech, The IOT Alliance, The AI Forum, BiotechNZ, BlockchainNZ and FintechNZ.

“Agritech New Zealand is working collaboratively to connect everything and everyone in NZ Agritech into a coherent community supporting the growth of agritech earnings,” said Wren-Hilton in February.

“Our aspiration is for New Zealand’s agritech sector to be a global leader in science, technology and innovation, delivering commercial outcomes for the global primary sector.”

The challenges for the agritech sector – despite the wealth of smart agricultural technology in New Zealand – is that it has attracted negligible inward investment. In terms of export earnings, the sector had fallen behind global competitors such as Israel, Ireland, the Netherlands and the USA, says Agritech NZ.

Meeting the challenge for capital
“Lack of capital has meant that the agritech sector has faced challenges when accessing new markets,” Wren-Hilton said during a presentation in Tauranga last year.

“We have lacked a compelling, coherent story, despite some significant positive talking points. And lack of capital has meant that the sector has faced challenges when accessing new markets.”

Agritech NZ was working with everyone in the New Zealand agricultural technology space, Wren-Hilton told the Bay of Plenty Business News.

That includes several members of the Bay of Plenty’s PlantTech, one of four similar regional research initiatives that won funding under the previous government.

PlantTech aims to build regional and national capability in the application of advanced technologies to strengthen hi-tech exports. Priority One and the University of Waikato partnered with a consortium of eight local hi-tech focused businesses to create PlantTech, which reflects the strong agri-tech focus of the founding companies Bluelab, Cucumber, GPS-It, Eurofins, Plus Group Horticulture, Trimax Mowing Systems, Waka Digital and Zespri International.

Plus Group’s Robotics Plus and other PlantTech members are part of a 60-plus member Kiwi delegation taking part in February’s inaugural evokeAG conference in Melbourne.

Wren-Hilton said the delegation – organized byAgritechNZ and supported by Callaghan Innovation, NZ Trade and Enterprise and the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment – was the largest group of New Zealand agritech delegates to attend a major conference.

Conference organizer AgriFutures Australia managing director John Harvey visited New Zealand last year and both groups see advantages in cross-Tasman collaboration.

Farm2050 nutrient initiative
One of the key relationships Agritech NZ has been developing is with Farm2050, the brainchild of former Google chair and chief executive Eric Schmidt, which was established in 2014 through his investment vehicle, Innovation Endeavors.

Today, Farm2050 is a collective of diverse partners and is committed to advancing the future of food through supporting Agritech entrepreneurs and start-ups.

Farm2050’s Venture partners include Innovation Endeavor, Finistere Ventures, Radicle Growth, S2G Ventures, Fall Line Capital, Rabobank Global Ag Fund, Irish Sovereign Fund, Midland Capital and Syngenta Ventures. Its corporate partners include the likes of  Bayer CropScience, Syngenta, Corteva, PepsiCo, Mars, Microsoft and Google.

New Zealand has become the first country to have partner status with Farm2050, which Wren-Hilton said would provide New Zealand agritech companies with access to globally connected capital.

“Farm2050 will allow qualified deal-flow to be presented to some of the world’s largest agritech investors and give us the ability to connect with some of the world’s largest agribusinesses to assist scale offshore expansion.”

Wren-Hilton has been a key figure in the Bay’s entrepreneurial community for many years, and was the founder of Wharf42, which became part of the Bay incubator WNT Ventures.

He said one of the advantages of the relationship with Farm2050 was the ability to leverage northern hemisphere growing seasons to continue research and development, generate visibility in offshore markets, and vice versa.

He and Agritech NZ colleagues returned early this year from a visit to Farm2050 in San Diego, California, with news of a potentially dramatic development in an issue that is front and centre of New Zealand agricultural concerns.

Wren-Hilton said New Zealand would take ownership of Farm2050’s  global “Disruptive Nutrient Technology” initiative

“The major purpose of the visit was to discuss our preparation for this three-year initiative based on identifying disruptive technologies around nutrients,” he said.

Fertilisers, (nutrients such as N, P, K or Nitrogen, Phosphate and Potash and compounds thereof) are one of the single largest input spends in pastoral farming systems. Wren-Hilton cited estimates that less than 50 percent of the fertilizer applied in New Zealand and around the world is utilized by the targeted planted crops and fields to which they are applied.

The balance was volatilised or transmitted into the water table and often from there into stream /river/ estuary systems with negative environmental impacts, said Wren-Hilton.

Addressing environmental impacts
He said he had met in the US with innovation leaders from a number of the world’s largest agribusinesses, including Bayer CropScience, Corteva, Syngenta, and Nutrien.

“We discussed the impact of nutrient application and measurement from two perspectives – plant absorption efficiency and environmental impact,” he said.

“For farmers and growers in New Zealand, both are key metrics. My question and the question raised by others was whether existing practice is fit for purpose. What opportunities are there to test emerging technologies, as well as develop new technologies to address these two critical issues? These questions have become the main drivers for this global initiative.”

Wren-Hilton says that as Farm2050’s first country partner, New Zealand has a pivotal role to play, given its advanced farming systems and deep domain knowledge.

“We produce some of the finest agricultural product in the world. Yet our farmers and growers are well aware of the regulatory environment in which they now operate. Consumer concerns about environmental impact, negative media comment and government regulation are all affecting sentiment within the primary sector.”

The global nutrient initiative is designed to map talk with action to support New Zealand farmers and growers. In practice, as a first step, Farm2050, in conjunction with Agritech NZ, will work with New Zealand farmers, leading ag co-operatives and government to establish field trials to test select, emerging nutrient technologies.

He says Agritech NZ plans to engage with New Zealand’s major existing players in this space, as well as early stage agritech companies seeking to address these issues.

“There is also great science, often locked up in our universities and crown research institutes,” he said.

“Leveraging these combined assets can help New Zealand’s agritech sector take a global lead in improving both plant absorption efficiency, as well as reducing environmental impact, through the smarter use of nutrients.”

Wren-Hilton said that as well as improving the impact of nutrients / fertilisers on crops and plants, a key metric of the initiative was to identify ways to mitigate the negative environmental impact of nutrient use.

Over the next few weeks, Agritech NZ plans to release a detailed white paper outlining key objectives as well the step management process. The organization also expects to announce some of the globally recognized team members that will be working with Agritech NZ to help scale the initiative in New Zealand.

“For Agritech NZ and its members, it’s a very exciting way to kick off 2019.”

Strategic partnership with major US grower group

Another key relationship is that established last year by Agritech NZ with Western Growers, a California-based trade organisation which represents the largest producers of fresh produce in North America. Western Growers members produce 50 percent of all fresh vegetables, 50 percent of all fresh fruit and 65 percent of all organics.

A US media report last year described the new relationship as a major deal that could bring more agriculture technology to the Salinas Valley.

Hank Giclas, Western Growers senior vice president of science, technology and strategic planning, was quoted as saying there was a lot of technology in NZ that had applicability in the US and vice versa.

Both New Zealand and farmers in the western United States grow many similar crops and both faced similar issues like labor shortages and regulatory pressures.

“That translates into the need for technology to help…to be more precise in terms of their use of key inputs like water and fertilizer and agriculture chemicals,” said Giclas.

The partnership with Agritech New Zealand would allow Western Growers to serve as the landing point for agritech companies from that country, he said.

“We’ll take a look at those companies and try to match them up with US growers that are willing to help them vet their technology here and maybe work with them to refine their technology.” He said it did not matter where the solution came from, rather working together can only help. This was true especially in the field of robotics, where Giclas said New Zealand hads an edge over the crop industry in the United States.

“Robotics is a key area that we’re both interested in, so just as a concept, one of the things that we’re talking about doing is setting up a robotics academy or something along those lines.”

Agritech NZ’s Peter Wren-Hilton said that as a result of the strategic partnership development, the University of Waikato Robotics Engineering team, led by professor Mike Duke, was working with Western Growers to assist North American asparagus growers harvest their crop using asparagus harvesting technology developed by the university.

Other discussions were underway to enable other New Zealand agritech companies to develop relationships with Western Growers and their members, he said.

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