An inaugural program aimed at fostering technological innovation in agriculture will soon draw to a close, culminating with presentations in two high-profile conferences next month.
The RoyseLaw AgTech Incubator was founded by lawyer Roger Royse, who set up the group Silicon Valley AgTech a few years ago in a bid to connect angel investors and venture capitalists with entrepreneurs involved in budding new agricultural products and services.
Royse told www.freshfruitportal.com 15 companies had been chosen to participate in the six-month initiative, in areas ranging from big data field monitoring to biochar-based fuels.
"The incubator program concludes with our conference on May 11 in Palo Alto, where several of those companies will be pitching and presenting - we've got a full day of very impressive panels and presentations by industry experts and luminaries," Royse said.
"That leads off a full week. The PMA (Produce Marketing Association) Tech Knowledge Symposium starts that evening, and we have our first set of events there on May 12 down in Monterey," he said, adding he would be coordinating the 'What's the Pitch?' session.
Royse said Silicon Valley AgTech was formed after he saw a huge opportunity for technology company clients from his law firm to get into a new market.
"I saw a lot of good new technologies that had good new applications in agriculture, and the problem of course was that it was hard for people around here in Silicon Valley to understand that market and to really fashion products that would be accepted in the market," he said.
"It seemed to me that we could provide a lot of value to our client companies if we could create this community and bring those technologies together. That's how the idea started, and it’s grown like Topsy since then."
Royse said he continued to receive applications for the incubator program "every day" from around the world, focusing on a wide spectrum of applications.
"One that I really like in our group is called AgriPoint, that has machines that run through the fields and gather data through spectral imaging. Using that data, they send information back to the farmer so they know how well a particular plant or grove is doing, whether it needs more water, that kind of thing," he said.
"We've got another one called Rapid Biosystems and it has a handheld pathogen detector. It comes out of the biotech industry and is now being applied to produce and the agriculture industry.
"This is something that’s just going to save the producer so much money, time and effort because right now they have to take a sample, take it back to the lab and it takes forever. Just imagine being able to get real-time results out in the field."
On the horizon
When asked about the future of agricultural technology, Royse highlighted that while many agtech people tended to get very specialized in one area, he took a more expansive position to see where technologies could overlap or find new synergies.
"Water of course is on everybody’s mind right now, and the way that the agricultural industry uses water and thinks about water just has to change. That's change that'll come out of necessity and I think you're going to see technologies used in arid parts of the world like Israel or Africa coming to California," he said.
"There's big data and internet of course, but that's almost old news now because it's been in the works and out in the field, but we'll see more of it.
"I think drones and microsatellites are going to become more and more prevalent because it just makes so much sense. Drone technology is just getting better and better, and more precise all the time. There's also the ecosystem that supports the drones - the battery chargers, the transmission of the data from the drone, the interpretation of the data."
He said another change born out of necessity was urban and indoor farming, and this would likely change the dynamics of both domestic and international produce trading.
"China is running out of land that’s tillable, and they’re not running out of people, so places like that will have to do indoor urban farming. It's already an industry in China.
"Part of the big cost in farming, and part of the waste in efficiency in spoilage and damage, actually comes because it takes such a long time to get to market. A tomato travels 1,600 miles on average by the time it’s consumed.
"So I think we’re going to see farming get way more local, and to be more local we’re going to have to see more of the urban, indoor farming. We’ve got a panel on that at the presentation."
But could this do away with produce exports? Royse thinks not, but it will certainly have an impact.
"I don't think that will ever happen. There are always going to be efficiencies, but I think it will change the dynamic quite a bit. It just has to.
"I understand that especially in California here the export market is huge, and I think people ought to be prepared for the fact you’re going to see a little less international trade as farming grows more local.
"That's a theme that I see everywhere, and you can see why as it's not only a matter of necessity, but it's security."
Royse emphasized there were many technical challenges innovators and farmers would face in the coming years.
"If we're talking about sustainability, the elephant in the room is basically the environmental impact of hundreds of years of agriculture.
"We're kind of reaching the point where that's a problem that needs to be solved and it needs a technological solution – there's a huge environmental impact - it's affecting the oceans, it's affecting the level of plankton, and it certainly is affecting the water supply.
"I'm seeing a lot of technologies that will either help reduce the use of chemicals in ag or make them safer, and that’s another change that I’m not sure the whole world has awakened to yet, but I'm sure it will soon."
In other news related to agricultural technology, industry group Western Growers recently formed an alliance with Silicon Valley Global Partners to find and advance innovative solutions to the sector's challenges.