The agri-tech innovation pipeline remains full, and the need for activities to help showcase new, evidence-based opportunities to farmers has probably never been stronger. However the relationship between tech developer and early adopter needs to managed carefully to ensure both partners gain mutual benefit from agri-tech trials.
It’s the time of year for some of the most prolific networking and information-gathering among the UK industry, which usually involves attending farm-based events, meeting up at trade and agricultural shows, and watching machinery and field demonstrations.
A lot of the year’s benchmarking, learning, inspiration, sharing of best practice and strengthening social capital is done in early summer, with a view to informing future planning and decision-making.
It hardly needs saying that this year that process is having to be very different.
The recent experience of the GROW agri-tech business plan competition, along with the conversations we are having with agri-tech start-ups working with farmers, have made us think about how best to maintain those continued interactions.
How can the sector ensure that the crucial generation and gathering of evidence and showing the value of new innovations continues to be part of the agri-tech revolution?
Work with partner organisations round the world has included lengthy discussions around how early stage companies and farmers can work together as co-development partners on agri-tech innovations, and the need to get the terms of the relationship right from the outset.
Many of the farmers in the Agri-TechE network are keen to be among the first to access more innovative, cost-effective or environmentally-beneficial ways of managing their land, crops or animals.
And working with start-ups is a great way for farmers to get early sight of new tools, tech, products or services. But while the appetite is big, there is potential for expectations to be mis-aligned, and for the commercial basis to the relationship to be unclear, leading to problems further down the line.
A role in development
Many farmers are willing to offer access to their land, facilities or sites to test out new innovations in a “real world” setting. This is a vital part of the innovation process – as what has worked in a lab, a workshop or under controlled trial conditions may behave very differently on-farm or in a new environment.
But when does a “trials host” become a “co-development partner” and, ultimately, a “customer?” As the relationship evolves, the underlying financial basis of that relationship also potentially needs to adapt as well.
For farmers, there could be an “opportunity cost” in offering land for trials, and in other impacts associated with having to manage a crop or livestock differently. Farm staff need to be briefed. Data may need to be recorded and there is an additional time cost in talking to the innovator(s) about what has and hasn’t worked.
Often, that input is given willingly, due to an inherent personal interest, hope for competitive “first-mover” advantage, and / or an altruistic commitment to improvement of the industry. Often that is also remunerated by the company (but not always!). But as the innovation progresses towards the market and commercial reality, there comes a time where the start-up will be seeking first customers.
Maintaining relationships in agri-tech trials
And what better early customer that the early adopter who has had input into the development process and see first-hand how it works?
This is where it can sometimes go wrong.
Having “invested” time and potentially effort and resource in helping to shape, guide and advise the direction and performance of a new innovation, it can be a delicate discussion to segue a farmer into becoming a paying customer – especially at full price.
Understandably, start-ups are usually keen to build value and begin to generate revenues, so the valuable farmer case study, and end-user insights will be key to their go-to-market strategy. But at what cost?
Trusted and fair
Ensuring the crucial farmer / innovator relationship stays open, trusted and fair as the innovation moves to commercial reality is a skill that the most successful start-ups will have.
Making the transition from co-development partner to customer needs to be painless for all concerned.
We encourage start-ups to think about the commercial basis of their relationship with farmers early on. Think about how that relationship will need to adapt. And how it evolves equitably for everyone.