Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, and these challenging times are driving innovation. As Agri-Tech East celebrates its second birthday we are seeing the agri-tech sector expanding and attracting new players against a background of volatility and uncertainty.
Growing pipeline of ideas
We were delighted to see six agri-entrepreneurs hit the finals of GROW, our business plan competition. They had been mentored by our membership to build their understanding of real world issues – improving response times in the 24/7 salad industry, driving down costs in the dairy industry, anticipating the needs of plants before the crop suffers, increasing yields with less water. Although these businesses are still in a nascent state, the competition is gaining traction and helping to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem that will support a growing pipeline of good ideas get to market.
‘The future is now’ we were told by early career scientists and farmers at Cereals 2016 as they joined us at our Young Innovators’ Forum event. The show itself boasted a new Drone Zone and Soil Pit showing determination of the industry to go up and under to overcome obstacles!
…..and the sun (mostly) shone on the expanded Innovation Hub at the Royal Norfolk Show.
UK agri-tech faces a very different landscape to the one in which Agri-Tech East was launched. Brexit discussions have dominated the discussions of the last couple of weeks, and continuing uncertainty has implications for practical farming and the underpinning research; both of these were already under significant strain.
Every challenge is an opportunity for an entrepreneur.
The uncertainty around the use of certain crop protection chemicals and the lack of new chemistry emerging onto the market puts even greater expectation on “agri-tech” to help deliver some solutions. So it is encouraging to hear how a number of our grower members are accelerating their commitment to new technology and innovation to build resilience to additional market, regulatory and labour pressures that may result.
While collectively we have scratched our heads as to how “big data” is really going to deliver the ambition for agriculture that it is realising in other sectors, we are seeing some pro-innovation farmers bite the bullet and invest in controlled traffic farming and precision mapping. To support this there has been a huge increase in interest in drone technology and satellite imagery, with clever algorithms being written and “taught” based on field data sets to help with crop modelling and supply chain forecasting.
The last two years have also seen the emergence of all the new national Centres for Agricultural Innovation, over 100 Agri-Tech Catalyst projects funded, and the national review by Sir Paul Nurse leading to the formation of a new over-arching body called UK Research and Innovation.
In addition, the various levy boards have come together to form the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board – with a strong focus on knowledge exchange and dissemination.
Most of us have limited influence over how the future will play out, but it is an inspiring to see that entrepreneurs, researchers, technology developers and innovators remain focused on working with the agri-industry to provide solutions that will help ease the pressure we will undoubtedly face while the political landscape becomes more settled.