Australia gets a lot of things right when it comes to agricultural research and development (R&D), and we are generally recognised as being one of the best countries for our overall R&D approach. When you add to this the fact that we have world class researchers, government support through Rural Research and Development Corporations (RDCs), plus the necessary infrastructure – such as ample room for quantum computing – it could be said that there’s nothing left to improve on.
However, what’s missing from our strong R&D presence is the ability to commercialise: taking R&D and turning it into a real-world products, services and next generation jobs, whilst future-proofing our Aussie agriculture sector.
While there is plenty of money out there that’s available for R&D, it’s very hard to acquire funds to commercialise groundbreaking work, and this is in spite of the fact that many rural businesses who contribute to the RDCs are wanting to see more actual solutions in their hands. So, what can Australian agtech do better? There are three areas of focus that will enable Australia to commercialise more easily.
1. Create aggressive corporate venture spaces
Outside of Australia, there are many countries who are much better at securing corporate and industry funding for commercialisation purposes. Israel is one example, thanks to their ability to foster collaboration between research and industry.
You can also look to the US as an example of a much bigger economy with more funding available, but there’s a much more aggressive approach to corporate venturing here, with attitudes towards early stage developments being less about risk and more about having an appetite to fund a product that will be the first of its kind, to learn about “new technology” and think about “what if I don’t learn-about/capitalise/be the first mover” of this technology.
Many US corporate decision makers have the right mindset – a combination of awareness and understanding of the realities of what’s required to build a product that has the potential to disrupt an existing stream or open up a new channel.
Australia’s banks are also holding things back. They typically see risk as tied to assets, but a much more progressive way to approach lending would be to give farmers better interest rates if they choose to invest in solutions and technology that have the potential to produce better results and better profits – all while growing their business.
Banks don’t tend to be interested in early stage projects, and this is one reason why there’s such a critical funding gap. By only being prepared to step in at the post-revenue stage once products are actually being made and sold, an opportunity is lost to invest in a product at an earlier stage.
In many other countries, banks choose to back projects much earlier, and this combined with there being more high net worth individuals who are willing to back ideas makes for a higher rate of commercialisation. Imagine a banking manager that had additional information on soil type, stocking rates, breed, type of livestock, and more. This would bring new meaning to “true risk” and create an optimal way for farmers to farm whilst future-proofing their businesses and built-environ for the next generation.
2. Develop a more focused education system
There’s room for some universities to develop courses with more focus and alignment to industry wants and needs. Right now, the scope of many courses tends to be quite general. Instead of having a generic “Bachelor of Science” degree, a more beneficial approach would be to drill right down to specifics, and focus on course and degree names such as “Machine Learning for Crop Optimisation” or “Robotic Picking Systems”, while creating shorter, more intense courses is another way that commercialisation of new technology will thrive in Australia’s agricultural sector.
If you’re a farmer who has just taken over the family farm, and you want to learn about precision agriculture, you simply don’t have the time to spend three or four years learning about it. What you need is a three-month short course on soil DNA analysis, or soil quality management including what probes you can use, or track and trace provenance, or robotics for agriculture.
You need to be able to learn quickly for a competitive advantage, and do this in a way that is applied. This will create a generation of farmers who are coming up with new and improved ideas, and provide feedback on existing or new technologies, and enable their adoption to happen much faster, which helps with funding and awareness.
3. Reimagine the concept of government support
Concerns have been raised that the Australian government is out of touch with the farming industry. Sam Trethewey, the founder of SproutX, recently referenced some research by ABARES that spent taxpayer money to discover that farmers use computers and mobile phones – “In other breaking news, the sky is blue, the Pope is Catholic and John Deere’s are green and yellow,”. As you can imagine, many farmers had a laugh about this.
The Australian government could look to review its approach to commercialising agricultural R&D, through taking a leaf out of the books of other countries who create funding match programs. In Singapore, the government has the Startup SG Founder scheme which provides up to S$30,000 by matching S$3 to every $1 raised by the startup. Along with funding, entrepreneurs also receive advice, learning programs and networking opportunities.
Australia has already taken steps to establishing a Medical Research Future Fund to help supercharge the country’s growth in health and medical research, and there’s scope to create a similar fund for agtech. Instead of focusing on initial R&D, such a fund could purely focus on adoption and commercialisation of agtech into the Australian agri-sector; sending a strong statement to industry, the investment community and to the world, that Australia is serious about building and owning the agtech space and future proofing the agriculture industry to rank among the world’s top players.
A key element to growing agtech in Australia is nurturing people with an agricultural background into the entrepreneurial space. An agtech Entrepreneurial Apprenticeship program where young rural Australians work with seasoned entrepreneurs to create, grow, and build a company and solution, would help drive the awareness of managing the risks and requirements of commercialising new technology and bring new wealth, knowledge and culture to our regional areas.
Collectively, the time for agtech is now and Australia has a real opportunity to make a real mark, create real wealth, future-proof our industry and secure our own food requirements.
Andrew Grant is the co-founder of South Australian agtech business Availer; helping to commercialise the most promising research developed in Australia to solve global industry pain-points. Andrew has spent the majority of his career working with, founding and driving early stage technology companies and works across multiple agtechs with a theme around trust and quality of produce.