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Interview with James Bell-Booth – Sprout Agritech

Sprout is focused on accelerating agritech start-ups working on technologies to increase efficiency from the farmers paddock to the consumers lives. We spoke with James Bell-Booth, co-founder and programme manager from Sprout, to get his insights into the company, agritech, and where New Zealand is at in the global industry.

How did Sprout start?

There were a couple of things that prompted us to develop Sprout. We noticed a growing demand from farmers, both here and internationally, for technologies that could improve what they do and how they do it. The demand for food puts pressure on farmers and people in the value chain and technology is instrumental in helping people farm and produce food more efficiently

The other thing we noticed was that agritech start ups had unique needs to a standard tech start up. Those needs are tied back to the seasonality of primary industries and the efficacy required to deliver value. Farming is one of oldest trades in history, rather than seeing farmers as people who are slow to adopt new technology, we see them as needing to see proof that technology works before they buy it. That means that agritech companies can’t rely on marketing their way to success, instead they have to prove that they have something of value. That’s something that can be very difficult without the right type of backing, and requires a different type of investor; one who understands the unique needs of the agriculture industry and start ups in this field.

We recognised that Sprout could provide the right type of investment and fill both of the industry needs.

App.

App technology in use on a kiwi fruit orchard.

What is your background?

Sprout was founded by a business incubator, called BCC. Based in Palmerston North, we’ve spent last 13 years working alongside leaders in agricultural research such as Massey University and Landcare Research and playing a support role in the science and technology that comes out of these institutes.

Who is your market and what does Sprout provide for them?

Our market is made up of the entrepreneurs and innovators that are trying to develop products and services that can transform the primary industry chain. We invest $25 000 into eligible companies and provide a fixed period of mentorship and training to help accelerate business outcomes.

Are there any up and coming companies that you have your eye on?

We’re excited about a lot of startups at the moment. There’s a company out of Dunedin called AgriTrack,  they’ve developed software to help large scale crop farmers with the multitude of logistical challenges during harvest time. They’re now an international success.

There’s another company called Logic Labs, based in the Bay of Plenty. They do crop estimation for New Zealand’s largest horticulture and pip fruit crops.

Biolumic are another company who are doing amazing things. They’re helping growers increase yields by having controlled UV input. That’s basically customised sunshine, suited to particular crops needs.

Tom Rivett working on Agritrack's technology

Tom Rivett working on Agritrack’s technology

How do you think New Zealand can be world leaders in the agriculture industry?

I think we are world leaders already in technology development, but we’re not world leaders in the commercialisation of that technology. With the innovation we have I think there is untapped potential for New Zealand to create jobs, export revenue and yield improvements, not just in here but globally.

That’s where Sprout fits in – we can help to up skill entrepreneurs and give them the support to commercialise their technology and bring it to market.

Are there other countries that you think New Zealand can learn from in this industry?

I think we’ve got to stop looking at people to learn from and we’ve got to start leading. As a country we’ve got to have the confidence to stand up and show leadership. I think New Zealand has the capability to totally nail it, if we try.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We have a finite window to lead in the agritech space, if NZ wants to maximise opportunities in terms of developing jobs in the industry and monetising growth and yields. If we want to win that, we have to move now. Other countries are starting to invest more than we are, and that’s in cold hard cash, we’ve got to invest and take the bull by the horns.