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Five steps to a great agri-tech idea

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The four UK Agri-Tech Centres of Agricultural Innovation are the result of a unique collaboration involving UK Government, industry and academia to drive greater efficiency, resilience and wealth across the agri-food sector. Supported by Innovate UK, the Centres are harnessing leading UK research and expertise and providing new facilities to:

  • Join-up existing excellence and invest in new innovative research and resources that don’t exist elsewhere
  • Address challenges that no single part of the sector can address alone
  • Open up opportunities for transformational change
  • Position the UK as a global leader in sustainable food production

The Centres are:

  • Agrimetrics: the world’s first agri-food data marketplace
  • Agri-EPI: enabling sustainability, productivity and resilience through technology
  • Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL): providing the front door for research and innovation with one of the world’s largest livestock research alliances
  • Crop Health and Protection (CHAP) – improving crop and soil health & productivity

Find out more at agritechcentres.com

Agri-Tech Innovation Centre, CHAP (Crop Health and Protection), aims to build networks in sustainable agriculture to help accelerate the next generation of R&D solutions.

Part of this is supporting innovators to nurture their seedling ideas into impactful results.

But, is there a recipe for success in agri-tech innovation? Whether it’s applying for grant funding or pitching for commercial investment, there is much to consider when developing a product, service or solution.

CHAP’s Innovation Technical Lead, Dr Alex McCormack, discusses the five steps that he believes should form the bedrock of all agri-tech ideas.

Dr Alex McCormack field

CHAP’s Innovation Technical Lead, Dr Alex McCormack © CHAP

1. Identify the need

“An innovation needs to solve someone’s pain-point; having a clear focus on that challenge and keeping the end-user in mind helps to create market pull,” says Dr McCormack.

“Sometimes, this can be future-facing, a gap or issue that will occur in years to come. This can make the ideation process tricky, because innovators are developing something that they know people will need in the future, but are yet to realise.”

An example from CHAP that illustrates this is precision fungicide application project, SprayBot.

This project is investigating how to reduce synthetic pesticide usage and make biologicals more competitive, by applying products when and where needed most.

2. Generate a clear concept or solution

Commenting on the second step in the chain, Dr McCormack, says: “Clarity is key – can a simple, understandable narrative be constructed to accompany the idea, avoiding academic technicality, scientific jargon or excess detail?”

He views this as the ‘elevator pitch’, vital in communicating a digestible story that resonates with potential collaborators from outside the immediate sector.

This is also something that he credits as appealing to future funders or investors, as well as considering whether the solution is feasible or not, and whether initial pilot studies could be used to refine the concept.

Such pilot studies include proof of concept projects funded by IUK EDGE.

3. Know the what, how and who

Step three involves identifying clear but realistic aims and objectives and what it will take to deliver them.

“Take time to fully define individual activities and timelines, ensuring that these fit together to meet your goals and produce tangible outcomes and deliverables,” says Dr McCormack.

He adds: “Consider the scale and detail required, do I need lab-based research, or a field trial? Perhaps it requires user testing or knowledge exchange and demonstration activities.

Importantly, how will the end solution complement existing agricultural systems and practices?”

He acknowledges that having the correct expertise is vital. “Do you have these in house, or do you need external contractors or partners to deliver the R&D or other project work?”

He believes this is an opportunity to identify project partners with the required skills and expertise. 

4. Ensure a sustainable route to market

This links back to understanding the target market, how they behave, what they need and what they can afford or are willing to invest in.

Dr McCormack says: “What is the value being created? It’s critical to understand how you access the future customer, and then decide how to get the solution to them.

“Contacts are invaluable in understanding the route to market. For those established, they can lever on existing contacts, but this may prove trickier for new entrants.

Here networking events or nexus organisations like CHAP can help to find and develop these.

“And let’s not forget the competition! A detailed competitor analysis is key, as well as considering current barriers for all involved.”

Innovators are also encouraged to understand what success means for their business.

This could be unlocking the ability to hire new staff, accessing a new sales area or sector, or simply expanding a product line.

5. Understand the real-world impact

Perhaps for many, the most important step of all, and in which the meaning is split into two – direct and indirect.

“Direct impact is how it affects a business or the sector’s growth, whereas indirect is how it contributes to bigger picture issues such as the environment, society, sustainability and net zero,” says Dr McCormack.

“Simply put, what impact will this innovation have? How will agriculture and food production benefit? Sometimes, these benefits take time, particularly if they are instigating systemic system changes.”

He also warns that not all impact is positive and it’s critical to have an awareness of potential negative outcomes. A prime example being automation and the knock-on effect on the workforce.

What now, where to begin?

There are many different routes for agri-tech businesses to put these thoughts into practice. Key sources of funding for such projects can be found through InnovateUK’s Funding Finder, Defra and UKRI’s recent Farming Innovation Programme, or similar public and private funding organisations.

Contact CHAP today