Farming for the Future the New Generation of Startups that are Redefining Food

By George Peppou, Founder and Program Manager, Cicada GrowLab

George Peppou, Founder and Program Manager, Cicada GrowLab

When we first started in Agtech, everytime we mentioned the term, it was quickly followed by the clarification “agricultural technology”. Today, as we sit on the cusp of wrapping up GrowLab’s second crop of startups in as many years, the term agtech is no longer met by wrinkled brows and quizzical looks. Not as much anyway!

Australia’s come a long way since GrowLab first sprouted onto the scene. Over just a couple of years, the agtech ecosystem has well and truly blossomed. There are now 3 accelerator programs, several pre-accelerators and many other programs supporting aspiring agtech entrepreneurs across metro and regional Australia. Three major conferences on agtech take place every year, bringing together the brightest minds in the space. Very recently, an Australian agtech-specific venture started raising funds to invest in what is fast becoming a booming new industry.

"This first wave of startups provide a critical, consistent layer of digital infrastructure across the agrifood value chain and makes the current system work better"

At Cicada Innovations, we have always held a clear thesis about the opportunity and importance of agrifood technologies, and the need to invest time and resources into those innovating in this sector. It’s our belief that Australia’s future growth in agrifood will come from a mix of productivity improvements, a reduction in food wastage and new ways to create value added food and fibre products for export to markets outside of Australia. We wanted to share these views as well as our opinion on how it may all unfold, aided by some examples of the types of startups we have seen along the way.

We expect agricultural and food technologies will emerge in a few phases:

Wave 1: Building an efficient and digitised agrifood sector

The first wave of technology in this space is arguably the most important, as it will bring a level of digitisation and precision to the agriculture and food sectors that have not been seen before.

This goes right through the value chain, starting with better on-farm tracking and management, from the likes of AgriWebb, Flurosat and The Yield. These companies take a series of largely manual processes, which are often inconsistent between different producers and offer an efficient, digital platform to reduce labour and increase the precision of inputs and decision-making.

We also have companies introducing new ways of sensing and analytics to practices where such precision has never been available before: companies like Livestock Labs that allow individual livestock to be monitored precisely, or Moisture Planting Technologies which allows for the monitoring of soil moisture which then informs precise seed placement. We then have companies like Agridigital providing an accessible way to digitise the transactions of agricultural commodities, enabling all players across the agricultural supply chain to move away from a contracting-and-selling system that is (surprisingly) still mostly paper-based.

This first wave of startups provide a critical, consistent layer of digital infrastructure across the agrifood value chain and makes the current system work better.

Wave 2: New production systems, processing tech and better supply chains

So digital infrastructure is all well and good…but where does it all lead?

Having a more efficient, data and analytics based digital infrastructure in place allows everyone from distributors to financiers to accurately forecast what supply will be available in the future. This gives new production systems the ability to slot into the supply chain much more efficiently. In Sydney alone we already have Green Camel and Invertigro forging a path for indoor agriculture. Improved agricultural data means companies like these can help smooth variances in agricultural production and avoid some of the disruptions major weather events like storms and droughts can bring.

Australia produces world-class agricultural commodities, typically sent overseas in the form of shiploads (of grain, cattle, etc.) or container-loads (of fruit, etc.). These are then processed into value added products in international markets. There is a huge opportunity here to use food processing technologies locally to increase shelf life or improve the flavour or texture of foods to be sold into export markets. This in turn will drive higher farm gate profits for Australian producers

A prime example of this is Preshafruit, a Melbourne-based food company producing juices of single apple varieties like Pink Lady and Granny Smith. They use High-Pressure Processing, a process they perfected with CSIRO, to safely retain the fresh flavour of Australian apples for over six months. This means that whether you are in Singapore, Dubai or India, you can now drink a juice that tastes as if the apples that went into it were picked just yesterday!

Wave 3: Biology solving problems other technologies can’t

We have a hunch that biotechnologies — especially synthetic biology — is going to play a huge part in the future of agrifood, all the way through from farm to fork.

We think this will manifest in a few ways:

Agricultural biotech — There’s a huge range of applications of biotechnologies in agriculture. Some technologies like microbial inoculants for soils are well established whilst others are still in the early stages of development. The range of applications is nearly endless, with everything from engineered biosensors, to designing new plants from the ground up.

Food processing — There are a number of companies deconstructing food to create new foods that taste the same as others but without the complex production process. A couple of examples from the US in this space are Impossible Foods, who are using synthetic yeast to produce a ‘blood-like’ product to add to their veggie burgers; and Endless West, a company who are extracting individual flavour compounds from plants to make a whiskey that doesn’t need to be barrelled or aged.

Food ingredients — There are early examples of new food ingredients appearing, mostly coming out of the US. Some interesting ones include Geltor, making animal-free gelatin using synthetic biology and JUST Inc with their vegan mayo and JUST (vegan) egg, both derived from obscure plant species to replicate the ‘real’ thing.

So where does the Australian ecosystem sit amidst all of this?

Right now it is early days: we are making tentative steps into that second wave and seeing some interesting new companies emerge as a result. We see these three waves as deeply interdependent, each one a cornerstone in the foundation of the next. All three of them need support and investment if they are to truly redefine and revolutionise the food system.

This is why we created GrowLab: to nurture future generations of agrifood innovators in Australia and beyond. In 2019 we’re doing this by committing to helping great agrifoodtech founders all year around, and not just through our 6-month GrowLab accelerator. Think along the lines of amazing speakers, focused workshops and further fostering the agrifoodtech ecosystem through initiatives like meet up groups. If you want to get involved and get on board, sign up to our newsletter or say hello anytime!

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