“The future is here already – it is just not evenly distributed,” Michael Lee, Managing Director of Syngenta Ventures, quoted at the final of GROW, the UK’s first national agri-tech business plan competition. He was describing how exciting business concepts are emerging internationally but as the six finalists of GROW presented, it quickly became clear that the future is concentrated here, with most of the major global trends he had identified present in the room.
GROW has been developed by Agri-Tech East to encourage entrepreneurship in agri-food industry. Dr Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-Tech East, says: “Agri-Tech East’s vision is to be a globally recognised catalyst of open innovation and agri-entrepreneurship. Through GROW we are rapidly establishing a vehicle to find and support these new agri-businesses and by harnessing the power and diversity of our expert network we can also greatly increase their chances of success.”
This year’s competition attracted entrants from across the country and many of the finalists already have international aspirations.
The GROW finalists are:
- Pinpoint Phenomics, which allows growers and breeders to know ‘what a plant is thinking’ by using the plant’s own messaging system to see its response to environmental stress;
- Aponic, a soil-less growing system which allows cropsto begrown vertically, fed by a fine mist of water and nutrients. Suitable for urban warehouse farming, it produces 30 per cent more yield with 90 per cent less water;
- Smartbell, which, by using the ‘Internet-of-Cows’ to detect changes in animal behaviour, brings the expertise of an experienced herdsman to an automated dairy system;
- Softharvest, a gentle robotic harvester that uses visual recognition to allow just-in-time picking of lettuces without damage to delicate plants.
- Aerial Crop Technologies, which offers a pay-as-you-go drone-based monitoring system delivered in a box;
- Share Your Foods, a food sharing platform to allow those with a surplus to reach potential consumers directly.
Dr Clarke explains GROW was devised to identify and support those UK agri-entrepreneurs with ideas to help agriculture and horticulture. By leveraging the highly supportive environment in the east of England Agri-Tech East will help these new agri-business grow into fully fledged companies that can bring real benefits to the industry.
She says: “We are delighted by the way that so many of our members and contacts have been prepared to be mentors and invest their time and resources into working with the GROW applicants, giving them valuable industry insights, unique market intelligence and sound advice on setting up and building a new business.
“The strength of a cluster is in creating connections with mutual benefit and already some of the large businesses in our ecosystem are considering commercial relationships with some of the GROW finalists.”
Calum Murray of Innovate UK, which supported GROW, was delighted by the quality of the finalists: “The role of Innovate UK is to work with people, companies and partner organisations to find and drive the science and technology innovations that will grow the UK economy and we saw some brilliant innovations today.
“All the entrepreneurs had listened to the feedback they had been given and strengthened their plans accordingly. It was good to see the level of engagement with commercial operations. These collaborative ventures are the type of projects that could potentially attract future funding from Innovate UK.”
The final was hosted by Agrii, at the Throws Farm Technology Centre. David Langton, Agrii's Head of Crop Science and Stewardship, agreed that collaborative projects are a good way to fast track innovation and is running four projects supported by Innovate UK.
Michael Lee also gave some clear direction to agri-tech entrepreneurs: “Have a clear value proposition that is directed at providing a clear benefit for the plant, the grower or the consumer. More or improved is good, but different is better. Don’t try and take on everyone, just show how you will dominate a niche.”
This year the support prizes have been provided by: AgriGate Research Hub (NIAB), Barr Ellison LLP, Cambridge Cleantech, Cambridge Network, Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning at Cambridge Judge Business School, Future Business Centre, ideaSpace City, Institute for Environmental Analytics, Norfolk Network, and Norwich Research Park.