Kiwinet: building New Zealand's 'Silicon Valley' of agriculture

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Kiwinet: building New Zealand's 'Silicon Valley' of agriculture

Universities and research institutes in New Zealand are collaborating to create and commercialize technologies for use in the agricultural sector.

The Kiwi Innovation Network (Kiwinet) recently held a forum with around 140 people to discuss how to best advise farmers on the current technologies available and to better understand their needs.

Kiwicount buggy

Plant & Food Research commercial group general manager David Hughes, has told the network and its forums help improve links between researchers, start-ups and large companies.

"A number of start-up companies have technology solutions for specific problems, and  in some cases they have sold to a major multinational," he says.

"Some come from technologies developed in research institutions, some come from entrepreneurs and some are developed from farmers themselves; there’s quite a mix there."

He adds that through corroboration of different partners in the network there is no telling what the limits to potential could be.

"You could aim to have a silicon valley for agriculture down here."

Establishing Kiwinet - collaboration is key

Kiwinet was formed last August and is a collaboration of six universities and three Crown research institutes, running an investment committee that allocates pre-seed financing while also looking at how commercialization could be improved overall.

Lincoln University director of research and commercialization Dr Peter John, says it is very important to understand how to make technologies exist on commercial platforms, whether they be for use in the dairy, livestock or horticultural industries.

"This will allow identification of blockages to market success and thus ensure that innovations really add-value to the industry and New Zealand," he says.

Hughes says that teaming up recognizes that while in some places researchers need to compete, it still helps to work together, and there can be particular advantages in cross-specialization for horticulture.

Kiwicount processing

"For example a university might create a medical device that works for someone else in a different way."

Lincoln Ventures Limited chief executive Peter Barrowclough, says his company has already signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Massey University, who are part of the network.

"Kiwinet is a broad collaboration in terms of sharing ideas and commercializing technology but we still have individual activities," he says.

His comments are echoed by Massey’s Centre for Precision Agriculture director professor Ian Yule.

"We have been working with Lincoln Ventures for a number of months now to identify how the cooperation might operate and we intend to build that relationship while working together on research and development projects."

Boosting knowledge

Hughes is tight-lipped about what technologies are in development due to their commercial sensitivity, but says there are many already in use that Plant & Food Research has been involved with.

"One is a spray plan manager. What that does is allow an orchardist to get a whole lot of data into their property and log what they’re doing. Then it will give alerts to ensure crops get their requirements.

It is understood that other technologies in progress include soil maps, nutrient data indicators, fruit counting devices, frost protection systems and disease calculators.

Barrowclough has told that a kiwifruit counting machine has been developed with Massey University.

"The machine uses cameras and unique software which processes the images to differentiate kiwifruit from the vines and leaves, thus enabling us to count the fruit on the vines."

Hughes says while new technologies have their advantages, they still can’t replace the true knowledge of farming.

"For example data acquisition is about putting measurements into a place where they can use data visualization tools - farmers or orchardists don’t have time to manipulate data, but effectively they are getting information they can make decisions from."

He explains it is a bit like a doctor being able to get lots more information about patients’ symptoms through the technology, but still having to understand what that all means and what to prescribe.

"You’ve got to have the link between diagnosis and prescription but you can get information on what to do about it."

The innovation challenge

Kiwicounting at night

While it is one thing to create new technologies, their adoption by the market is another issue.

"They may be shiny looking gadgets, but farmers aren't going to use them up if they don't work, and deliver an economic return for them,” adds Barrowclough.

However, Hughes adds the adoption of technology by orchardists is quite high in New Zealand.

"They are quite willing to buy these things but they are time poor people who don’t have the time to make technology work," he says.

"There is quite a lot of expensive equipment on orchards, everything from big pieces to tractors right thru to cell phones and that sort of thing. So it’s not a barrier, and it is the time that needs to be invested."

New Zealand’s time to shine

Barrowclough believes the rise of digital technologies, or what he prefers to call ‘precision agriculture’, is imminent, with sustainability and traceability as key themes.

"I think with the pressure coming on environmental issues, with the costs of resources and the arrival of accessible broadband on farms, the time for precision agriculture has arrived.

"Top end customers are happy to pay a bit more if they know that things are produced sustainably so that's a great place for New Zealand to position itself."

Hughes says it should be emphasized that the technologies be designed and made in New Zealand.

"Some level of assembly might happen here, but what really matters is who owns the intellectual property - there is a double benefit because if it is developed in New Zealand for New Zealand conditions, they'll get to use the technology first to get the yield advantages."

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