Belinda Clarke is founder and director of Agri-Tech East, a membership organization dedicated to promoting open innovation and collaboration in agriculture technology. Ahead of a speaking slot at CropWorld in Amsterdam next month, where she will discuss these trends and more, we caught up with Clarke to find out more about her work.
How do you define open innovation?
The most broadly accepted view is that it’s partly a mindset, and partly a combination of practical actions. It’s an approach that businesses take to looking outside of their own organization and sector for new sources of R&D and innovation, and for skills, technologies and expertise they don’t have in-house. It’s an open-minded approach and can empower staff to look for new opportunities for innovation.
How has open innovation developed around agtech
It’s still quite nascent, but we are in a position at Agri-Tech East to be a go-to place for open innovation among our members companies. We are seeing interest not only in the biochemistry and engineering sectors which you’d traditionally think of as sources of innovation for agriculture and horticulture, but we’re also seeing interest from software developers, data management services, augmented reality companies, and other ICT and electronic design sectors, which you might not think would be involved in agriculture. With the right partnerships, these technologies can certainly be impactful for agriculture.
Open innovation has been tapped into a lot in the pharmaceuticals industry, and while it’s not quite the same in agriculture, by speaking to people and bringing a combination of skills together, there is the potential to bring game-changing approaches to current challenges in the industry.
What is the Agri-Tech East model?
We are a membership organization and right now we have 96 members, ranging from large agribusinesses like Bayer to a number of much smaller companies of fewer than 10 people to research organizations like NIAB and Cambridge University. Through the membership, they get access to the brokerage services we offer. Everyone is welcome to our events, but members get a discount. They also get a full page on our website, which is almost like a shop window, on what they offer, and what kind of partnerships they’re looking for. Membership pricing depends on the size of the business.
Under today's unique circumstances, AgFunder is re-opening Fund III for a limited time to enable investors to join our mission and invest alongside us as LPs in a second close. Learn more here.
Besides potential partnerships, what else are members looking for from Agri-Tech East?
They all join for different reasons. Some of them want the profile of being a member, others are hoping to meet new customers, some are looking to understand the public funding landscape better, while others are hoping to gain access to our angel investors or secure venture capital funds. Mostly they want to meet other people in the network and that’s where they see the most value.
How has membership developed since you launched in January 2015?
We have busted all of our targets in our business plan which makes us very proud and excited. We try to operate a flat structure in terms of the members we have so we never disclose the size of the company or maturity. Our membership represents all parts of the value chain from fundamental discovery research through to the farm gate and beyond. We haven’t targeted the artisanal chocolate makers or farmers markets but more focused on what’s having an impact in the field, mainly pre-farm gate. Our watchwords are productivity, profitability, and sustainability — so what innovations are helping to deliver any or all of those?
What trends are you seeing in innovation?
We are seeing a very healthy pipeline of startups gaining investment and we are now at a point where people are starting to get really knowledgeable about the technologies on offer. This is the case for big data, especially where, rather than farmers having drawers full of memory sticks and pretty pictures and maps, they are now able to interrogate that data and use it in a meaningful way through various software platforms. We still have a way to go, but there’s certainly some very constructive and sensible conversations going on about using data, which is building some clarity.
Some of it is still quite conceptual, but we are starting to get our arms around how data is going to transform business models.
What are main challenges to open innovation?
It’s quite scary for companies to look at a very different way of innovating their businesses and there can be some genuine and justified concerns as to what the implications could be of looking outside your own business. It could be expensive in terms of resources to empower people to go out and take time out of their day job for this, and, most importantly, people don’t know who they don’t know. We try to fill that gap. We ran an event the other day and we had a big farming group sitting down with the head of agriculture from a semiconductor and software design company, which is pretty unusual, and they’re now looking at ways of working together. You just don’t know who is out there with possible solutions.