Growing up on a farm in Waikato, Ryan Higgs loved farming life and knew he wanted to pursue farming. The unknown was how that would come about.
On leaving school he headed to Massey University, where he achieved honours in ag-business. This led to him being awarded a Fulbright scholarship.
“Farming was my passion and to get this opportunity was very special,” Higgs says.
He headed off to Cornell University in New York and spent eight years studying and working with top global ag-sector academics and professionals.
“It was an amazing and invaluable experience. I was working in animal science and mathematical modelling. It was my first insight into technology,” Higgs says.
“We used it every day to feed millions of cows and it gave me a sense of how technology can have a huge impact in agribusiness.”
On returning to New Zealand Higgs worked for two years with Synlait Farms. During that time the seed was sown for Onside.
“It was where the journey began. We had lots of farms, lots of people coming and going on and off farms, it’s where we identified the need to address tracking this in our farm management plan, and we needed to solve a problem from a biosecurity sense.”
Day-to-day, any number of tasks can crop up on a farm, vineyard or orchard, especially when it comes to managing staff and visitors and keeping them safe and on task.
“There was no simple way for farmers to know who was on their farms, what they were doing, how to get in touch with them and whether they had all the information they needed,” says Higgs.
The three Onside founders, all farmers, started having over-the-fence yarns with farmers, growers, contractors and managers to help crack a solution.
“We understood the problem and the customer because we were the customer and deeply understood the sector.”
There was encouraging industry support and the result is Onside – an app that the company says simplifies safety, operations and communications on rural properties.
What began as a simple check-in, visitor management and health and safety tool in 2016 has evolved into a comprehensive operations software for all rural sectors, including viticulture, horticulture, agriculture and contracting businesses servicing the rural sector.
Onside’s digital toolkit supports rural operations by simplifying visitor management, onsite communication, health and safety compliance, and on-farm biosecurity.
Onside, says Higgs, makes it faster and easier to locate, contain and manage biosecurity threats.
Its digital check-in feature logs movement on and off properties to make connections with this data allowing rapid tracing of plants and people, which becomes vital in managing risks.
The system’s network intelligence uses data to construct a rural network able to map disease pathways and fast-feed algorithms to support risk management activity.
The data modelling and reporting interface provides those responsible for biosecurity readiness and response with access to network information as movements from property to property lead to the construction of a giant interconnected network.
Onside Intelligence capabilities include identifying properties to constantly monitor for potential incursions.
Infection prediction leads to properties most likely to be infected during an outbreak, and source detection traces back to where an incursion most likely began.
Using network science to direct the response should the amount of testing required by 80%, dramatically reducing costs and accelerating the process.
Onside is currently working with partners to test the technology on real incursions.
“AGMARDT has provided the support needed to prioritise complex R&D and accelerate the scaling of our technology to a commercial level,” Higgs says.
“This industry support has allowed the Onside team to push the boundaries and work with some of the world’s leading network scientists.”
The company recently secured a $4 million co-investment from the government to expand and accelerate the development of its technology.
The four-year partnership is through the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures fund.
Onside recently partnered with Kiwifruit Vine Health (KVH) to implement technology that will power its Plant Pathway Plan, a programme designed to protect the $4 billion kiwifruit sector from incursions.
“It is great to have the backing of the MPI to deliver on our mission to revolutionise biosecurity and exciting to be working with KVH to put the technology into practice,” Higgs says.
Onside is headquartered in Christchurch with operations in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. Its data science leadership is based in New York.
“Understanding the risk of a biosecurity incursion is a complex problem in large networks so we have sought out the best scientists in the world to work with us,” Higgs says.
In addition to its biosecurity technology, Onside provides a digital toolkit for farms, orchards, vineyards and contractors to streamline operations and ease the compliance workload.
Foundation for Arable Research (FAR) general manager business operations Ivan Lawrie says with the number of research contractors out on farms, it is crucial to maintain very high levels of health, safety and biosecurity.
“We [FAR] have been using this technology for some time, one of the early adopters since 2016, and it has become important in our health and safety management and a valuable tool in general for the arable industry.
“Agritech is becoming more and more essential for farmers and growers and especially, so the generational change is more appreciative of it now and we are recording a very high usage in the arable industry.
“Many areas of work we do now such as around water, understanding canopy management, temperature control, GPS, couldn’t be done 20 years ago, and [this is] where technology now plays an important role.”
Lawrie says the biggest challenge is how to use the data in a meaningful sense to improve productivity.
“It is important we keep getting new ideas coming to us. Future use of digital tools and the integration of the information is going to be key moving forward, especially in the biosecurity space,” Lawrie says.
Higgs says there are huge opportunities in agribusiness technology.
“The potential of the agritech sector is massive, but you need to think globally, and partnerships and commercial arrangements are key.
“Kiwis are highly innovative, motivated and willing to give things a go.
“There are some amazing companies out there now and we’re very highly regarded on the global stage.
“Agritech globally is enormous, there are plenty of customers and definitely a big enough market.
“Agritech will have a big role ensuring the global food supply and food production is resilient.
“I was talking to an investor in California about what we did and he was like, ‘I’d expect that to come out of NZ. That makes sense to me.’
“An agritech company that powers the world’s biosecurity, that makes sense, it’s a great space for NZ.
“As a geographically isolated nation, NZ is uniquely placed to establish a reputation for biosecurity excellence, Higgs says.
Makes sense, but establishing a successful company is not plain sailing.
“Starting a company is hard, there’s a lot to learn, a lot of challenges, it takes a lot of courage, but solving a problem gets me fired up and I have a great team around me.
“The key thing we are trying to do is help the world food market run efficient business not impacted by biosecurity issues and disease incursions.
“There’s a market for this business and massive opportunity to do more.
“It’s super exciting, we have just got our toe in the water and the focus is to grow from here.
“I always wanted to build a bigger global company and that will be better for NZ as we will have more scale and the bigger we are the more resources we have to solve a big world problem,” Higgs says.