Monday, April 22, 2024

Biotech, ailing area in economy

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New Zealand lacks a biotech strategy and that could seriously affect the country’s economy, BiotechNZ executive director Dr Zahra Champion says. The global biotechnology market is expected to reach more than US$727 billion in six years and the NZ biotech investment market could soon be worth US$7.1b.
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But NZ, thought it used to, does not now have a biotech strategy.

“For a country so reliant on the primary export sector we need to build a world-class biotech-agritech ecosystem,” Champion said. 

“Our Government must understand it is vital to the future of our economy.”

Five years ago almost no one knew what agritech or biotech was but today agricultural technology – from vertical farming and data science to farm drones – is a hot topic in investor circles.

The Investment Corporation of Dubai alone just dropped US$203 million into agritech investments, another US$200m came from the Japanese holding behemoth SoftBank and dedicated venture capital funds are zeroing in on the sector’s potential.

In 2017 total investment was more than US$1.5b – a new record for the sector and one that is setting the stage for rapid growth.

AgritechNZ executive director Peter Wren-Hilton said the local agritech market is coming of age. 

“NZ is a great test market for addressing global farming challenges such as nutrient management and cleaning waterways, dealing with labour shortages and producing healthier food. Yet more needs to be done to help Kiwi agritech companies go global faster.”

There is a wealth of potential solutions for global markets locked up in Crown research institutes and universities, he said. 

“Potentially, with better incentive structures and better connections with smart global capital, NZ could accelerate the conversion of this intellectual property into value for the local economy.”

And a clear, national strategy could assist.

Champion wants to strategically reposition and restructure the direction for NZ to build an agritech ecosystem.

“Many of the new technologies in agriculture are from our BiotechNZ group,” she said. 

“These include companies like A2 Corporation which has developed systems that improved protein in Anchor milk. AgResearch in Lincoln is producing grass that grows 50% faster and is more resistant to drought.

“Look at the work Indigo has developed that will significantly reduce emissions from agriculture by increasing pasture-fed milk and meat production. We need to nurture more companies like that,” Champion said. 

The NZ biotech sector is protected by intellectual property rights, strict regulatory guidelines and a highly-skilled workforce. 

“It is one of the few manufacturing sectors that cannot be easily eroded by lower cost economies,” Champion added. 

“We don’t want to fall behind.

“It is time for a more strategic, all-of-government approach and a shared national strategy.”

Callaghan Innovation agritech group manager Simon Yarrow agrees the global agritech sector is heating up and NZ needs to keep pace. 

“There is no denying our economy’s roots in agriculture run deep but our land-based industries will not flourish without continued innovation. 

“Ten years ago there was no significant venture capital going into agritech – but now we’re seeing that change for two reasons: one, because there’s huge opportunity to take technology from other industries and apply them to agriculture and two, we have this global increase in population and wealth that’s driving the need for greater food production.”

The Government appears to be showing initial interest.

In February a new Rural Innovation Lab was launched with support from the Provincial Growth Fund, among others, aiming to tackle some of the most pressing problems facing NZ agriculture over the next 10 years.

The lab was founded to help Manawatu-Wanganui farmers access and understand the latest technology available to create a more efficient and environmentally sustainable primary sector. 

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