Chris Dunkley is CEO of the Rothamsted Centre for Research and Enterprise, which is an incubation center and hub for agtech startups in the UK. It’s attached to the world’s longest running agricultural research station Rothamsted Research, which has been researching science and innovation in the agriculture industry since 1843.
Dunkley has a background in business incubation and innovation. Before Rothamsted, he held senior roles at Ipsos, Bucks and MK Innovation Growth Team, and Sparc Technology Network/
Here Dunkley tells AgFunderNews more about RoCRE and what it’s trying to achieve for agtech startups in the UK.
What is RoCRE and why was it set up at Rothamsted?
RoCRE stands for the Rothamsted Centre for Research and Enterprise and was set up to create an environment at Rothamsted that would attract businesses from all sectors interested in agri-tech to join and engage with the research institute, and the wider Rothamsted community.
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How is RoCRE funded?
The £13 million ($18.5 million) investment in the new conference facilities, Open Innovation Hub and Incubation Suite came from the BBSRC, Rothamsted Research itself, The Lawes Trust (LAT) and the Herts Local Enterprise Partnership, whicho invested in our vision to open up innovation in Agri-Tech. RoCRE is now a limited company with the LAT, Rothamsted and BBSRC as shareholders.
What does the incubation center offer start-ups?
Simply put, agri-tech start-up companies will be an integral part of the campus. Not only have we a carefully designed a business incubation lab and start-up office space, but we also provide access to leading Rothamsted Research Scientists and the experienced knowledge exchange team. We also have links to the sector and functional business support, all within a friendly professional environment. We encourage our local investors to come and see both the companies in which they may be interested, but also the facilities we have to support them.
How many start-ups do you have the capacity for and how many are currently in residence?
We can house up to 12 start-up companies and have 5 with us right now (soon to be 6), all of whom are undertaking R&D within agri-related businesses.
Rothamsted Research has a deep history in biotechnology and arable cropping research. Does this mean the incubation centre is most suitable for agtech start-ups in this space?
Exactly that. Given the research interest of Rothamsted around crop yield and protection, sustainable and smart farming practices and the importance of managing data in farming, we are attracting companies that want to be close to that hub of expertise. We have found that since the establishment of the Agrimetrics centre in the Lawes Open Innovation Hub, companies are showing a keen interest in being part of the agri-data community and physically close to those shaping this growing sector.
[Agrimetrics is a global big data center for the food and agriculture industry to support "a revolution in the use of big data science in the agri-food industry and contribute to a highly intelligent, productive, efficient, resilient and sustainable system”, according to its website. It is a joint venture between Rothamsted Research, University of Reading, theNational Institute of Agricultural Botany and Scotland’s Rural College. It was launched as part of a UK government strategy to support agtech innovation in the country. The government invested £11.8 million in its creation, but it is an independent company much like RoCRE.]
How can non-start-ups get involved with RoCRE?
We have three elements to RoCRE’s work; agri-incubation for the start-up community, research collaboration and conferencing. If companies join us, they will not only be sharing the space with other start-up companies but rubbing shoulders with Rothamsted’s own scientists and our larger agri-chem and big data collaborators. Our international standard conference facilities mean we are now attracting some of the most important agri-related conferences which in turn attract exactly the investors and research community which will help all our on-site businesses to thrive.
You have a background in business incubation. How does the agtech sector today compare with other industries you’ve worked in?
Since 2004, I have worked with over 300 “knowledge intensive” start-up companies from all sectors to help them grow and seek investment. In one sense, all ambitious start-ups are similar; at their heart will be an entrepreneur with a great idea who needs a nurturing environment in which to thrive in terms of the right space, advice, and support in understanding both their technology and the potential of their markets. Our difference lies in the unique relationship required with those that grow and nurture our crops and livestock and the importance of seasonality; it dictates the pace of development and innovation. Other industries have perhaps adopted a culture of more openness amongst potential collaborators, and we at RoCRE hope to bring that to agri-tech where we already have some great innovators in all parts of our sector.
What advice would you give to agtech startups bearing in mind what you’ve seen from the sector so far?
Be bold, but plan and network. I was fortunate enough to host the Showcase event at Agri-Tech East REAP Conference and I was also involved in the World Agri-Tech Investment Summit last autumn. I was struck by how passionate the entrepreneurs were and how technologies from our related sectors are now being adopted, adapted and used for agri-food applications.
How does RoCRE differ from the Royal Agriculture University’s 491 start-up facility? Are there any potential synergies or collaborations between the two?
There are a number of great centres for agri-tech companies to consider across the UK including the RAU. All offer their own areas of expertise and specialist services. We can offer a close affinity to world-class research and scientific services, with London and the investment community right on our doorstep. We have an incubation facility as part of our offering and will, where we can, work with other agri-tech “eco systems” to promote the UK as the place for innovative agri-tech to start and thrive.
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