Australia and Israel: Two nations whose total landmasses comprise of 70% and 60% deserts or semi-arid zones respectively. Evidently, these are not, one would assume, environments that are naturally conducive to high-yielding and productive farmland. However, at closer inspection, it is clear to see that agriculture has played a pivotal role in both nations from the outset.
In Israel, the Kibbutzniks claimed back and vegetated the Negev desert for their survival, while in Australia most early settlers took to establishing small-hold properties as their main source of income. As a result, the countries have, through continuously improving the efficiency of the farming practices, learned to take full advantage of the fertile regions available to them. It is also for this reason, that in spite of the small amount of arable land each enjoy, that both have incredibly pioneering agricultural technology (AgTech) scenes at the leading edge of the global industry.
What is Agtech? AgTech is not strictly limited to innovation in agricultural science, with developments being witnessed in associated industries and in varying aspects of Agribusiness. It encompasses employee productivity, asset utilization, supply chain and logistics efficiencies and improved customer experience to name but a few areas. Aside from attracting investment, the growth of AgTech is also being fuelled around the world by a range of factors such as demographic trends, population growth, climate change and a shift in consumer preferences.
Looking at AgTech in Australia, the recently released AgTech report by StartupAus gives a broad and detailed picture as to the shape of the Australian ecosystem, comprehensively referencing a large number of major AgTech projects and emerging startups. One particularly interesting figure contained in the report was the local estimated worth of the industry by 2030, placed at a $100 billion. Australia currently has $43 billion of agricultural exports and this is expected to increase as sector growth intensifies. It also points to the establishment of accelerators in the regional centers, namely Australia’s first SproutX, as well as the emergence of dedicated research infrastructure through Australia’s higher education institutions and scientific bodies. There is also a steadily increasing amount of foreign direct investment, with the sum sitting at $1.6 billion in 2014.
These are some optimistic statistics and the report suggests that Australia is set to continue on a path that is wholly supportive of AgTech, provided it puts sustained effort into commercialization, attracting investment and technological adoption.
So what then have been the notable startups has Australia produced to date as a testament to its expanding AgTech scene? Due to the diversity of technological solutions within the industry, these startups often have the potential to complement each other.For instance, agAlytics seeks to streamline nutrient management for improved yields, while Full Profile, a commodities and asset management software, aims to ensure that the agricultural product of this technology goes to market at minimal cost and for the best return for the farmer. Other startups include AgDrafter, which intends to address seasonal labour shortages and AgerSens which serves to act as a ‘virtual shepherd’ to achieve fenceless farms.
Looking to Israel, perhaps the most prominent of AgTech innovation is that of the drip irrigation, envisioned in 1965 as a product of the forerunner to global irrigation giant Netafim. Since then, Israel has continued to rapidly produce startups in the sector. A relative success stories has been that of Prosperpa, an Artificial Intelligence system that helps eliminate the guesswork of farming by recording processes and trends through an extensive on farm sensor array. It received $7 million worth of funding in 2016.
Funding like this may well be set to continue, with venture capital firms Finistere Ventures, Cloud Break Advisors in conjunction with agricultural industry leaders such as DuPont, announcing an alliance to create $15 million AgTech accelerator fund Radicle. This fund will invest in core markets, of which Israel is one of the prime focuses. Chemical and pharmaceutical company Bayer also partnered with Israeli accelerator Trendlines to form a $10 million fund dedicated exclusively to Israeli AgTech.
In addition to investment sources, the role of Israel’s enviable research institutions and networks in AgTech cannot be discounted, with the majority of Israel’s universities having almost all having faculties of Agriculture. This is in addition to the many regional research centers and the Agricultural Research Organizations (AGO) playing an active part in developing the mixed farming practices which transformed Israel’s agricultural industry.
As a whole, this collective expertise from Israeli agricultural innovation has also contributed to combatting major world food production issues such as desertification, as evidenced by the world’s largest conference on the subject at Ben Gurion University in 2008. Startups such as Sensilise are also praised for its ability to restore soil fertility and Biobee, which releases predatory mites to kill off harmful insects chemical free, have the potential to assist greatly in addressing food security dilemmas. Indeed, many have already exported their technologies to developing nations such as India and Colombia.
It is significant to note that a strong innovation link between Australia and Israel is already present. Over the last year, this has manifested in initiatives such as the Landing Pad, whereby Australian startups get the opportunity to receive mentorship through an Israeli accelerator. Given this pre-existing relationship, could it then become more industry specific to allow for both countries to leverage off their shared strength in AgTech?
Collaboration was recognized in the StartupAus report as a major barrier to Agtech, with Australia ranking as the least collaborative in the OECD in terms of innovation. Indeed, such a partnership could indeed combat this and it clear from both nations AgTech capabilities and diplomatic willingness that it could come to fruition.
It appears the idea already has some government support, with the University of Sydney and the Israel AGO signing a research agreement in April 2016. Together the two institutions aim to work on improving biosecurity and aquaculture systems amongst other goals. As such, whilst still at an early stage, this still budding startup sector is well placed to collaboratively utilize the R&D findings emerging from both nations in the wake of AgTech’s increasing prevalence and significance to both commercial and humanitarian aims.
Photo credit: Ag Tech Talk