Enhanced protection against airborne disease, nutritious alternatives to wheat flour, decision-support for plant breeders, a retrofit converter for tractors to biogas and an app to improve on-farm data management are the business concepts of five entrepreneurs selected as finalists in GROW, the UK’s first Agri-Tech business plan competition.
The Agri-Tech East GROW business plan competition was designed to stimulate entrepreneurial thinking and also to highlight the range of support available for early stage companies. Dr Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-Tech East, says: “Cleantech, data-management, engineering and logistics are all areas where the east of England has particular strengths; it was good to see how these business plans brought new perspectives from different disciplines to address on-farm challenges.”
HGCA, the UK levy board for cereals and oilseeds, has supported GROW with prizes for the winners. As well as investing in strategic research, the organisation has a network of Monitor Farms and is keen to see the early adoption of new ideas and best practice. Dr Vicky Foster, Research & Knowledge Transfer Team Leader, says: “The business plan competition helps to focus minds and to attract non-traditional players into the industry; we are delighted to be involved.”
The finalists were chosen as they addressed a clearly defined challenge to the agri-food industry.
- George Kohler of Diesel Dynamics explains that bio-gas has an environmental benefit over diesel and that the anaerobic digestion market is coming to a stage where this sustainable fuel is a viable alternative for the UK agricultural industry. His company is providing solutions at all stages of the supply chain from production of gas on farm through to retrofit technology that can be used to convert vehicles such as tractors to adopt this alternative fuel. Diesel Dynamics is currently setting up proof of concept trials with early adopters and has gained insurance from Lloyd’s as a guarantee for the equipment.
- Paul Bolesworth of Virok Systems explains that smells from agri-food and from intensive composting is often a problem when housing is in close proximity. His system, which can be fitted in a livestock shed or recycling facility, scrubs the air of odours and pathogens, improving air quality both inside the units and in waste flues. The first prototype was tested in the Leicester fish market and the results were very well received.
- Patrick Mitton of AgriTopics has identified the potential of using UK produced white pea flour as a nutritional food ingredient for gluten free foods. The growing of pulses within a rotation greatly improves the quality of soil through nitrogen fixing and pea flour is rich in protein and fibre. Therefore promoting and marketing pea flour as an ingredient option benefits both consumers and growers. AgriTopics is already in discussion with players agri-food supply chain, focusing on the thriving ‘free-from’ industry, known to be receptive to high-quality UK sourced ingredients.
- Andrew Spinks from B & C Farming Ltd is acutely aware of the increase in data on the farm and the need to be able to manage this effectively. As farming contractors, the company has to justify the decisions it makes to its clients, so his business concept is for a software tool that would make it easier for farmers to collect and record data in the field and then to analyse it later in the farm office. Particularly problematic are choices that have a long-term payback, for example spreading manure on the land improves soil structure and nutrient levels but these are accumulative benefits. Spinks says that the tool will make it easier to quantify the business benefits of different strategies. B & C Farming Ltd is already working with developer Simon Elliston-Ball to design the tool.
- Animesh Acharjee is developing a ‘dashboard’ for plant breeders that will make it easier for them to interpret data from a range of sources. The drop in the cost of gene sequencing and other molecular data from metabolite and proteins over recent years has seen a shift from a single-gene to a multi-gene analysis of major crops such as rice, wheat and potato. It is now possible to identify beneficial traits at a gene, metabolite or protein level without waiting to see the outcomes in the field, dramatically reducing the breeding cycle. However the data is complex to interpret and needs a system for proper analysis and visual representation, by addressing this issue Dr. Acharjee’s system would make it easier for plant breeders to pick the winners.
The package of prizes also includes: free lab space at Norwich Research Park and Rothamsted Centre for Research and Enterprise; educational opportunities, including an offer from the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning of a free place on the 2015 Ignite programme at Cambridge Judge Business School, and the offer of a bursary from the UEA Food & Agribusiness Executive MBA; business support was offered by the Future Business Centre; and expert IP and legal advice was offered by PBL and Barr Ellison LLP respectively. In addition free membership was offered by Cambridge Network, Cambridge Cleantech, Hethel Innovation, Norfolk Network and ideaSpace City.
The finalists attended an invitation only event hosted by Agrii at Throws Farm on 8th June 2015, and pitched to a panel of judges including:
- William Kendall, a trustee of The Grosvenor Estate and director of Wheatsheaf;
- Peter Cowley, investor, board member of Cambridge Angels and Investment Director of Martlet, Marshall’s investment organisation;
- Simon Bowen, Head of Agriculture for AB Sugar; and Keith Norman, Technical Director of Velcourt.
The overall winners have been announced and the prizes will be presented at the Norfolk Show where Agri-Tech East is hosting an Innovation Zone in association with Larking Gowen and Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association.