A joint government and industry taskforce will help commercialise New Zealand's "under-invested" agritech sector, helped along by $95 million in innovation funding.
Unveiling plans to accelerate NZ agritech, economic development Minister Phil Twyford said the aim was to "grow a cluster of large agritech firms that can take on the world."
Speaking to a group of kiwifruit growers and businesses in Tauranga, he said key actions included the commercialisation of new products and establishing a horticultural robotics academy.
Central funding for that will come from the $84 million available under the sustainable food and fibre futures fund, he said, as well as $11.4 million allocated under the 2020 budget for the agritech 'industry transformation plan', or ITP.
Seed funding for an agritech venture fund could also come from the government's $300 million, 15-year venture capital investment fund launched under last year's national budget.
The agritech taskforce will include a mix of government agencies, including NZ Trade and Enterprise and the Ministry for Primary Industries, backed by the NZ Venture Investment fund and Callaghan Innovation. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has been appointed as the overall lead agency.
In its updated ITP, MBIE noted that the sector had yet to provide a breakthrough to the "levels of sustained growth and value creation" expected.
"Nor has it (agritech) adequately addressed a number of sustainability and environmental issues such as those around water quality, climate change and the provision of secure, high value jobs."
According to MPI's Situation and Outlook for Primary Industries, last year the food and fibre sector, including processing and commercial activities, accounted for 11 percent of GDP, and 15 percent of all employment. It generated $36.3 billion in export receipts – or 44 percent of NZ's exported goods.
The report said that more than 950 agritech companies had already engaged with Callaghan Innovation or NZTE to date, with a "healthy level of start-ups and new entrants", outnumbering mature firms listed with Callaghan.
The MBIE report said that while agritech exports have remained fairly stable, at between $1.1 billion and $1.2 billion during the past five years, this was "relatively static and unimpressive" considering the strength of the food and fibre sector and also given the 36 percent increase in investment in agritech worldwide during the same period.
Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor also took the opportunity to launch an industry-led report by Agritech NZ, which recommends the development of a trans-Tasman agritech strategy and supportive ecosystem.
The report notes that a stronger relationship with Australia "can improve our attractiveness to foreign experts and investors" and identify areas for joint research or development.
"With only a fraction of the $6.9 billion global investment in agritech in 2018 being invested in Australia and NZ, NZ and Australia need to work together to develop scale and have the ability to attract venture capital funds from offshore."
Agitech NZ's wishlist of projects includes the development of a robotics, automation and sensing academy to mitigate the impacts of labour shortages in the horticulture sector by automating a number of on-farm processes.
The industry body suggests a likely home for the academy as the Bay of Plenty, which has a regional research institute in PlantTech as well as robotic and automation companies Robotics Plus, BlueLab and GPS-it.
Steve Saunders, managing director of Plus Group and a director with Robotics Plus, said private and public sector collaboration "would be the key to success" for the sector.
Saunders, based in Tauranga, was an early investor in Rockit Global, which he said reflected a "perfect example" of what Kiwis could achieve with a coordinated effort, enough investment and a global lens.
"We took small apples and positioned them globally as a 'snack', and it's been a phenomenon, attracting $250 million in investment, now exporting to 24 countries and orchard expansion into Hawke's Bay, Australia, South Africa, the US and Europe."
Rockit had also provided opportunities for what was otherwise under-utilised land, with a leasing strategy that benefitted its owners, including Maori investment participation, he said.
Saunders said he is a fan of government systems in terms of backing some of the science behind export growth.
"I think it's a unique advantage and I really think we are alone in that. But our industry doesn't value it and that really needs to change, as it's probably one of the most important parts of our ecosystems."