Leading British politicians and AgriTech industry representatives met in the House of Commons in London this week to focus attention on the development of a £500 million ($650 million) AgriTech Cluster, to be located on the edge of the university town of Cambridge, in the UK.
Headlined by George Freeman MP, former British Government Minister for Life Sciences, the House of Commons event was hosted by the UK investment syndicate Cambridge AgriTech, and sponsored by SmithsonHill, the developers behind the creation of a 553-acre commercial park, which is set to house the new cluster.
“As Donald Trump’s America embraces protectionism and China has its own mouths to feed, the UK has the deep science, legacy and world-class industry heritage to take AgriTech innovations around the world,” said Freeman, who led the launch in 2013 of the UK Government’s AgriTech Industrial Strategy.
“I’m delighted to see the development of this new world-leading AgriTech Cluster, especially as when I first talked about AgriTech to fellow MPs, most of them responded with a ‘what’s that’ comment. It’s very different today.”
Addressing a high-profile gathering of fellows MPs, members of the House of Lords, scientists, investors and startup entrepreneurs, he reminded the AgriTech audience that they now have ‘friends in parliament’ before urging them to strive to ensure that their work is recognised and valued on the international stage.
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“Cambridge is a global brand with an incredible history,” he said, adding that the new cluster has the potential to enable progressive British farming to lead the world. “I am genuinely excited by this development.”
It’s envisaged that the park will have working space for up to 4,000 people, spread across one million sq/ft of lettable commercial properties. Land for field trials and demonstration plots will also be provided, alongside access to up to 25,000 acres of additional crop and technology trial areas, connected to the cluster through ‘established local partnerships’ with farmers.
Noting that AgriTech in the UK already generates £14.3 billion of value, Emma Fletcher, MD of SmithsonHill said being part of the Westminster event, featuring so many ‘leading minds’, highlighted just how important the evolving cluster will be.
“We hope to be on-site and delivering the initial infrastructure in 2020,” she told AgFunderNews. “In preparation for that, we’re already talking to a wide range of AgriTech companies about taking space in the new park. Our plans also include having a high percentage of startups within the development.
“A whole ecosystem is already growing around the cluster, with vital backing from bodies such as Cambridge AgriTech and AgriTech East. This is helping to create a system for people who want to start a new business and who need support to grow their technology base.”
Planning permission for the development is currently subject to an appeal lodged with the Planning Inspectorate, however. This follows the rejection of an outline planning application in March this year.
“We understand that significant proposals take time,” said Fletcher. “The outline application was the first step and, as history suggests, it is something we expected to undergo a thorough review.
“The planning appeal is the next step and we are committed to working with all levels of government to deliver a project of national and global significance.”
Equally upbeat about the development was Dr Sean Butler, head of Cambridge AgriTech, which regularly invests in AgriTech startups and is heavily involved in the cluster project.
“The Cambridge ecosystem embodies a unique concentration of assets designed to encourage and support innovation, knowledge, experience, expertise, support and infrastructure,” he said. “This makes the region one of the most enterprising and entrepreneurial areas in the world.
“We’re very lucky in Cambridge to have a lot of available support and a significant existing ecosystem. This makes this a good place for AgriTech innovation.”
Successful AgriTech hubs, he added, seem to depend on the coming together of high-quality academic research, a flow of new ideas, a culture which supports entrepreneurs by giving them essential help and support and access to funding from investors who understand the sector.
“In addition, as businesses grow and develop, they need places to make stuff, have labs and so on,” he said. “What SmithsonHill is proposing definitely covers these requirements and, as such, is an important development for UK AgriTech.”
Reactions from existing startups was also positive, both towards the overall development and Freeman’s challenge to shift UK AgriTech onto the international stage.
“I love days like this,” said Will Wells, CEO of Hummingbird Technologies, an artificial intelligence and remote sensing business for arable farming, which has raised around £4 million in startup funding to-date, including investment from Cambridge AgriTech.
“The cluster plans means a lot for UK AgriTech, although it obviously has to translate into commercial traction.
“I see so many promising start-ups which manage to raise seed capital and then fade away, or they raise a little bit and then lose interest, or they have a great idea and it never gets on-farm. Events like this, therefore, are great at focusing attention on the challenge of encouraging the take-up of new technology, including on farm.
“In this context, the planned cluster is absolutely at the forefront of real public/private commercial development, which is exactly what the AgriTech sector needs.”
Also impressed was Jason Hawkins-Row of Aponic, who has developed a vertical soil-less growing system that uses 90% less water than traditional agriculture, is based on eight years of R&D and two years of commercial development.
“Our business is fully self-funded at present but we are about to move into a different gear for which we’ll require a sympathetic and empathetic investor or investors,” he said. “We’ve already received good support from AgriTech East and others and certainly see the new development as a valuable addition to local resources for startups.”