Agribusiness: Kiwi innovation solving real world problems

We all know New Zealand does world-leading primary produce, but the technology to allow our farmers and growers to succeed from a distance is also setting the pace, Victoria Hallum explains
The latest mapping product from GPS-it is able to show farmers any potential no-go areas for vehicles on their farm.
The latest mapping product from GPS-it is able to show farmers any potential no-go areas for vehicles on their farm.

New Zealand has been using technology to overcome our distance to export markets for 130 years, since Thomas Brydone and William Davidson succeeded in getting frozen meat to market in pristine condition thanks to the refrigerated shipping consignments, beginning in 1882.

This turned sheep meat from an under-used by-product into a mainstay of the primary sector for the next century.

But that was then. What does New Zealand agritech have to offer the world in 2016?

In April this year Callaghan Innovation led a group of 23 New Zealand agritech companies and a handful of supporting organisations on an innovation mission to Silicon Valley and surrounds.

The companies got a chance to benchmark themselves against the ideas coming out of the biggest hot-bed of technology-driven start-ups in the world. This really reinforced how special New Zealand agritech is and what our companies have to offer the world.

The group realised just how well New Zealand agritech stands up against the competition, but also that they need to work quickly to build connections to the market and collaborate to achieve scale, so as not to lose out to lesser products.

One of the keys to the success of our agritech companies is that they are developing solutions to real problems affecting farmers, and working with farmers to get the solution right. And New Zealand has some of the most business-driven, agile and innovative farmers in the world. Having farmed a generation without subsidies, they have had to be.

In fact, many of our agritech companies are run by farmers.

Take Agri Optics for example, Chief executive Craige McKenzie and his wife Roz farm Greenvale Pastures, an arable cropping farm near Methven. Agri Optics's Smart N Fertiliser system uses innovative sensor technology to specifically target the pasture that most needs fertilising, helping farmers improve their nitrate usage efficiency.

Another example is BBC Technologies, which produces award-winning automation solutions for handling, sorting, packing and tracing delicate fruits and vegetable. BBC Technologies has a strong connection to farming, having been founded by one of New Zealand's biggest berry growers.

The future is bright for agritech, because the problems that need solving are real, pressing and global.

These human advantages are backed up by our wonderful geography.

It's not just good for a film set; our mountains and plains, coastal and high country areas provide a range of farming and growing environments to test ideas, all within a space about the size of California. We also have a good regulatory environment, with a light-touch regulator which makes New Zealand a great place to test emerging technologies like drones.

The future is bright for agritech, because the problems that need solving are real, pressing and global. The world is calling out for more food to feed growing populations and needs to produce that with less negative impact on the environment.

Checking out drone technology in Napa Valley.
Checking out drone technology in Napa Valley.

Callaghan Innovation is working with agritech companies to help them take advantage of these opportunities. We know New Zealand innovations are world-leading but our companies need help with two key things: speed and scale. Agritech is a priority sector for Callaghan Innovation and our objectives for the sector can be summed up under these two headings.

Speed

We are supporting New Zealand companies to accelerate their research and development (R&D) to get their products to market faster. The three main ways we provide this support are through grants to co-fund and de-risk R&D projects; innovation skills programmes to help businesses adopt the best business processes; IP management and planning; and by directly providing R&D services to New Zealand businesses from Callaghan Innovation's own team of applied scientists and engineers, including in key areas such as internet of Things, sensing and automation, and robotics.

Scale

We are working with companies to make sure they are connected with each other and the R&D capability in New Zealand so they can work together to seize opportunities, as well as connecting them internationally with partners to ensure that the products and services they are developing are the right fit for market needs.

Callaghan Innovation is also supporting Sprout, New Zealand's specialist agritech accelerator. Each year Sprout selects eight agritech start-ups and these companies receive unparalleled access to New Zealand and global farming networks to validate and grow their businesses.

An awful lot about the way we farm has changed since Messrs Brydone and Davidson packed The Dunedin off to the Northern Hemisphere. But New Zealanders' use of innovation to overcome distance to market and create products the rest of the world needs to feed itself is not one of them.

- NZ Herald

Victoria Hallum is Callaghan Innovation's manager of international partnerships.

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