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Turning agritech strategy into reality

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After two years at the helm of AgriTech New Zealand, Peter Wren-Hilton has decided to step down as executive director. He spoke to Colin Williscroft about how the sector is placed for the future and what challenge is next for him.
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Peter Wren-Hilton | September 22, 2020 from GlobalHQ on Vimeo.

Agritech in New Zealand is at the beginning of a new chapter, which for Peter Wren-Hilton is a good time for someone else to take over the day-to-day running of the organisation he helped establish, so he can devote more time to working in the sector rather than on it.

Wren-Hilton was AgriTech NZ’s inaugural director for almost two-and-a-half years, ensuring the member-funded organisation is now a key connection point for innovators, investors, researchers and regulators wanting to utilise technology to increase productivity and maximise profitability in the primary sector.

In 2015, he and wife Jacqui were based in Silicon Valley when they became aware of the potential for future investment in agritech, although at the time there was little of it happening in NZ.

He says one of the reasons for that was a lack of collaboration between government departments, which were instead largely working in silos.

For the sector to grow that approach was not an option and he spent two years looking at how to address the problem. The result was AgriTech NZ, which today has more than 160 members, including most large NZ agribusinesses, government agencies, Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) and universities.

The organisation was closely involved in putting together the recently launched agritech industry transformation plan, a two-year plan with $11.4 million of government funding to address some of the challenges facing the sector.

Now that the strategy is in place, the next step is to implement it.

To help facilitate that, Wren-Hilton, who with Jacqui will continue in an advisory role with AgriTechNZ, will turn most of their attention back to Wharf42, a Tauranga-based company they established in 2012.

One of their initial focuses will be helping to build closer ties with the Australian agritech sector.

Last year, he was approached by the NZ and Australian governments to help build a framework for trans-Tasman agritech collaboration.

That’s seen the launch of the Australia-New Zealand Agritech Council, which aims to position the region as a key agritech hub in the global market.

Collaboration rather than competition between the two countries is important, given the distance from global markets. 

“For New Zealand, a poor performing Australia is absolutely not in our best interests,” he said. 

“For investors sitting in San Francisco, London or Singapore, they want to see a strongly performing trans-Tasman region.

“As we move towards a post-covid-19 world, the importance of building regional supply chains is critical. As recent events have shown, the impact of closed borders on international trade is significant. 

“The potential for a more open trans-Tasman border brings opportunities to not only access each other’s markets, but to collaborate and penetrate global markets. 

“The creation of the Australia New Zealand Agritech Council is a first step towards this, however a more detailed understanding of the strengths and synergies between both countries’ agritech sectors is required.”

Wren-Hilton says improvements also need to be made around the commercialisation of research.

While universities and CRIs undertake a considerable amount of research in the food and fibre space, they are not well known for commercialising their innovations. 

He says there appears to be a lack of connection between research and the market and the industry transformation plan provides an opportunity to have a close look at funding models and settings to make commercialisation a more significant part of projects.

That will require a change in mindset, as currently much of the government or academic funding towards agritech has no requirements attached to speed up work and get it commercialised, instead being for a set amount of time.

It’s important to meet the moment and get products to market when the need and interest is there. Delay runs the risk of the market moving on and finding another solution or product.

The key is to streamline distinct research areas and create a fast track to commercialisation.

But it’s also important to engage with those who will use the technology, and for agritech, that’s farmers.

“It doesn’t matter how good the tech is if people aren’t using it,” he said.

NZ can mount a good case to being a place to test new agritech, with the relatively wide range of climatic conditions and different growing systems in a small area.

More can be done to increase the amount NZ agritech exports.

In the AgriTech NZ report Aotearoa Agritech Unleashed, Callaghan Innovation and MBIE estimate that the export revenue from NZ agritech has remained relatively flat for the last five years at approximately $1.2 billion a year.

Israel achieves 10 times that.

He says NZ has some great tech based around pastoral farming systems but large parts of the world don’t use those farming systems, so the technology is not relevant to them.

There is a need to make technology developed in NZ more relevant to overseas markets, which will require more of a focus on adapting what has been developed to address what’s required overseas.

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