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WINN Round Table at The Hive - Agri-Tech

ERDFTHE Hive was the venue as WINN and WBC hosted some of the UK’s principal players involved in technological advancements within the agriculture industry – all with a common focus on efficiency, profitability and yield.

Their work is of particular interest to Worcestershire – a place where agriculture forms a key part of the region’s economy.

Exciting transformations are afoot in the sector, as new technologies begin to be developed in ways which are setting out the geography of future food production and environmental impact. The work in this area is rapidly pushing the UK to the vanguard of innovation in global agriculture.


About the speakers…

DR RHIAN HAYWARD MBE is the Chief Executive Officer of the new Aberystwyth Innovation and Enterprise Campus (AIEC) currently being built by Aberystwyth University. Dr Hayward is leading this joint venture between the university and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

DR AURELIE BOVI is the Knowledge Exchange Manager with Agrimetrics – a not-for-profit organisation gathering and distributing expertise in analytics, data science, translational research, bioinformatics with a mission to share knowledge about livestock and crops in order to deliver future food sustainability for the agriculture industry.

DR JOHN COLLINS is the Commercial Director of SynbiCITE – the innovation and knowledge centre dedicated to accelerating and promoting the UK’s strong R&D landscape of work in the field of synthetic biology. Within an emerging industry, SynbiCITE sees its role as that of educating current and future generations about the sustainable benefits for the environment and economy through synthetic biology research and engineered biology.

Joining the speakers around the table were: Louise Roberts, Alimenti; Gavin Allen, Glideology; Penelope Bossom, Overbury Estate; Mark Bishop; Chris Brooks, Wychavon District Council; Christine Butler, Malvern Hills District Council (MHDC); Duncan Forbes, Kingshay; Ben Jones, University of Aberystwyth; Mark Hawkins, QinetiQ; Michael Newnham, Red Curve.

 

The event was hosted by Dionne Oliver and Jess Antley of WINN – a Worcestershire County Council and WLEP initiative, working in conjunction with Worcestershire Business Central.


Dr Rhian Hayward took the floor first, and explained how the new campus near Aberystwyth would be for the benefit of the whole of the UK’s agriculture industry, as well as Wales.

“The university already does this sort of work, so we are aiming to create that physical focal point and bring together the community of companies to be a part of that,” she began.

“The campus is going to be the Institute for Biological, Environment and Rural Sciences (or IBERs), and it’s about unlocking the university’s expertise to those who need it.

“One of the benefits of having an innovation centre, is having colleagues who can work with advanced technology and computer science directly related to agriculture as a community of experts.”

Dr Hayward added that one of her main aims was to help companies innovate and develop processes, as she revealed information about a new bio processing centre which will be one of the leading bio-refining facilities in the UK.

Plans are also underway to create an analytical science centre – half-funded through European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) money - to look at improvements in food quality and crop management.

“Food waste will become a large part of industrial strategy,” she added.

“And the campus will be looking for a series of partnerships that will help foster the values we have set down.”

Dr Hayward intends to host a series of events to bring some companies and key partners together.

 

{QUESTIONS FROM AROUND THE TABLE}

Chris Butler: Who do you see as your main customers?

Dr Hayward: It’s a fair mixture. They’re all SMEs. The university already has relationships with large companies. It was initially envisaged for entrepreneurs, but we have a broad range of collaborators.

Chris Brooks: I think there’s a real challenge about placing facilities further afield, as I don’t see many local growers going to Aberystwyth?

Dr Hayward: The Welsh government has been hugely supportive of funding projects related to the agri-tech sector and, having premises for headquarters in Wales means access to available funding in order to facilitate work for farmers and agricultural industries throughout the UK, not just Wales.


Next to speak, was SynbiCITE commercial director Dr John Collins.

Dr Collins opened by explaining the Innovation & Knowledge Centre was partly government-funded, and was dedicated to advancing the science behind and the acceptance of synthetic biology or, as he put it: “The engineering of biology to do useful things and make useful stuff to heal us, feed us and fuel us.”

“By 2020 we are looking to create a new industry that will drive growth for the UK,” he said.

“We are creating more waste than ever before, we are using more resources than are available. There is no ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ to rely on with our global environmental challenges”.

“We are creating a new manufacturing technology that will deliver biologically-created materials that can allow us to create anything we need.

“The idea is that using the techniques of editing DNA through using responsibly designed experimentation, we can develop the components required by industries that will remove the need, for example, to kill millions of sharks to extract squalene or whales for their ambergris.”

Dr Collins added that the key to success in his field was down to giving biology some manufacturing-style thinking, and visa-versa. Getting academia and business to communicate, will be fundamental to the process.

“We want to give academics some business acumen,” he explained.

“We want to elevate everyone’s understanding of the wider issues, because at the end of the day, a rising tide raises all ships”.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we didn’t have to produce fertilisers chemically, and use the wealth of natural resources we produce through waste? There are lots of opportunities in agri-tech to embrace technology that will allow us to genetically modify crops in order to create the future we want, responsibly.”

The final speaker was Dr Aurelie Bovi, of Agrimetrics, in particular representing the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL).

Launched in 2013, the programme has four centres.

“We are a family of centres, with a common vision to drive forward a more efficient and sustainable agri-food system,” she said.

“In terms of agri-metrics, data needs to be integrated in order to build a platform on a large scale in order to give everyone a proper insight into agri-tech.

“From weather to crop production, data will enable industry to better understand interconnected issues and deliver more efficiency for agriculture.”


{OPEN DISCUSSION} Introduced by Dionne Oliver…

Duncan Forbes: What’s exciting for agriculture are the remarkably mind-blowing technical stuff that’s out there in terms of engineering. There are some great opportunities. Some of the technology that will be brought to bear into agriculture are robotics and the sector opportunities to connect things. One of the key things is to join up those technologies. Farmers are time poor, and they don’t have the time to look at four or five different screens in order to make a management decision.

How do we link with business needs? And how can we ensure industry-led innovation centres make good use of academic institutions?

We enjoy good collaboration with investors such as Williams – the engineering unit behind the F1 team – who are delivering some of their expertise into Agri-EPI technology. As are Boeing – their drone technology is going to prove very useful.

But we do feel that there is a huge issue on labour.

Dr John Collins: Are you getting the right young, skilled people?

Duncan Forbes: Most agricultural courses are fully subscribed, but I think it’s very important to get across a really positive story about agriculture to encourage more people to bring their talent and skills into the industry. There are opportunities, it is an exciting time, and young people need to be aware of that. Getting consumers reconnected with where food comes from is also key to bringing a new generation through.

Mike Newnham: I’m curious about the move towards plant proteins.

Dr John Collins: That’s exactly what we do. The engineering of biology.

Dr Rhian Hayward: We have a farmer who has gone out to the States to look into cultured protein, and to examine the challenges. It’s a fascinating area at the pointy end of technological development. Textures, taste and smells, for instance.

Dr John Collins: There are many eye-openers in the challenges facing agriculture. For instance, 98% of the world’s vanilla is synthetically produced. If you buy a bottle of vanilla essence, it is largely oil with a miniscule amount of actual vanilla. And strawberries are the most genetically modified product in the world. Real strawberries are the size of your little finger tip, taste horrible, and are available for two weeks in June.

Dr Aurelie Bovi: People get very agitated about GM, because they don’t actually know what is the natural product and where it has begun or from what period of history it was developed. Communication and education is going to be vital to get the public to understand.

Dr John Collins: Many other industries have spent many years educating the public – the car industry, for instance. Yet agriculture and the bio economy are not delivered. 15bn litres of water is required to make all the burgers that McDonald’s sell in a day. Giving people the education that will allow someone to make a better choice – it’s about giving consumers better choice. It is all about information, so why should someone say I’ve got seven different sorts of carrots, but they choose one in particular because it comes with a better marketing narrative.

Dr Aurelie Bovi: We have a wave of messages coming from science at the moment which lead people to have a mistrust in the message. People should understand the labelling, and the packages do not always show the product for what it is. It is very complicated, which is why it needs to be about the message.

Dr John Collins: Maybe we should be lobbying the bigger companies to provide better methods of obtaining information, whether that’s through QR codes or other methods?

Dr John Collins: There was a great programme on the BBC recently hosted by Gregg Wallace on the process of making fish fingers for Waitrose. It was absolutely fascinating. There are amazing opportunities for robotics engineers and programmers. There is a field of data science here that would be really very useful for the whole agriculture industry.

Dr Rhian Hayward: The food industry is driven largely by what the market tells us, and where things sit in the supply chain. Our research has been done largely to help the major retailers and assisting their goals such as lowering their carbon footprint. It’s nothing we as consumers would be thinking about every day.

Dr John Collins: It’s about looking at developing industry around wellness, rather than focusing on illness - there’s no money in illness!

Penelope Bossom: Getting people out of the supermarkets and into the fields to see where the lambs come from. That might make a difference.

Duncan Forbes: Majority of food needs to be produced in large quantities. People tend not to understand the scale of the operations we’re involved in.

Dr John Collins: We need to look at manufacturing in a more holistic way. Over the last 50 or 60 years we’ve move away from that. Modern techniques are leading to a degradation of what we’re trying to achieve for a sustainable future.

Dr Rhian Hayward: We’ve talked about the wants and needs of our industry. The buyers hold much of the power, and there is a question about who pays for all the innovation. The economics of the whole piece is a massive consideration.

Dr John Collins: We approach that by educating start ups and investors. It’s arming them with information for the future. Insufficient information will often lead to investors getting it wrong.

Gavin Allen: I look at it from a very different perspective. I’m working on a couple of agri-tech projects. Real world experience is just as important for innovation – join education and experience together and I think that’s the route to a bright future.

Dr John Collins: 80% of all start ups fail. Without business acumen, they’re on a hiding to nothing.

Gavin Allen: Engineers are in extremely short supply. Talking about agri-tech, where are they coming from? You need to deliver a viable product, but it is expensive to do so.

Dr John Collins: And that’s where we come back to investors. The tech side of things is easier to invest in, because you can put it in front of an investor and they can see it straight away. That’s more difficult to do with agri-tech. We need to lobby to innovate.

Dr Rhian Hayward: We’re seeing a lot more micro-loans in Wales. There’s a lot of value in that.

Gavin Allen: Technology is very expensive to develop, but the public perception is that it is readily available.

Dr John Collins: It’s just like water. Comes out of the tap. Doesn’t cost anything because we are entirely complacent about where it comes from or what processes it has been through.


{CONCLUSION} Presented by Jess Antley:

We’ve brought some amazing subjects to life through discussion today. Within WINN at the moment we have innovators within the county trying to make a difference, getting these messages across, and embedding these discussions into part of a plan is top of the WINN agenda.

Meanwhile, these are the core headlines we’ll be taking away today:

The Importance of:

Note 1:
"The ultimate development hotel; collaborations in bio-science"

Note 2:
"Synthetic Biology driving the 4th Industrial Revolution to heal us, feed us & fuel us; it’s a global challenge and a holistic approach required to solve the 8 million tonnes of food waste heading to landfill"

Note 3:
"Field based autonomous systems; The Agri-Epicentre of engineering and tech!"

Note 4:
"The answers are out there; the importance of integrated, accessible data"

Note 5:
"A pincer approach; business skills for academics and an educational approach to the market with their knowledge of 'farm to fork and the opportunities within a hi-tech sector"

Note 6:
“How to win friends and influence people; retailer relationships are critical to the success of Agriculture"

Note 7:
"A revolution required; CSR v's Growers, the policy landscape for future agriculture!"

Note 8:
"Understanding scale; how cost margins are a crucial consideration as well as yield"

Note 9:
"Time for a radical new approach to land permissions and processes"

Note 10:
"Who pays for innovations? Lobbying for the schemes required!"

VIEW GALLERY

The Proof of Concept Project has received £1,537,394 of funding from the England European Regional Development Fund as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020, which £37,500 of this funding is supporting WINN events to promote innovation in Worcestershire. The Department for Communities and Local Government (and in London the intermediate body Greater London Authority) is the Managing Authority for European Regional Development Fund. Established by the European Union, the European Regional Development Fund helps local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support innovation, businesses, create jobs and local community regenerations. For more information visit www.gov.uk/european-growth-funding

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WINN brings innovators together, acting as a catalyst to create connections and collaborations across the diverse business landscape of Worcestershire.

Our belief is that great things can happen when people get together.

WINN is a Worcestershire Innovation Programme formed by Worcestershire County Council and the Worcestershire LEP

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