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SilviBio announced as winner of GROW agri-tech business plan competition

Agri-TechE Article
Agri-TechE

SilviBio is developing a ‘survival capsule’ that will improve the survival of tree seedlings. Its clearly defined proposition and route to market has made its business plan the overall winner of the GROW 2020 agri-tech business plan competition. The result was announced by Calum Murray of Innovate UK, one of the judges.
Dr Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-TechE, also announced that SilviBio had been the audiences choice. The announcement came at the end of an exciting final on 4 June 2020 in which four early-stage companies pitched their business plans to the judges via Zoom.
Belinda comments: “The portfolio of organisations that were supported through the GROW programme this year were particularly strong. Although SilviBio was the overall winner all the finalists show promise.”
GROW 2019/20 is kindly sponsored by

SilviBio innovative seed coating improves survival rates by 40% in drought conditions

The need to grow more trees is globally recognised but germination rates are often poor, particularly where seed is applied directly to the ground in new forest projects and in bareroot forest nurseries where seedlings are vulnerable to water shortage.
SilviBio has developed a seed coating for conifers, the most economically important species, that improves germination by 40 per cent where there is drought stress. innovative bio-formulation creates a survival capsule for the seedling, providing a water source and slow release nutrition. It also creates a favourable environment for the growth of beneficial microorganisms. Read more here.

GROW supporting early-stage innovation 

GROW aims to encourage a pipeline of agri-tech innovation by providing support and guidance through a mentoring programme and then access to a range of prizes provided by service providers in the agri-tech cluster. This includes support for patent protection and management, space in incubators, membership of business clubs, access to training and marketing and business advice.

Investment potential 

The judges – Calum Murray, Head of Agriculture and Food at Innovate UK; Kerry Baldwin, Co-Founder of IQ Capital; Rob Alston, director at AF Group; and Andrew McLay, an Innovation Lead for Agriculture at UKRI – reviewed the business plans of all the entrants and selected four companies to go through to the final.
Calum Murray of Innovate UK, the sponsor of GROW, was very pleased with the calibre of each of the finalists: “The business plans presented by all these entrepreneurs show great potential and innovation. Having a sound business model is critically important if innovative technologies are to be successful commercially. Innovate UK is, therefore, delighted to support GROW and encourage the development of ground-breaking technologies and the cluster as a whole.”

AgFunder says providing an evidence-base is crucial in current economic climate

Louisa Burwood-Taylor, Head of Research and Media at AgFunder, was the guest speaker at the GROW final. AgFunder has recently released a report which shows that the UK was one of the most diverse and active agri-tech sectors in Europe. Louisa thought the line-up of finalists at GROW was exciting.
“All the finalists had something distinctive to offer and I am delighted that SilviBio won.
“For me, Farmz2U’s work in Nigeria stood out as very interesting; there is so much untapped opportunity across Africa to increase efficiencies but it’s incredibly challenging to get technologies into the hands of typically smallholder farmers. We have a company in our portfolio working in East Africa called Wefarm that’s successfully brought over 2 million farmers onto its platform by initially providing them with information on any mobile device; they’re now creating a marketplace to help them get access to inputs, so it just goes to show how important it is to create an innovative business model to ensure adoption.”
Given the global pandemic, Louisa predicts that funding will be harder to find in the coming months, and suggests start-ups across the globe focus on validating their technologies as much as possible to have decent results to show investors when capital markets open up again, but also to help speed adoption.
“Collaborations and partnerships with corporations or governments can be a great way to get these results and sometimes start-ups can be paid for that way, which in a tight funding environment will be important. Other than that, start-ups will have to hustle hard to get their technologies into as many farmers’ hands as possible for feedback; the more mature the agtech space becomes, the clearer it becomes that farmers will only consider technologies with a strong value proposition, and in a potential recession they will not entertain anything that’s not going to clearly impact the bottom line positively.” SilviBio has developed a seed coating for conifers – the most economically important tree species – that improves germination by 40 per cent where there is drought stress. The company has gained the support of Forestry and Land Scotland, the government agency responsible for managing Scotland’s forests and SilviBio is to carry out field trials at its nursery.  Read more. Glaia has developed a new class of plant additives called ‘sugar dots’ that can increase photosynthetic efficiency naturally, increasing yields by up to 20 per cent. The technology, developed by a team at the University of Bristol, has a well-defined mode of action, high efficacy and is patent protected.  Read more. AgriOptimizer is offering rapid, accurate diagnosis of nutrient and health status of growing plants. It uses the plant’s molecular signature as a way to precisely determine plant health issues at an early stage and create a fertiliser with a bespoke prescription. Its AgriOptimizer service can be also used as a testing platform for new agrochemical products.  Read more. Farmz2U aims to bring traditional Nigerian farming practices into the digital age. In a pilot it succeeded in increasing yield by 20 per cent and doubling farm sales. Much of Nigeria’s agricultural data is paper-based with little exploration of historic trends to improve future practices. Farmz2U is digitising this data and combining it with data information on soil composition, weather trends, historic crop yields and animal health to provide tailored advice to farmers delivered by phone.  Read more. Agro Mavens – one day of consultancy
Allia Future Business Centre – two months’ access to co-working space Appleyard Lees – IP advice and support
Appleyard Lees – IP advice and support
Barclays Eagle Lab – One month club membership
Cambridge Judge Business School – free place on the Ignite Course.
Eastern Agri-Tech Innovation Hub – 6 months’ free license
Incubyte – 12 weeks of hot-desk space and business consultation Kendalls PR & Marketing – PR Consultation and Audit,
Mathys & Squire – IP advice and support
Norwich Research Park – Virtual tenancy of the Centrum
PwC – free two-hour sessions with a finance partner and with an R&D specialist
Redfox Executive Selection – psychometric testing for up to four people
Rothamsted Enterprises – six months’ free hot-desking
Satellite Applications Catapult – two days of technical consultancy with a leading expert in Earth Observation Read more about the support award prizes.

A survival capsule for tree seedlings that boosts germination by up to 40 per cent

Meet the Network
Agri-TechE

The need to grow more trees is globally recognised but germination rates are often poor, particularly where seed is applied directly to the ground in new forest projects and in bareroot forest nurseries where seedlings are vulnerable to water shortage. SilviBio has developed a seed coating for conifers, the most economically important species, that improves germination by 40 per cent where there is drought stress.
SilviBio’s innovative bio-formulation creates a survival capsule for the seedling, providing a water source and slow release nutrition. It also creates a favourable environment for the growth of beneficial microorganisms.
The company has gained the support of Forestry and Land Scotland, the government agency responsible for managing Scotland’s forests, and SilviBio is to carry out field trials at its nursery. SilviBio would also make aerial sowing of seed across regions such as Latin America more viable, enabling rapid regeneration of forest.
SivioBio Founder Dr Alicja Dzieciol is an expert in the synthesis and characterisation of hydrogel materials and has commercial experience developed when leading the scale-up of start-up company IN-PART. She says: “Many governments have announced ambitious tree-planting programmes but germination and seedling development is vulnerable to adverse weather. Using SilviBio seed coating would increase the success rate of these schemes and reduce the costs of replacing lost trees.”

Enhancing photosynthesis with sugar dots to boost yield by 20%

Agri-TechE

Only 50 percent of the sun’s energy is used by plants and less than 1 percent is converted into biomass. Glaia has developed a new class of plant additive called ‘sugar dots’ that can increase photosynthetic efficiency naturally, increasing yields by up to 20 per cent.

The sugar dots technology, which has been developed by a team at the University of Bristol, has a well-defined mode of action, high efficacy and is patent protected. Studies have shown that sugar-dots are non-toxic and they are already found in food products such as beer and honey.

David Benito-Alifonso says: “Sugar-dots are water soluble and can be applied as a foliar spray or within an irrigation system and have been tested on a variety of crops from soft fruit through to wheat and sorghum. The plant performance improvement results have been impressive and the technology can be applied across agriculture.”

David Benito-Alifonso
David Benito-Alifonso

Doubling farm sales by bringing traditional Nigerian farming practices into the digital age

Agri-TechE

Millions of Nigerian farmers are small scale, using traditional methods and earning less than $10 a day. Farmz2U aims to radically improve food production and incomes by bringing precision farming to this region via the mobile phone. In a pilot it has increased yield by 20%, more than doubled annual farm sales per farmer and created jobs for agricultural students.
Much of Nigeria’s agricultural data is paper-based with little exploration of historic trends to improve future practices. Farmz2U is digitising this data and combining it with data information on soil composition, weather trends, historic crop yields and animal health to provide tailored advice to farmers delivered by phone. Agreements with large-scale distributors and FMCG companies will mean that farmers using the platform will have a guaranteed market for their produce.
The team includes three founding members with significant expertise in agronomy, artificial intelligence and product development, knowledge of Nigeria, and existing relationships with the key stakeholders.
CEO Aisha Raheem says: “Currently small and medium scale farmers in Nigeria are using ancestral farming methods that use resources sub-optimally and produce low yields. Farmz2U will help them farm better by providing access to tailored agricultural expertise remotely and access to market via an online platform.”

Rapid, accurate diagnosis of nutrient and health status of growing plants to enable prescription fertiliser

Agri-TechE Article
Agri-TechE

Current fertilizer usage is not environmentally sustainable and generates high financial cost for the farmers. It is currently difficult to assess nutrient deficiencies in growing plants in a precise and timely manner. AgriOptimizer aims to address this problem by using the plant’s molecular signature as a way to precisely determine plant health issues at an early stage and create a fertiliser with a bespoke prescription. AgriOptimizer service can also be used as a testing platform to asses general plant health status under treatments with new agrochemical products.
The team includes Dr Pawel Mikulski, a post-doc at John Innes Centre (JIC) with 10 years of expertise in molecular profiling, and Dr Jonathan Clarke, Head of Business Development at JIC with a strong track record in supporting spin-outs.
Dr Mikulski says: “Healthy plants and those with a disease or nutrient deficiency have well-defined distinguishable molecular signatures. Our test would build on this knowledge, identifying how the plant growth is being impacted and providing a prescription for optimising its performance.”

UK agri-tech diverse and active

Meet the Network
Agri-TechE

The UK agri-tech scene is by far the most active in Europe and is a very diverse ecosystem, according to Louisa Burwood-Taylor, Head of Research and Media at AgFunder and guest speaker at the GROW final.
“We are just launching a Europe report and the UK shows many strengths,” says Louisa. “It is a much smaller company than the US, which is always going to be a leader, but I think the UK is definitely punching above its weight, and has a good standing overall.”
Louisa remarks that particular strengths are in biotech, alternative proteins and looking down the supply chain at companies like Deliveroo: “This is obviously a huge company, and they raised a massive round last year, and that’s out of the UK as well.” Looking at the current situation Louisa is pragmatic: “I think overall venture capital investment will decline across all industries. You just hear a lot of investors say they are focusing on their current portfolio. Many of them will try to signal that they are still investing and open for business, but I think overall investment will retract.
“The good news is that we’re in an industry that is obviously essential; what the crisis has done is really shine a light on how technology is in how we grow and get hold of our food which is something in developed markets consumers have never had to worry about. People are eating food that’s been produced more locally, often, because that’s what’s been available to them.
“I think that increased attention could be a good thing in the longer-term.”

Exciting disruptive technologies

The GROW agri-tech business plan competition, sponsored by Innovate UK, provides support for entrepreneurs with exciting innovations. It is helping to create a pipeline of early-stage companies and to develop the supporting ecosystem. The participants gaining mentoring from industry specialists and the finalists have the choice of prizes – see more about them here.
Looking internationally, Louisa highlights a number of disruptive technologies that are realising their potential.

Indoor agriculture realising its hype

“Indoor agriculture has been a little hyped up, but the way it is scaling now is exciting; it looks like the economics are improving. We have had the technology for a while, but there is a number of providers of the components it has brough the cost down and there are different business models.
“Some companies are managing to scale across multiple farms. Whether that’s the plant factory model, or whether a more of a distributed model, like Infarm in Germany, which deploys its growing cabinets within supermarkets. I am excited about that space, for sure.”

Robotics seeing growth in investment

“Robotics is still a very small category – actually I think the UK is doing pretty well in this space – and the companies have been focusing on very specific issues – whether it’s harvesting a specific crop or spraying a specific chemical for a specific crop – but I think we’re going to see robotics come on leaps and bounds. At AgFunder we’ve certainly been looking at more companies on our investment side.”

Food as medicine one to watch

“I think, looking ahead, an interesting category to watch would be the concept of food as medicine, and companies that are really researching the properties of plants and how they can help to combat certain ailments. We have a company in the AgFunder portfolio called Brightseed that is looking into everyday crops and how they express bioactives that can have a beneficial impact on your health. I think that will be a space to watch.”

GROW Final 4th June

Louisa is looking forward to finding out more about the GROW finalists when they present in the virtual final.
Normally the participants would have an opportunity also to network with the organisations supporting the agri-tech cluster with a range of business services from work space within an incubator to IP and marcoms support. In this online event there will instead be a short introduction to the support award prize donors:

GROW attracts high calibre of agri-tech business ideas

Agri-TechE

GROW is the UK’s first agri-tech business plan competition. It aims to support entrepreneurs get their innovations from business concept to a business plan that can attract potential partners and funders.

Alex Dinsdale, Agri-TechE
Alex Dinsdale, Agri-TechE says high calibre of applicants to GROW

Alex Dinsdale of Agri-TechE is coordinating this year’s competition which has just closed its applications.  He is excited about the calibre of the entrants and says: “We’ve got some great individuals in the competition this year, from students looking to leverage their research and technical expertise, to entrepreneurial farmers who have spotted a niche in the market, and business-focussed scientists seeking to help improve the bottom line of farming.
“We’re really looking forward to learning more about them and their exciting business plans in another few weeks.”
Agri-TechE’s GROW business plan competition presents a fabulous opportunity for early-stage businesses and entrepreneurs to get ahead.
Alex continues: “GROW  provides a great opportunity to showcase not only the individual entrepreneurial talent within our sector, but also to help reinforce the breadth of opportunities in agriculture, and the fact that it is such a dynamic and inspiring place to work.”
Jacqui Poon, Farming Data
Jacqui Poon, FarmingData says her company progressed after participating in GROW

The competition itself has made a number of valuable, direct contributions to the agri-tech field. Finalists from previous years, which include, for example, FarmingData and SmartBell,  have been able to use the business support packages offered by the competition to help them develop their plans into collaborative projects and early-stage businesses.
Alex explains: ” The competition gives young or start-up businesses – or more established businesses with an innovative and entrepreneurial concept – an opportunity for profile, recognition and the chance to learn from and network with established businesses already operating in the sector.
“The agri-tech cluster is a supportive environment for developing a business and competition participants receive valuable insight from an established business mentor.  Further support is available from  incubators  across the region.”
The GROW prizes –  all generously donated by Agri-TechE members – include patent and IP advice, help with gaining new market insights, choosing and building the right team, incubator and lab space as well as PR, finance and accounting support.
“It’s currently too early to say whether or not the workshop on 18th May and the final on 4th June will be physical or virtual events. While our obvious preference would be to meet face-to-face, we’re working on contingency plans to hold these events online, and details of this will be circulated in due course. However, we’re not going to let COVID-19 get in the way of this fantastic opportunity for business our sector and we’re really looking forward to meeting the next batch of agri-tech entrepreneurs, ” Alex says.

GROW timescales 

Entrants to the competition have already been linked up with their mentors, established players from within the sector, and they are busy putting together their business plans with advice from their mentors.
Closing date for submission of these plans, to info@agritechenew.wpengine.com, is the 15th of April, and the business plans themselves should comprise no more than 12 pages (including Appendices). Upon receipt of the finished business plans, they will be put to a judging panel of experts who will short-list those to go through to the final.
Workshop – In preparation for the judging panel,  finalists will attend a workshop on 18th May ( format to be confirmed) to gain advice on creating a compelling presentation.
The final will take place on 4th June 2020. Following an individual interview with the judging panel, finalists will each make a ten-minute presentation to an audience of industry experts, which will be followed by a Q&A. The winner(s) will be announced on the same day.
More information about GROW

GROW competition offers unique package for next big agri-tech idea

Agri-TechE

Start-ups are twice as likely to succeed if mentoring is involved, as opposed to those who try and build their venture on a good idea and funding alone.
It is why GROW, the UK’s first agri-tech business plan competition, is offering a unique package of industry mentoring; financial and technical consultancy; incubator space and other support prizes to help early-stage entrepreneurs turn their innovative idea into a viable business concept.
The GROW competition is being run by Agri-TechE, the UK’s leading business-focused membership organisation for agri-tech.
Individuals and teams with an innovation are given advice and insights from industry specialists, to help them create a credible business plan that they then pitch to potential investors and collaborators.

Supporting funding and in-field testing

This is the fourth time Agri-TechE has run the competition. Jacqui Poon, co-founder of Farming Data, won GROW in 2017 and she agrees that the advice from mentors was one of the main benefits.
Farming Data is developing a software system to help subsistence farmers in the Global South gain access to a market for their produce. The marketing platform enables them to communicate directly with potential buyers using SMS messaging or via mobile broadband on a smartphone, and gives them a location to support trading.
Jacqui explains, “The advisors took a close look at our business model and business plan and gave us some useful insights. They also connected us with potentially useful contacts in the agri-tech space, and challenged some of our thinking so that we could improve the design and execution of our product.
“[As a result] in 2018 we went on a Knowledge Transfer Network partnership seeking mission to Colombia, and we later won grant funding to develop our technology and test its feasibility in the field for small-scale farmers there.”

Building credibility and networks

Veena Adityan, co-founder of 2016 GROW finalist Smartbell, agrees, “We found the mentor programme extremely beneficial. As a young company it is not easy to get access to an experienced mentor from a highly relevant background who will spend quality time analysing and giving feedback.
“The business plan element really made us think through every aspect of our proposition early-on. The pitch training and the platform provided by being on GROW has also been incredibly helpful in building credibility and networks. It is very unique competition, with clear focus and structure.”
Smartbell offers a device that can be attached to a cow’s collar or ear and provides information about its health, delivering the expertise of an experienced herdsman via an automated dairy system. It offers 24/7 monitoring that provides an early alert about feeding, stress, fertility and other behaviours.
The early-stage company has made good progress since taking part in the GROW competition, most recently being awarded and appointed lead on a £1M Innovate UK grant: Transforming Food Production.
Dr Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-TechE, explains that GROW provides an invaluable process for many early stage agri-tech businesses:
“Good businesses don’t emerge fully formed overnight, they take a while to develop and evolve. Many of the entrepreneurs are new to agriculture and having access to a person with relevant industry knowledge provides an excellent sounding-board for ideas.
“That’s why Agri-TechE’s cluster offers a brilliant place for new businesses, because there is such a great network of people who are willing to provide professional advice and support.”

GROW business plan competition 2020

The GROW business plan competition aims to provide exactly this support. Individuals or teams need to register their interest before Friday 28th February and they are then assigned a mentor to help develop a business plan. The plans are submitted for scrutiny by a panel of judges and the teams are given feedback, ensuring every stage is a learning opportunity. Shortlisted business plan owners are invited to present at the final in June.
This year’s GROW prizes have been provided by Agri-TechE members: Agro Mavens; Allia Future Business Centre; Appleyard Lees; Barclays; Cambridge Judge Business School; Eastern Agri-Tech Innovation Hub (NIAB); Green Lab; Incubyte; Kendalls PR & Marketing; Mathys & Squire; Norwich Research Park; PwC; Redfox Executive Selection; Rothamsted Research; Satellite Applications Catapult.
To find out more or register, please visit our dedicated GROW 2019/20 competition webpage, here.

Smartbell animal health system still reaping benefits of GROW agri-tech competition

Agri-TechE Article
Agri-TechE

Smartbell’s integrated sensors and software bring the expertise of an experienced herdsman to an automated dairy system. The early-stage company has made good progress since it was a finalist in the non-student category of the GROW agri-tech business plan competition in 2016; the UK’s only competition supporting new businesses in this area.
Smartbell works using an RFID (radio frequency ID) device that can easily be attached to an animal’s collar or ear – as with statutory RFID tags – offering a 24/7 animal health system that monitors feed, heat or cold stress, other behaviours as well as fertility and pregnancy.
Farm trials have shown Smartbell can generate revenues of over £40k for a herd of 300 cows.
Here, Smartbell co-founder Veena Adityan speaks to us about how the company has progressed, four years on from taking part in GROW.

Q&A with Smartbell co-founder, Veena Adityan

  • How has the business progressed since the GROW agri-tech competition  – what do you offer, has demand increased?

Smartbell offers precision solutions for animal health monitoring and management, delivering solutions for farmers and producers (aggregators).
Our beachhead product provides early disease detection and guided triage system to help farmers prevent diseases in young animals, ensuring better lifetime health and growth; it reduces the need for antibiotics and improves profits.

  • How have you grown since those early days, have you received any additional funding? 

Soon after GROW, we received GCGP Local Enterprise Partnership AGri-tech R&D grant support (now The Business Board of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority).
And, most recently, we have been awarded and are leading a £1M Innovate UK grant: Transforming Food Production.

  • Can you share some examples of how/where your technology has been applied?

One area is in calf rearing, where there tends to be a high incidence of disease.
Early trials have shown our tech can help detect an outbreak two days before visual symptoms and thus prevents the spread and severity of the disease.
We are also working on several other applications, such as for lowland grazing sheep and affordable health monitoring solutions for adult cattle in emerging markets.

  • What was the benefit to SmartBell of being involved in GROW? 

GROW is very unique competition, with clear focus and structure. The business plan element really made us think through every aspect of our proposition early-on.
We found the mentor programme extremely beneficial. As a young company it is not easy to get access to an experienced mentor from a highly relevant background, who will spend quality time analysing and giving feedback – and this was very useful.
The pitch training and the platform provided by being on GROW has also been incredibly helpful in building credibility and networks.
Belinda Clarke, personally, and through Agri-Tech E, as Director, has been so supportive through all these years – that after many years, since taking part, we are still reaping the benefits of having been part of this platform.
Read more about Smartbell.

GROW Agri-Tech Business Plan Competition 2019/20

If you’re an innovative farmer or technologist with a great business concept, find out more about GROW and how to apply to be part of this year’s competition – deadline for registration is 28th February 2020.

Farming Data, winner of GROW 2017, reports business progress

Agri-TechE Article
Agri-TechE

Access to market for perishable goods is a major problem for subsistence farmers. To address this problem Farming Data is developing a software system to enable farmers to communicate with potential buyers using SMS messaging on a basic mobile phone or via mobile broadband on a smartphone.

GROW launchpad

Farming Data won the 2017 GROW agri-tech business plan competition and co-founder Jacqui Poon says the process was highly beneficial to the company.
She comments: “One of the main benefits of being involved in GROW was the advice and guidance from the business mentors.
“They took a close look at our business model and business plan and gave some useful insights. They also connected us with potentially useful contacts in the agri-tech space, and challenged some of our thinking so that we could improve the design and execution of our product.
“Within GROW there were various types of business support available for small businesses looking to grow and seeking financial opportunities. “Since winning GROW, we have had the opportunity to develop our initial prototype at an accelerator, and have combined this development with networking opportunities with those interested in the agri-tech space.
“For example, in 2018 we went on a KTN (Knowledge Transfer Network) partnership seeking mission to Colombia, and we later won grant funding to develop our technology and test its feasibility in the field for small-scale farmers there.”

Listo provides links with buyers 

By registering on the Farming Data platform via the app Listo, the producer is given a physical location in the real world,  allowing potential buyers to see what is being grown in a particular area.
The buyers can then place orders using the platform and farmers have the opportunity to create virtual cooperatives to fulfil these orders, as well as to review market values for these crops to ensure a fair price. A number of farmers pooling their surplus will be a more attractive proposition and reduce complexity for buyers. Jacqui continues: “We are one of the seven awardees of the UK-Colombia Agri-Tech Catalyst funded by the UK Prosperity Fund and Innovate UK. In total, our 16-month pilot project gained funding of nearly £400k, which is being used to develop our digital platform technology to facilitate the buying and selling of agricultural goods.
“More recently, we have kick-started our project and have been iterating our digital platform with user-centric approaches, focusing on the needs of small-scale farmers and buyers in Colombia.
“As of November 2019, we had more than 200 registered users on the platform, spread over 3 regions of Colombia – namely Risaralda, Caquetá, and Bolívar.”
Members – contact us now to be a part of the audience for the GROW Final 2020 and be able to vote for the Audience Choice Award.
If you would be interested in finding out how participation in GROW can help you more details are available here.
More information about Farming Data – click here. 

GROW 2019 Judges and Prizes

Agri-TechE

GROW was launched by Agri-TechE (then Agri-Tech East) in 2015 as the UK’s first Agri-Tech Business Plan Competition, and is aimed at encouraging entrepreneurial thinking into the industry and welcoming applications around new ideas supporting agriculture and horticulture.
Read more about GROW on the GROW page, including information about the winner of the 2019/20 competition. Find out more about the judges and prizes below.

Fly on the wall insights to the GROW agri-hackathon

Agri-TechE

The agri-hackathon this weekend was amazing; groups of people who hadn’t thought about how they could support change in how food is grown, were brought together and came up with some truly awesome ideas with global impact – really taking on the challenge of how to change the world in 48 hours.

– Jon Paterson of Barclays Eagle Labs, who were facilitating Agri-Tech East’s second agri-hackathon.

Our 1-minute overview video gives you an idea of what went on at our second agri-hackathon!

The theme for the GROW agri-hackathon event was ’48 hours to save the world’ – a number of challenges were presented to the group of enthusiastic tech-savvy ‘hackers’. 

The fertility of soils is determined not just on its mineral content but also the living community of microorganisms within it. They play a vital role in maintaining the soil structure and also in nutrient cycling. Professor John Crawford of Rothamsted Research explained how water, oxygen and nutrients can move through healthy soils and how they are resilient to adverse weather and also how they have a valuable role in mitigating greenhouse gases.
John Crawford comments: “The food system needs a disruption, not an improvement. It’s not about doing what we already do more precisely or efficiently, it’s about changing the whole game. Disruption won’t come from the traditional disciplines or conventional thinkers. It’ll come from outside, where no-one is looking. The hackathon brought together an amazing bunch of young outsiders and non-conventional ideas.” Managing water is a big challenge for global agriculture – there are concerns that in the UK that the gap between water available and water need is getting dangerously tight at times. Anthony Hopkins of Wroot Water Ltd was on hand to explain the issues and make available water datasets.
Anthony Hopkins comments: “I did not know what to expect but was truly astounded by the thought process, then to come up with a solution to a problem with all the bits of electronics that were available. It just show what talent we have available. Biodiversity was discussed by WWF-UK, a sponsor of the agri-hackathon; Richard Perkins comments: “We so need the next generation to be engaged in finding solutions that will restore nature in the food system and these teams all made great contributions towards doing that.
“Thank you for inviting me to specify the restore biodiversity problem which clearly engaged several of the hacking teams. The results that all the teams developed during the hackathon amazed me, as well as their dedication.
It was a delight to take part with you and all the other highly skilled organisers and participants. I am so pleased that we were able to sponsor this and that you enlisted the participation of so many gifted and enthusiastic hackers.” BASF were sponsors for the agri-hackathon for the second year running. Louis Wells, Agricultural Solutions and Services Manager for BASF, comments: “What makes a great hackathon is the combined force and ideas from participants with different backgrounds.
“It’s this diversity, together with networking and fresh perspectives, that can bring some fascinating new approaches to tackle the challenges that agriculture faces. These ideas then have the potential – if worked on and developed further – to deliver brand new agricultural innovations.”
David Gowans, Head of Digital Design and Innovation at Barclays Ventures, says: “It’s something special to be part of a weekend that brought together experts and energetic skilled hackers dedicated to take on challenges to help make a better world.”

The judges

The judging panel for the GROW agri-hackathon were, clockwise from top left:
Richard Ostler, Head of Ecoinformatics at Rothamsted Research; Sharon Jones , Eagle Lab Engineer at Barclays UK Ventures; Mike Green, Agriculture Sustainability Manager at BASF; Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-Tech East; Richard Perkins, Food, Agriculture and Land Use Specialist at WWF.

The Teams

Improved insect identification and methods of remote sensing to assess number and direction of threat would aid control of pests and also allow insects to be used as bio-indicators of habitat health.

Alpaca Punch

Alpaca Punch developed an insect ID systems using computer vision and bioacoustics to identify and count the number of insects in a sample. The team used Raspberry Pi and open source software to identify the type of insect based their unique audio signatures. The intention would be to have an array of sensors across the field which when integrated with weather data would indicate when certain types of insects are prevalent and the direction of travel. This would create an early warning system for farmers.
Judges’ feedback: The team developed an effective solution using off-the-shelf low cost sensor hardware and open source software to support integrated pest management for a target crop and species. The team showed a good understanding of the economic impact of these pests and the importance of sharing data to understand pest dynamics in the wider landscape.

(Three) Two Men and Some Insects

(Three) Two Men And Some Insects also looked at insect sampling and how to incorporate continual sampling of on-farm insect populations within the farming day.
The team used machine learning tools and cheap off-the-shelf components to deliver an open source sensor system for insect identification. The idea is that as the air passed through a tractor-mounted air intake system the insects would be sampled. This would use both the existing mobility and telemetric tools on the tractors.
Judges’ feedback: The team had an excellent understanding of the time and financial constraints on farmers and worked within these to develop an open source tractor mounted insect sensor which could also be re-purposed for static monitoring. Perhaps more importantly they understood some of the limitations of the sensor technology available and the difficulties of real-world deployment Soil health is determined by a number of factors and there is not yet an objective way to measure it.

YEL

YEL developed a farmer-oriented biodiversity measurement tool. They used Agrimetrics datasets which included rainfall, average temperature and humidity to gain an understanding of the environmental factors and soil properties as a proxy for biodiversity. These provided inputs into a model that used a regression relationship to estimate biodiversity for invertebrates and microbes.
From this they demonstrated how an index for soil health could be developed and tested it using a training set based on real world data.
Judges’ feedback: The team developed a farmer friendly mobile app for farmers to assess their field biodiversity. To do this they gave an excellent example of data re-use by applying machine learning to data extracted from the Agrimetrics Field Explorer API. The team had clearly thought about the scalability and potential to draw in other data sources for more robust biodiversity assessments.

Geodragons

Geodragons used a different approach to identify key parameters of soil health. They developed a way to offer multi-depth soil profiling, building a new modular soils sensor and an associated app, with a Bluetooth LE base station connected to a router via LoRan to an app in the cloud. A dashboard on the app can measure infiltration rates and advise on irrigation protocols
Judge’s feedback: The team demonstrated some great engineering flair to hack apart and rebuild an improved low cost modular soil probe capable of monitoring soil moisture at increased distances. The team show good forward thinking, proposing a modular and extensible design which would make the probe highly flexible tool for use in multiple crops and with additional sensors Soil health can be enhanced by smart irrigation but how can this scarce resource be used most effectively?

Eco-Sense

For Eco-Sense the focus was how to optimise microbial activity by controlling soil moisture. So they looked at ways to determine the ideal moisture content of soils in order to maximise microbial activity.
The team used Agrimetrics’ data for the east of England and to measure the impact on plant growth the sensor they used a bio-photovoltaic cell (developed at the University of Cambridge) which harnesses the electrical power produced as plants grow. The team is already a start up and they plan to expand their activities using the knowledge gained in the the hackathon.
Judges’ feedback: The team clearly understood the need to deploy their soils sensor tech to scale and suggested cross-subsidising the equipment cost to provide affordable tech to small holder farmers. Not only did they show good use of low cost technology but also suggested a novel and fairly mind-blowing power-source in the form of biovoltaic cells in which the crop itself powers the sensors.

The winner of the GROW agri-hackathon

The winning team of GROW 2019 was Alpaca Punch.
Simon Peverett comments: Our team consisted of myself and Omar Gad, who work as software engineers at the same company. We were joined by John Castle, a business and communications expert and Zhiqi (Zak) Wang, a university student studying manufacturing and engineering. Before the event only I and Omar knew each other. We had a good mixture of skills in our team that complimented each other, and we quickly gelled as we worked together. “For the challenge we spoke to farmers and specialists and focused on the problems with Pest Control and how their management with insecticide can directly impact biodiversity and indirectly impact soil quality. We discovered that by using Integrated Pest Management, predator species can be used to control pest populations.
“Our solution was to demonstrate the feasibility of using low cost computing, for example a Raspberry Pi, coupled with open source software, such as Open Computer VIsion (OpenCV) to build a cheap detector that could identify specific pests such as Chafer beetle or Pollen Beetle. Our presentation and demonstration were done entirely with a Raspberry Pi B+ to show exactly how versatile and in-expensive such systems are. We had a great time, and each of us gained a lot from the experience.
Richard Perkins of WWF comments: “I hope that the bug detector that the winning team put together, and the other innovations, make it to widespread use and contribute to farmers restoring loads and loads of nature. If there is anything that I can do to make that happen I would be happy to help.”

A huge thank you to everyone who participated and supported the GROW agri-hackathon

Tech Pantry – to all those who supplied hardware which included: Raspberry Pis (3b+ and Zero), Arduino (Nano, Uno and Mega), Servo and Stepper motors, a multitude of sensors and switches, voltmeters and solder kits, as well as 3D printers (Ulitmaker 2+ and 3), RF generator, oscilloscope, Lora Hub and much more!
Data providers – Rothamsted Research, Agrimetrics, Wroot Weather, Prodata Weather Systems.
Hackathon hosting – Allia Future Business Centre.
Hackathon facilitators and supporters -Barclays Eagle Labs
Supporters – BASF, WWF-UK

GROW agri-hackathon 2019 was kindly supported by: