Robotic mushroom picking, strawberry yield forecasting and new bio-based materials to drive down the carbon footprint of car manufacturing are three new spin-outs to emerge from the agri-tech ecosystem.
The companies have received funding from Ceres Agri-Tech, a partnership between six Agri-TechE members University of East Anglia, University of Lincoln, University of Reading, NIAB (National Institute of Agricultural Botany), Rothamsted Research, John Innes Centre, plus the University of Hertfordshire and led by Cambridge Enterprise. Ceres is to feature in the Agri-Tech Week event Agri-food in the East of England.
Agaricus Robotics – mushroom harvesting
Agaricus Robotics, a spinout from the University of Lincoln, is developing a robot that can harvest even the most challenging dense clusters of mushrooms.
The market for fresh mushrooms in the UK is worth £450 million and growing annually. But, until now, the picking has had to be done by hand to prevent damage to the delicate mushrooms.
“Existing robotic harvesters are not suitable for mushrooms – which is a major issue as the industry struggles to cope with the current labour shortages.
Agaricus Robotics founder Bashir Al Diri says: “In the UK alone, approximately 4,500 people are required every day to pick mushrooms – with labour costs representing a third of total production costs.
“Our patented intelligent mushroom harvesting robot can pick whole crops without bruising the mushrooms and will lead to 20-30% yield increases from optimised 24/7 harvesting 365 days a year.”
FruitCast – yield forecasting for strawberries
FruitCast, also a spinout from University of Lincoln, is focused on strawberry yield improvements, with an innovative yield forecasting system based on AI-enabled data analytics. Image data from hand, vehicle or robot mounted cameras is used to measure individual fruit numbers, along with the weight and maturity state of millions of berries each day.
This data is combined with weather forecasts in algorithms to predict yield with unrivalled accuracy six weeks ahead of existing systems.
Fruitcast founder Raymond Kirk says: “The UK produces 120,000 tonnes of strawberries each year, with a retail value of £659 million.
“Predicting the timing and yield of strawberries is critical for the industry – but extremely difficult to do accurately.
“We are creating a system that will not only benefit strawberry growers through improved sales but also reduce supply chain friction and crop waste.”
Cellexcel – developing natural alternative to fibreglass
Cellexecl, a spinout from UEA, has developed a novel industrial-scale patented process to make water-resistant materials from flax.
The global market for composites – materials made from resin-reinforced fibres – in car manufacturing is predicted to reach nearly £20 billion by 2024. But the most popular composites, such as fibreglass and carbon fibre, are non-renewable and energy intensive to produce.
Cellexcel co-founder Richard Stephenson says: “Replacing fibreglass and carbon fibre with renewable bio-based materials like flax promises to increase sustainability and reduce carbon footprints, as well as improving vehicle safety – as bio-composites do not shatter on impact.
“However, currently available flax-based composites are not water resistant and therefore cannot be used on car exteriors – severely limiting their applications. Our novel process is now set to drive down the carbon footprint of car manufacturing and add value to agricultural products and agricultural waste.”
Support for spin-outs
“The launch of our first three spin-out companies is evidence of the success of the Ceres collaboration and testament to the quality of agri-tech innovation in UK universities,” said Ceres Agri-Tech director Dr Louise Sutherland, who is to speak at the Agri-Tech Week event hosted by New Anglia LEP, Lincolnshire LEP and the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority.
Louise continues: “Alongside our commercialisation work with other projects in our pipeline, we are now also embarking on the next phase of Ceres and exploring new funding opportunities to enable us to accelerate our supply of innovative solutions to address the agri-tech problems of today and tomorrow.”
More about Ceres Agri-Tech.
Ceres is featured in one of the Agri-Tech Week events.