The future of farming - focus on Agri-tech

If you haven't seen it already, the latest Tech Nation report is most certainly worth a read if you want to hear some positive news (for a change) regarding the UK emerging as Europe's number one tech nation.

In particular, I wanted to focus on the Agri-tech sector as we have been working with startups in this field. This industry alone saw £1.84 billion of investment in 2019 compared to £1.06 billion in 2016. There has certainly been an increased interest in this sector, in fact just a week ago this was posted by one of my connections on Linkedin:

"I'm seeking UK #agritech #startups seeking over £4m in the next three quarters to connect with international #CVC and #VentureCapital investors" (Roy Williamson, Department for International Trade).

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted fragility in food supply chains alongside issues facing labour supply, both of which have contributed to an urgency to develop new methods of agriculture automation or ways in which to increase efficiency.

On Friday, I spoke with the owner of a fruit farm who has developed and created a cloud-based tool to enable farmers to look at "real time" reporting, recording every part of a farm's production and labour processes. The product is now being used worldwide with further expansion plans on the horizon. He highlighted the important role that Eastern Europeans have played over the years in fruit farming and there is a clear worry with regards to Brexit and Covid-19 having a major impact on this labour supply.

I came across an interesting article by Professor Simon Pearson, Director of LIAT University of Lincoln in which he discussed some of the issues facing the Agri-tech industry now:

1. Hiring engineers and skills - robotics skills exist in many sectors, but as agri-tech grows, more engineers will be needed

2. Funding - these organisations need quick released funds in order to focus on driving development.

3. Evaluation sites - in order to test the technology, real sites need to be made available. There could be potential to utilise the current COVID-19 situation in order to enable prototypes to be tested due to the fact that a lot of produce is currently being wasted.

4. Lack of capital to scale - from prototype to production takes times and capital and many investors see this as a high risk category. There is help available and some VCs and Banks are willing to invest, plus there is a real interest in UK investment by overseas investors.

5. IP protection - many companies are unwilling to collaborate before they have IP protection which can be a lengthy process. There are some IP lawyers who are currently investing a fast-track option in order to encourage open innovation.

As a recruiter that supports startups across many industry sectors, but with clients in the Agri-tech sector, we can shed some light on what we have been doing in order to facilitate growth in these companies.

There are many sectors in which robotics plays a key role, for example in autonomous vehicles and industrial automation. As our approach is all based around headhunting, we have been mapping out the availability of Robotics Engineers, Data Scientists etc and have been talking to individuals regarding a move of sector, bringing their knowledge of automation to agriculture. Interestingly, we have seen an increase in take up of individuals who want to work for an industry that is making a difference. We have also been looking at individuals within software development and embedded software who have ties to agriculture through University or previous roles, with a view to discussing the possibility of a move to support the agricultural industry.

We would like to see more emphasis also on highlighting robotics for farming as a career. If you know someone who may be considering undertaking a PhD in robotics, LIAT have a number of fully funded PhDs available at Lincoln Agri-Robotics, the world's first global centre of excellence in agricultural robotics.

If you are currently a Robotics Engineer, Data Scientist, Research Scientist, Software Developer, Embedded software developer and would like to find out more about opportunities to work in the Agri-tech industry, please do get in touch.

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