Adrian Percy is the former head of R&D at Bayer, recently stepping down and becoming the company’s technology ambassador. Ahead of his speaking slot at World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in London next week, we caught up with Percy to find out more about the role and his views on the development of the agritech startup market.
What’s your new role at Bayer?
I stepped down from being the head of R&D, and I’ve kind of transitioned into a new role which has the glorious title of ‘technology ambassador.’
But basically, the idea is that we want to continue to talk and explain about the role of new agricultural technology, not just for the industry circles and events like World Agri-Tech in London, but also more broadly. I’ve been doing a lot of social, LinkedIn, Twitter, but also going to various conferences over the last year or so, where there’s the opportunity to connect with various stakeholders, consumers and regulators and other technology providers and entrepreneurs and just talk about the importance of agricultural technology and new approaches to help address all these issues that we have around the need for more food production, more nutritious food, more sustainable farming practices. So it’s more of an outward facing role, but I’m also working with some smaller startup companies at the same time. These are companies either that Bayer are in some or fashion involved with, or actually some which we are not involved with, but Bayer has been kind enough to give me the freedom to work with some of those companies at the same time, so it’s a really fantastic position for me, and I’m really excited to be doing this.
How would you say that the agritech startup sector has changed since you and I first met in 2015, which is quite a long time ago for this space. What have been some of the biggest changes you’ve seen?
Well, it’s been really exciting; it’s been an amazing ride, as you all know, and I think the sector is just starting to mature. We have some really high-profile companies now that have emerged. Companies like Indigo, Plenty, these types of companies that will perhaps one day get unicorn status, but also a lot of other companies that have been really heavily supported and invested in like Inari and Pairwise.
The other thing I think is interesting is that I just saw one of my former colleagues Jim Blome [former president & CEO of Bayer CropScience] moving over to Calyxt [a gene-editing company that recently listed on Nasdaq exchange.] It’s really great to see the maturity of our sector that we’ve got; senior executives from some of the bigger companies now moving into roles with some of the smaller ones and I think that’s another really positive sight.
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I would characterize it as we’re kind of on a journey. We’re certainly not at the destination where we’re seeing as many exits as everyone would like to see, but we’ve got some pretty exciting bigger companies, and we’ve got some smaller companies emerging. We’re attracting talent either from some of the bigger companies within the sector or from outside. So far, at least, there seems to be a reasonable level of investment although of course we’d like to see more. But I think it’s going to be really fantastic to see how this emerges over the next five years.
What technologies are really exciting at the moment?
There’s three that I like to talk about and think about.
One is new breeding technologies, and I think despite the recent decision by the European Court of Justice on gene editing in Europe, I think there’s still a lot of mileage in these technologies for the rest of the world and perhaps one day in Europe. I think it’s so exciting to see companies like Calyxt, which are going be launching products actually into the market. Of course, we’ve got Inari and Pairwise working in this space and some of the biggest strategics are also investing, so that for me is one area that’s really exciting.
The second area I guess I would loosely call biological approaches, so things like the microbiome but also alternatives to traditional chemistry in crop protection, whether they’d be very, very specialized biological products or more broad acting bacterial based products or fungal based products. Again, I think it’s really exciting and given the political and the regulatory situation in Europe, those types of approaches will be really welcomed onto the marketplace and we’ll have an important role moving forward.
And then the third area is everything around digital precision ag, whether it’s new decision-making tools, hardware like sensors or robotics, or drones and all of these types of new technology advances some of which have been really rapidly adopted into the marketplace, which is really exciting to see.
What have you seen being really rapidly adopted? Have you got any specific anecdotes there?
The one piece of hardware that’s been really obviously taken up has been the use of drones. Particularly in places like Asia; I mean who would have thought that farmers in Japan would have adopted the use of drones so quickly especially since we always consider it to be quite an aging population. But obviously they’re open-minded enough to want to try new technology and those have really taken off. I think the use of sensors to help more accurately irrigate, and perhaps also [more accurately] use nutrients is also another area that’s going to help farming be a lot more efficient. Perhaps more importantly with pressure on farmers to conserve it is water as well as dealing with very variable climate impacts.
What about alternative crop protection? There’s a company that won FoodBytes! the other day called RootWave. Did you hear about them? They’re electrifying weeds; they’re literally zapping them to kill them.
I think that’s a really interesting approach. There’s another company called Zasso that is also working in that space. We’re seeing a regulatory impact on herbicide use including even some bans in residential areas where there are evasive measures that farmers have gotta take. I think those could actually complement the use of chemistry or perhaps, in some cases, even replace it.
If you could think about the future of the food system, say it’s 2050, what are two or three things that you think will be different from today that will define where the future of food is going?
I think in terms of the type of food that is being grown, I do believe the consumer trends and preferences and drivers that we’ve seen just starting in the past few years will really have a profound impact on how food is produced. And I can imagine a lot of different alternative food producing systems in the future that will complement what we already have: I’m thinking of vertical farming, and being able to deliver fresh fruit and veg to inner-city areas where actually it’s quite hard or quite expensive to get those products. I’m also thinking of people that may want alternative protein sources. There’s a lot of interesting work, as you know, in that area. So I think the types of food and the food production systems will become more varied.
I do not believe that traditional farming as we might think of it will disappear, but I do think that other production systems will arise.
I think we’ve only just scratched the surface in terms of the technical advantages and abilities of farmers to connect and understand their use of the land. And all that’s going on in precision agriculture I think will become much more accepted in all types of farming, so not just in the larger acreage situations but also smallholder farmers and all types of different crops. I think it will ultimately drive a much more sophisticated approach to farming that will not only provide more food but also conserve land and also help protect the environment at the same time.
You’ve obviously been with Bayer through now the acquisition and merger with Monsanto and you’ve watched other of the big mega-mergers take place. How do you think these consolidated businesses are going to have an impact on how ag technology startups are adopted and funded?
I think that the landscape had changed even before the finalization of the Bayer/Monsanto acquisition and what I do think is that all of these large companies will continue to drive innovation internally and in very core technology areas that they’ve developed over the years, that they will start to move into new areas like digitization, but I think they’ll also be very, very open to collaborate and partner with other companies. I do see this as a massive opportunity to open up our innovation approach at Bayer and start to work with companies in perhaps a different way from what we’ve done in the past and not try, for instance, to create everything internally but partner across and have collaborations and partnerships with other companies. We’re already starting that and I think it’s a much more sensible approach in a world where agility is key and science is advancing at such a tremendous rate that it’s very hard to recreate that kind of approach internally when you’re seeing these very agile startups, so I think it’s much more sensible in many cases to collaborate with them and to partner with them than to try to rebuild or reinvent the wheel internally.
There are a few startups out there that do not see acquisition as their route to exit such as Farmers business Network and Indigo, which have both identified a public marketing list as in their future. Do you think they’re a threat to a company like Bayer? Are you seeing those kinds of companies as competition?
Competition in the marketplace we’ve always had, and we always will and actually I think all companies would say it’s a very healthy situation. Yes, we’ve gone through consolidation, yes actually we’ve had some new players enabled by divestments from Bayer and others, but also these newer companies, as you say, they’re not always looking to be acquired or to partner with the bigger companies, they’re actually looking to disrupt them in some way. I think this is just a sign of a healthy marketplace and that’s going help to drive innovation. It’s going to get products to hit the ground, it’s going be great news for farmers and consumers, so I think all of us are looking forward to it.