Agribusinesses are unsure how to approach agriculture technology (agritech) investment and are at risk of being left behind if they don’t make it a core part of their strategy, according to a new report from BCG Consulting and AgFunder.
The report, which presents findings from a survey of C-Suite agribusiness executives and agritech venture capitalists, joins a group of commentators in the sector that are pointing to a new paradigm for the industry, where technological innovation stands to disrupt the food and agriculture industry’s status quo leaving some agribusinesses unsure about their future.
At a recent event in San Francisco hosted by the UC Davis World Food Center, one of the speakers commented: “The food and ag sector is a textbook sector ripe for disruption. Eight of the 10 biggest companies could go away. That’s actually a possibility.”
It’s a bold statement, especially in light of the consolidation in the sector creating even larger corporations; but it’s worth pausing over. None of the large agribusinesses have formally talked about their technology plans, and how they compare to some of the more widely reported venture activity in the space.
First, the report revealed that total agritech investment from global agribusinesses was between $17 billion and $22 billion in 2015, representing between 4% and 7% of company revenues, according to BCG data. With venture investment in the sector at $3 billion in 2015, according to AgFunder data (minus foodtech and food ecommerce), that was a record total $20 billion to $25 billion of investment into agritech.
These levels are all-time highs, according to the report, which defines corporate investments as R&D, M&A, partnerships, equity stakes, and other investment such as technology centers. That’s no small feat considering net farm incomes had fallen 35% from their 2013 peak.
Furthermore, investment is expected to continue at this pace with 80% of agribusiness respondents planning to maintain or increase this level of investment.
What are they investing in? Nearly half of respondents (46%) said that they were prioritizing ‘big data & analytics,’ which is perhaps unsurprising to those familiar with the agritech market since Monsanto’s data-driven business is understood to have compelled Bayer’s acquisition offer. Twenty-nine percent of respondents are prioritizing biological inputs as companies look to replace unpopular and environmentally damaging chemical pesticides and fertilizers, while 29% prioritized food security and traceability technologies. Priorities varied depending on the type of agribusiness, but data enabled technology was the theme across agribusiness and venture capital.
Despite these impressive figures and encouraging investment plans, agribusinesses have been cautious in their approach to agritech investment, directing 63% of investment to in-house R&D. Eighty-two percent of respondents said they were investing primarily to defend or enhance their core businesses, with just 18% intending to create new business.
Partnerships or joint ventures represent 14% of companies’ agritech investment followed by M&A and equity investments at just 8% each. Less than 1% were investing in their own venturing arm.
“Executives report that their companies’ investment strategy is primarily defensive, evolutionary, and conducted in-house,” reads the report.
The executives surveyed did recognize the need to invest in external innovation more, however. They said they would prefer to invest 40% in internal R&D and increase partnerships and M&A investment to 50%. But they cited specific challenges to achieving these goals: lack of internal capabilities or talent to scout and develop technologies externally (36%), internal financial metrics (23%), agreeing on investment priorities (23%) and a risk-averse company culture (18%).
BCG and AgFunder offer six pieces of advice to agribusinesses in their approach to agritech investment going forward:
- Develop customer-centric technology solutions
- Build a technology roadmap
- Have an “always on” scouting capability
- Make a portfolio of bets
- Take a “through cycle” approach
- Build capabilities that facilitate investing
For more in-depth insight from the report and forward-looking advice, see the full report Lessons from the Frontlines of the Agtech Revolution here.