Science fiction and futurists visions (e.g. Brian D. Colwell) commonly depict robots running agricultural production, for example, automated farm harvest machinery in the film Interstellar.
But this vision is now science fact, and new technologies and innovations that exploit robotics, machine learning, computer vision, lasers, big data, blockchain, genomics, glycomics, proteomics, supply chain analytics and customer behavioural understanding are now vastly improving the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of food production, processing and distribution like never before.
I attended the AusBiotech AusAg and Food Tech Summit in Adelaide last week, and it was an interesting group of discussions and insights focusing exactly on these issues and providing an insight into the future of the food sector.
The catch line of the conference is ‘Turning science into business’ and we heard from investors, customers, tech creators, enablers and startup companies.
So what was trending?
Well, we heard a lot about:
- Precision agriculture, and the efficient delivery of
- Big data
- Internet of things
- Blockchain tracking
- Chemical and DNA provenancing
- Waste reuse and reduction
I also had the pleasure of hosting and MCing the final session entitled ‘What does success look like?‘ which aimed to provide recent success stories and inspiration about where start-up or early-stage companies can end up. We heard from:
Matthew Pryor – Cofounder & CTO, Observant – Observant has been at the forefront of the application of the Internet of Things (EyeOtee, for those in the know) and BigData to solving the challenges of improving agricultural productivity through a focus on precision farm water management.
Dr. Mark Heffernan, Chief Executive Officer, NexvetBiopharma – Nexvet focuses on developing pain medication for pets using monoclonal antibodies. It has raised over US$80 million, including $40m in a NASDAQ public listing in 2015, and was recently sold for $110M to the world’s largest animal health company, Zoetis.
Steve Marafiote – CEO of Sundrop Farms – Sundrop has been a major success story for covered horticulture and now provides pretty much all the vine-ripened tomatoes supplied to Coles across Australia. The location of the farm was specifically selected for the levels of sunlight and the farm runs almost totally off-grid, desalinating seawater using solar energy, which also heats the greenhouses.
Robert Burbury – Chief Executive Officer, The HealthyGrain – THG focusses on developing new varieties of grains for a more health-conscious consumer.
Dr Paul Harrison – Head of Innovation, Mainstream Aquaculture – Mainstream has grown to become a leading Australian aquaculture company and exports stock to 21 countries. The company has also developed the unique ‘golden’ barramundi which sells extremely well into Asian markets.
Cameron Scadding – Executive Chairman, Source Certain International Pty Ltd – which develops chemical tracing technologies, first used to provenance gold and diamonds, for food.
From this group, a number of key take-home messages and useful advice for establishing a successful business and making it through the valley of death was evident, including:
- It’s not just about having a good idea/product
- Many of the products/services are disruptive
- For all there was/is a clear market opportunity
- Luck and timing is key
- Always takes longer than planned to develop
- Success is always driven by an individual – with an eye on the goal
- Always takes more money, patient investors are a valuable asset
- cash is king – if you run out your dead
- Staffing is key – need to keep experience and invest in them
- Focus, focus, focus
- Build enduring partnership, whether it be business partner or investor
- Don’t want someone who is going to be rude to waiting staff in restaurant – they will be rude to you
- Equally, don’t want someone you want to go on holiday with – won’t get stuff done and the creative tension may be missing
These key take-homes are really important and can help get business through the startup valley of death – that point between investor cash investment and market uptake and profit generation
However, it also became obvious to me at the conference that there is another, earlier valley of death that affects ideas. This is where ideas and innovations are generated in research institutes but for various reasons don’t make it through into the commercialisation stage. This is also an important issue that needs tackling but that there is much less focus on.
Some of the key problems in this area include
- Academics not realising a market opportunity
- Poor support for inventors
- Poor communication – different languages of scientists/technologists and entrepreneurs
- complex and perceived poor commercial return for inventors