Editor’s Note: Anders Torud is a senior advisor at Inkubator Aas, the campus Startup Incubator at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Inkubator Aas has companies like N2Applied and Saga Robotics among its incubator companies. Edvard Bergiton Iversen is the project coordinator for the Agritech Nordic Initiative connected to the T:lab incubator in Steinkjer.
Here Torud and Iversen write about the strengths of the Norway Agritech sector.
During this year’s World AgriTech Innovation Summit in London, one of the leading conferences for the agriculture technology community, five out of the 13 startups showcased were Norwegian.
Norway is not one of the world’s leading agricultural producers in terms of produced volumes and will most likely never be. Only about 4% of its total landmass is arable land, and less than 3% is actually farmed. So why does this small mountain nation have so many ideas about something it does relatively little of?
Norway is home to one of the fastest growing startup ecosystems in Europe, which might be translating into agritech. While small in terms of land mass, agriculture is still prominent in Norway, reaching across the country’s coastal regions, into the mountains, and from the cold South to the freezing North. It may be that this has made sure that farming is present in the mind of many tech entrepreneurs.
NoFence, which presented at World AgriTech has its background in trying to a solve a problem that is very prominent in the mountainous areas of Norway but is also valid other places in the world: fencing. The founder of NoFence, a west coast goat farmer himself as well as a tech entrepreneur, developed a solution that allows the farmer to fence in his goat, sheep or cattle by way of a “virtual fence.” The solution consists of a GPS collar for the animals and a smartphone user interface; it has already been sold to over 2,500 customers.
The fact that smartphone penetration in Norway is at 91% (2017) and that Norway has the best mobile broadband coverage in the world, makes Norway a good place commercialize this solution.
Another company, Soilsteam International, also presenting at AgriTech, was originally founded by a group of farmers wanting to eliminate or at least drastically reduce the use of artificial pesticides in food production. The solution was the use of steam. In cooperation with local industry, academia, and the tech sector, the team has developed a soil steaming solution that has been proven to effectively combat fungi, nematodes and weed seeds, down to 30cm depth. Field tests during the summer of 2018 showed increases in yield for vegetables like carrots of over 40%. Recently UC Davis in California abandoned plans to develop a similar solution and instead purchased equipment from Soilsteam International; commercial customers are lining up.
A third company worth mentioning, N2Applied, has its legacy from one of Norway’s great industrial success stories – fertilizer production. In 1905, Norsk Hydro – now Yara, one of the world’s largest fertilizer companies, was established based on the combination of access to abundant hydropower resources and the invention of the electric arc technology that enabled the production of nitrogen fertilizer from the air. N2Applied has developed a modern version of the electric arc process that enables the energy efficient production of nitrogen in a processing unit the size of a kitchen fridge. This technology, which can be deployed on farms, has the power to potentially disrupt the value chain of fertilizer, putting the farmer in the driver’s seat. The company has installed several test units with pilot customers and has received about €7 million in funding from investors.
The Norwegian offshore oil and gas industry with its demand for robotic solutions, as well as a strong drive to automate industrial processes in general, has been a good basis for the development of academic and industrial competence in this field in Norway. The Agritech startup Saga Robotics is a company that will continue that tradition onshore.
Saga Robotics has developed a highly-versatile, modular robot that can be adapted to do a range of tasks in the open field, as well as orchards, greenhouses and polytunnels. The first commercial use case for the robot is as a carrier of UV-light racks in a greenhouse or in the field that exposes strawberry, tomato, cucumber and other crops to a defined dose of UV-light to reduce fungal infections and replaces chemical fungicides. The treatment needs to be done in darkness and at a slow, steady pace; a job well suited for a robot.
Another area where Norway is making great technological strides is in finding alternative sources of protein for fish and livestock feed. While Norway is a small agricultural country with hardly any exports at all, it is a giant within fish. Norway is the biggest exporter of fish second only to China, and by far the biggest exporter of Atlantic Salmon. Fisheries and fish farming are some of the most significant industrial sectors in Norway.
The Norwegian government research projects “Foods of Norway” and “NorZymeD“ are tasked with replacing imported soy as the main protein source for feed for the fish farming industry with seaweed, wood, and other domestic sources. The idea is that through novel biorefining and enzymatic processes, it is possible to convert these abundant resources to high-grade, protein-rich feed. The preliminary results show that it is a very realistic prospect.
Perhaps the most promising startup innovating in this arena is CageEye. The company has developed a solution that can detect the location of farmed salmon in a fish cage at any given time. If the majority of fish are swimming near the surface, it indicates it is ready to feed, and if most of the fish swim lower, it is time to reduce the amount of feed distributed. The technology offers the operator an opportunity to control the feeding process much more accurately, saving cost and reducing spill of highly nutrient feed to the environment.
Norway AgriTech Potential
Albeit small compared to the global agricultural powerhouses, Norway is continuing to show that a nation does not need a lot of arable land to disrupt the cultivation of it. Oil and gas production, from which Norway has accumulated great wealth, is not a sustainable industry of the future. Perhaps it will be the production of a different type of energy – the edible kind — that occupies the small mountain country from here on.