Monday, April 22, 2024

Growing agritech

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A roadshow to showcase the latest developments in agritech is hitting the road to keep farmers informed.
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A proposal under the Agritech Industry Transformation Plan (ITP) to create a national centre of excellence for horticultural robotics has been modified after concerns were raised that it may duplicate existing facilities.

The idea is one of three “high-impact projects” identified in the $11.4 million ITP launched by the Government last year, an effort to grow the agritech sector that already earns $1.4 billion in exports annually.

Agritech New Zealand chief executive Brendan O’Connell says it makes more sense to act as a catalyst and support existing research and engineering groups than set up a whole new national centre. 

“There was an idea put forward and when it got to further investigation it was ‘Yeah, there’s something there, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater’,” O’Connell says.

What’s proposed instead is a body that can act as a catalyst and pull together existing entities to help them respond to international opportunities for horticultural robotics, a term that embraces a range of automation and sensing technology and the internet of things (IoT).

“It’s had a whole pile of industry consultation, a business plan is being developed and there’s further funding likely to be sought. The business plan will go to the Treasury at some point to get further funding to set up that catalyst group,” he says.

The launch of the ITP in July 2020 was delayed by the covid-19 lockdown and since then proposals have been developed and AgritechNZ, together with MBIE, is staging a series of roadshows around the country to bring the agritech industry up-to-date.

Work on the other two high-impact projects — an agritech venture capital fund and the Farm 2050 Global Nutrients Project — is continuing too.

The proposed venture capital fund would combine the resources of the Crown-owned NZ Growth Capital Partners and private investors to fill a gap in funding for new start-ups.

“A criticism in the past has been that there’s lots of early-stage funding available for businesses that want to get off the ground and get some angel or seed funding, but there are gaps later on when businesses are looking at entering a growth phase,” he says.

“This is about how they get some of that later-venture capital.”

O’Connell expects an announcement on the proposal to be made in “the next couple of months”.

The Farm 2050 initiative will see NZ become part of an international network of trial farms to test new technologies to feed the world and protect the environment. It’s the brainchild of Google chair Eric Schmidt and involves global giants, including Syngenta, Corteva and Bayer Crop Science. NZ is the first ‘country partner’ of Farm2050.

“It will set up some trial farms in NZ where technology developed in NZ can be tested, and that same technology can be tested at similar sites at a large scale in other parts of the world, including North America and Europe,” he says.

Established agritech companies like Gallaghers, LIC and Waikato Milking Systems Manawatu are already well established export businesses, but O’Connell says there’s now a new generation of innovators coming along, working both in existing farm systems and in new ways of producing food. He lists examples, including BioLumic – which uses UV light to increase plant growth, vigour and yields – hydroponics company Bluelab and hi-tech glasshouse sensor maker Autogrow systems. 

“There are some really good innovators in NZ and none of them are too far off the land; many of them have come from farming backgrounds and so there’s a good affinity and understanding of what it means to farm and how technology can be applied,” he says.

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