“How are you going to scale-up?” is a question we often ask those coming to us with new ideas or concepts. Applicable in a number of contexts, successfully scaling-up a technology or business is often critical to sustainable business success.
The recent launch of the School for Scale-Ups in Cambridge has put the challenges around scaling a business firmly under the microscope. While we all support start-ups, and indeed our GROW business plan competition is all about encouraging those with the initial big ideas, how to scale is a key challenge to address at the outset.
Technology key to scale-up
It is clear that new technologies are likely to be to play a vital role in helping to scale a new product or service being used in the field, or helping to produce more crop with fewer inputs. For processes very intensive in man-power, for example, or those relying on very specialist expertise, then automation, robotics and digital solutions will be key to cost-effective achievement of scale.
Use of smart phones to control agricultural systems, remotely monitor crop performance, and the ability to easily and cheaply manage complex large data sets are all part of the scale-up story for agriculture.
But we are still a way from routine, widespread commercial deployment of these technologies in the field, glasshouse or polytunnel. While proof of concept, or prototypes, or even field and farm scale innovations are underway, some of the new innovations need help to get to the next stage.
Moving to field scale
A number of facilities and businesses regionally are well-placed to help with developments to field-scale and beyond. The new AgriGate Research Hub in Soham has capacity for big pieces of equipment for testing in the field, as well as access to the necessary expertise to help partners and clients bring their technologies to commercial scale.
The strong concentration, particularly in Cambridge, of technical design consultancies also helps regional businesses consider how they scale. Taking a prototype product to a manufacturing stage of tens up to millions requires skills and expertise which will underpin technical scale up r
So, how will the product be made?
Some regional agri-tech companies make their product right here in the east of England; others outsource to other geographies where the skill base and costs of production might be suitable for their needs.
Manufacturing costs and skills can often be a limiting step to scale-up, so again, needs to be carefully thought through. Will the product or service be sold directly to your customers, or will you go through a third party? This decision is crucial to how the business will scale.
Many of the entrepreneurs we see intend selling directly to farmers using an existing network of contacts, but haven’t considered how they will identify and service a wider, sometimes difficult-to-access customer base. Nor are there plans about how to handle the anticipated surge in interest as word spreads and demand increases.
Scale-up might seem a long way off for some of our applicants to the GROW business plan competition. But one of the key questions of scale-up will undoubtedly be in the forefront of the judges’ minds.
The new Cambridge School for Start-Ups will help business leaders focus on topics such as managing change, picking a winning team, and managing performance. For advice and support on scaling your agri-technology, product, service or business, Agri-Tech East has a network of people and organisations able to help. Could you be running the next billion pound agri-tech business? We hope so!