The launch of a new type of on-farm support tool and the announcement of a prototype online agri-tech discussion forum were two of the outcomes of Agri-Tech East’s first Pollinator meeting.
Dr Belinda Clarke started the event with the announcement that Agri-Tech East is developing and testing an online discussion forum, which is currently looking for further test volunteers. The aim of online system is to facilitate interaction within the agri-tech community.
The guest speakers – Produce World, one of the largest grower and packer groups in the country and a company that is actively investing and collaborating in innovation developments; and KisanHub, a high-technology start-up with an exciting new tool for supporting farmers and growers – then set the scene.
They described a rapidly changing environment, with huge market potential and some major challenges to overcome. This was then opened up to discussion with the floor, where it was immediately clear that the meeting had attracted a wide cross-section of interests, which created some exciting synergy in the discussions.
Innovation and sustainability
Jonathan Tole, Head of Operation Development at Produce World, explained that his strategy for development was in two parts: innovation and sustainability.
The sustainability strategy had several key strands.
As a major user of water, environmental stewardship was a priority and the group is working closely with Anglia Water and the Rivers Trust in the catchments of the Ouse and Cam rivers to ensure water quality and sustainable use of water.
This environmental responsibility was also practiced internally, with a policy of responsible sourcing.
The company has workplace culture focused on developing skills and enhancing career opportunities for staff within the industry. Produce World is working closely with universities to raise the profile of the agri-food industry as a good career choice, with the aim of attracting talent into the sector.
The company has invested in innovation in a structured way through its involvement in Knowledge Transfer Partnerships. Jonathan explained that this activity was focused on solving business problems but that this had also stimulated innovative solutions and opened up new areas of investigation.
For example the Soil-for-Life project looked at creating a knowledge-base about soils, which would be an invaluable resource for improving understanding of the nature of soil, the impact of various cultivation techniques and of the interaction between plants, water, nutrients and organic matter.
Jonathan identified a number of areas providing opportunities for innovation where they are looking for partners:
Improved water management – how to grow more with less water, how to clean vegetables with minimal water usage, and how to improve the efficiency of cooling and refrigeration to improve life expectancy of produce.
Interpretation of ‘big data’ – agriculture has a huge amount of knowledge but limited data. The issue is how to improve monitoring and collating of data and tools to interpret this so that it would be meaningful to farmers.
Maximising yield and meeting customer requirements – how to increase yield but to ensure minimum waste, for example through accurate forecasting and order prediction.
Enhancing health benefits – how to increase the nutritional value of vegetables, and to encourage greater consumption in line with government recommendations.
Jonathan stressed the value of Agri-Tech East in creating a forum for discussion and opportunities to meet with others in the ecosystem to understand both what they can offer and their requirements.
KisanHub open for business
Giles Barker and Sachin Shende, co-founders of KisanHub, had some exciting news: they announced the launch of their technology platform and stressed that it was now open for business.
KisanHub is able to tailor and deliver bespoke solutions to meet the data analytics needs of their customers.
The company has been working hard on their new offering, which is focusing on the needs of farmers, research institutions and large agriculture corporations. It aims to unlocking data so that it can be used for meaningful decisionmaking.
It is also opening its hub to the research community to provide a platform through which farmers and others can use and interact with their models.
The discussion then widened out with questions and advice being given from the floor.
The issue of innovation and its protection was discussed from various perspectives and Calum Murray from Innovate UK (formerly known as Technology Strategy Board) stressed that there are a range of funding support tools available for agri-tech innovation through his organisation.
He also stressed the importance of involvement in the shaping of the new Centres for Innovation. Tina Barsby, CEO of NIAB, agreed that the region was taking a keen interest in the Centres for Innovation and that several bids were underway to ensure that one or more nodes for the new infomatics centre would be based locally.
Jonathan Wiggin of NWave, a company developing low cost smart soil moisture sensors that could be deployed on wide area networks, stressed the value of the Pollinator and his interest in talking to members of the cluster about how his technology could provide a cost-effective solution to the problems of connecting sensors on a large scale.
NWave has recently formed a partnership with KisanHub and NIAB to undertake a pre-commercial trial on NIAB’s Innovation Farm. They are also currently involved in trials of a smart irrigation systems in the US by providing the real-time data which is used to control the irrigation system pro-actively.
Water water everywhere
Water was mentioned several times in the meeting, showing the keen interest in this area. Agri-Tech East is involved in the meeting to be hosted by Anglia Water on 30th September, which is discussing innovation in water management for agriculture.