Caitlin Sykes

Caitlin Sykes is the NZ Herald's Your Business editor

Success: Data deals to dairying dilemma

Software gives farmers a simple tool to help keep waterways clean

Farmer Ben Smith checks the ReGen data capture system on his Northland property.
Farmer Ben Smith checks the ReGen data capture system on his Northland property.

Wellington agritech firm ReGen is helping dairy farmers manage a key issue - disposing of the effluent that cows produce.

The company's ReGen Effluent system uses on-farm hardware that constantly measures soil moisture, soil temperature and rainfall, then transmits that data to ReGen's servers, where it is processed by the company's software.

On-farm systems that record such measurements aren't new, but ReGen's innovation lies in its software, which turns the data into a simple daily recommendation. This is sent to the farmer by text message, instructing them either to irrigate effluent out on to their farm, or not.

It's an important daily decision for farmers, says Bridgit Hawkins, ReGen's chief executive. "Irrigate effluent on to ground that's too wet, for example, and it can either run off the surface or flow straight through the soil; either way, potentially ending up in waterways."

There are tools that allow farmers to check via their computers how much rain they've had or what their soil moisture is, but the farmer is still left asking "what does that mean for me on my farm for this particular activity today?", says Hawkins.

"That's what we feel is really innovative about us, because generating that recommendation is quite a hard thing to do. It's easy to display some data on a graph, but much harder to decipher what that means, relative to the key activities on a farm."

ReGen has customers around New Zealand, but is particularly focused on Southland, where the regional council is relatively prescriptive in terms of how farmers manage effluent, says Hawkins.

"Our customers tend to be early adopters of technology, but we're now starting to see the next wave of 'fast followers' come on board. There's increasing regulatory pressure on farmers to address environmental issues related to a number of different farm activities, and that's leading to further opportunities for the company."

ReGen is also developing a service related to water irrigation, and this year launched a product to help farmers make decisions on the use of nitrogen fertilisers for grass growth.

"Again, there's a real environmental benefit from using the nitrogen tool, because every time a farmer applies nitrogen and it's not used to grow grass it ultimately ends up being leached," says Hawkins. "That's wasted money for farmers in terms of the cost of the fertiliser, but it's also a part of how nitrogen ends up in waterways."

ReGen was formed in 2010, but the genesis of its technology stretches back to 2006, when Hawkins was leading the rural development programme at data science firm Harmonic, and doing some work with researchers at Massey University.

One of the researchers' areas of interest was deferred irrigation - delaying irrigating out effluent until conditions are right. Mixing that with Harmonic's data-science focus sparked the ReGen Effluent concept, which was subsequently backed by other industry partners and government R&D support.

In 2011 the firm also attracted interest from New Zealand's angel investment community, led by life-science/clean-tech investors and venture developers Pacific Channel and the Wellington-based angel investment group Angel HQ.

It was novice angel investor Paul Waddington's first angel investment and he says several things piqued his interest in the company: Hawkins' track record in the agricultural sector; the relatively large domestic opportunity for the technology; and its offshore potential.

"The other major attraction with ReGen is it's a decision-support tool," says Waddington. "It's doing more than just gathering and displaying data; it's actually making recommendations, which is the future in terms of technology, particularly with the advent of big data."

* Produced in conjunction with the Angel Association of New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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