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Norway's Saga Robotics, which has a base in Lincoln, is running one of the projects that has nabbed UKRI grant money. Photo credit: Saga Robotics

Has the UK’s latest $31m agrifoodtech shellout gone anywhere useful?

July 27, 2020

Last October, I wrote a lightly scathing article on how the UK government, prodded by a rising public concern over climate change, wants its agriculture sector to be carbon neutral by 2040. It was hardly putting its money where its mouth is when it came to backing the sorts of technologies that might make this target reachable. “£20 million ($25 million) here and there won’t do the trick,” I wrote in response to news of various projects winning funding from UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), a quango charged with allocating these sorts of grants on behalf of the government.

In its latest slice of funding from UKRI’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund Transforming Food Production challenge, unveiled this July, the body seems to have taken this hack’s critique on board – but only by a bit. Funding is up from a £20 million ($25 million) pound cash injection to a £24 million ($30.9 million) spread of grants across nine companies. A step in the right direction, certainly, and any generosity for the sector is welcome given the way Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on the UK government’s balance sheet, as elsewhere.

Killing dynamism with kindness

Still, a question remains: why not more cash toward a more sustainable 2040? Since my article last year, I have had various conversations with senior UKRI officials, and this led me to a marginally better understanding of why things are where they are. In short, there are attempts to respect a delicate balance that any government needs to keep when seeking to help cultivate innovation ecosystems. Governments can easily kill dynamism with kindness, creating a culture of stodgy grant dependency. Unwittingly, they can become interminable backers of startups that were never worth their salt, but know how to tick the right bureaucratic boxes time and again. (Naive VCs and private investors can fall prey to these sneaky startups too.)

On top of this, governments have to be wary of wasting their money by filling voids where private investment would have found its way anyway. Another potential pitfall is burdening small teams with seemingly endless reporting on their progress; there’s a need to demonstrate to taxpayers that their money has not simply vanished, but this can drown startups in pointless paperwork.

Another grant curse can be how objectives start to sound eerily political rather than practical. For instance, some funds are only released on condition of generating employment or business activity in specified areas deemed to be in need of economic development (UKRI itself has a large presence in Swindon for exactly those sorts of reasons.) This is definitely not just a shortcoming of the UK; one obvious culprit here is Israel, where government loans can be even more location-dependent, coming with strings attached that leave food and agtech startups improbably positioned way outside the country’s primary tech hub of Tel Aviv.

Sensible moonshots

UKRI’s latest round of grant money is meant for the sorts of moonshots that even risk-happy investors might shy away from, or that the companies themselves might never have attempted anyway.

But drawing the line here is the hard part. Clearly, UKRI is keen to avoid investing in ideas that are so crazy as to be a harebrained misuse of taxpayer money. Another component that is easy to spot is how UKRI uses its grant schemes to break down silos among and between certain sectors of innovation, encouraging companies to collaborate with university departments, state-linked innovation centers, or with players in other industries.

So here’s the list of the latest UKRI grant recipients (and where they’re based.) Are these ideas mad, bad, brilliant, or dangerous? Have they missed some better options out there? How does this compare with government approaches in other countries? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

  • REACT-FIRST (Nottingham), led by Deep Branch Biotechnology, will receive over £2 million ($2.57 million) to use carbon dioxide from Drax Power’s Selby power station and apply its unique CO2-to-protein process to generate food for fish and poultry with up to 75% smaller carbon footprints, no requirements for arable land, and minimal water usage.
  • Autonomous Growing System (London), led by Optimal Labs, will receive over £2 million ($2.57 million) to provide autonomous technology that controls climate, irrigation, and lighting for growing crops in controlled environments. This could significantly increase production levels and resource-efficiency in existing UK greenhouses, helping to protect the UK’s food system against climate change and population growth.
  • Robot Highways (Lincoln), led by Saga Robotics, will receive nearly £2.5 million ($3.21 million) to perform the largest known global demonstration of robotics and autonomous technologies on a farm. The robots will assist farmers by carrying out essential, energy-intensive physical processes such as picking and packing fruit and treating crops.
  • Production at the Point of Consumption (Maidstone), led by Evogro, will receive nearly £850,000 ($1.09 million) to research and develop the next generation of autonomous growing systems, to ensure they are affordable for new consumer markets and economically viable for production of mainstream crops.
  • InFarm2.x (London), led by German vertical farming business InFarm, will receive over £3 million ($3.86 million) to develop a farming system that can grow a wider variety of fruit and vegetables than is currently possible by cultivating in vertically stacked levels, rather than on a single level surface such as a field. It will also use technology including gas sensors and monitoring cameras to observe the growth patterns of crops, helping to identify optimal growing conditions.
  • AGRI-SATT (London) led by Feed Algae, will receive over £4 million ($5.14 million) for its project based around an algae growing system that exploits natural seawater to produce food in deserts. It aims to combine data from the growing system with satellite data to automate production and increase the nutritional quality of the food produced.
  • GelPonic (Manchester), led by AEH Innovative Hydrogel, has developed a new growth material that will improve crop yields on farms worldwide. It will receive over £1 million ($1.29 million) to develop a material that conserves water and protects plants by filtering pathogens and includes a new graphene-based connected device that allows remote-monitoring of conditions in vertical farms.
  • REMEDY (Bath), led by Quality Milk Management Services, will receive over £1.7 million ($2.18 million) to provide precision technologies to dairy farmers enabling them to access real-time data to ensure their farm is as productive, efficient, and environmentally friendly as possible. This includes tech such as wearable devices for cows that track their behavior and nutrition, allowing farmers to make more informed decisions.
  • TUBERSCAN-DEMO (Lincoln), led by B-hive, will receive nearly £2 million ($2.57 million) to develop and test a demonstrator system to measure average potato sizes and yield throughout potato fields, providing insights that will enable selective harvesting, optimized crop yield, and more effective use of resources. It is anticipated that this technology could generate an estimated 5-10% increase in UK marketable potato production.

What is your opinion on UKRI’s selection for its latest agrifood grant initiative? Has it backed winners, or could it’ve done better? Let me know your thoughts at [email protected] 

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