Last week, I was hugely privileged to join 27 amazing Kiwi AgTech companies and sector entities participate in the 3-day Silicon Valley AgTech Immersion Program and 1-day SVForum AgTech Conference. It was a truly awesome and inspiring experience.

Prior to the visit, I had posted an article to this blog about some of my expectations. It’s fair to say that those expectations were substantially exceeded. As they would say at AT&T Stadium, the home of the San Francisco Giants – ‘The outcomes were smashed out of the Park’. That said, important lessons for both the present and the future became very apparent as the week progressed.

The Kiwi AgTech delegation at DLA Piper, San Francisco

The Kiwi AgTech delegation at DLA Piper, San Francisco

These then are some of my key takeaways from the meetings, presentations and conversations we had with Silicon Valley’s own rapidly expanding AgTech ecosystem.

New Zealand AgTech technology competes with the best in the world

There is sometimes a perception that technology developed in Silicon Valley is superior to the rest of the world – including New Zealand. Last week disavowed that. Kiwi AgTech technology stacks up with the best of the best.

This was most evident at Thursday’s SVForum AgTech Conference where leading Kiwi AgTech companies including Robotics Plus, Agri Optics, GPS-it and Rezare Systems delivered exceptional case studies. I witnessed nothing in the Valley that bettered these companies in their specialist domains. Venture firms that had joined us through the week confirmed this. New Zealand AgTech has nothing to fear in terms of its technology position in this space.

Many of New Zealand’s leading Ag technologists have personal connections with the country’s agriculture sector creating a powerful dynamic not always shared in Silicon Valley

One interesting dynamic I noticed during the week was the close connection between many of the Kiwi AgTech delegation and farming. They did both. There was not such an evident connection in the Valley. Climate Corporation was a great example of this. Their San Francisco office is populated by Silicon Valley tech geeks. They rely on their parent company Monsanto for the agriculture focus.

It is hard to underestimate the importance of this dynamic for New Zealand AgTech. By leveraging a real world understanding of the problems and challenges facing farmers, orchardists and producers, we can develop products and solutions that matter to these customers.

Once again, this was most evident at Thursday’s SVForum AgTech Conference. Kiwi delegates including Dan Bloomer, Geoff Furniss, Greg Jarvis, Richard Doohan, Colin Brown, Linda Burk, Ian Yule and Marty Behrans took part in panel discussions addressing key digital technologies that are impacting on AgTech, including robotics, sensors, UAVs and big data. Each New Zealand panellist addressed the issues raised by the panel moderators with a real understanding of the agriculture sector’s needs. They did NZ Inc. proud.

Lack of access to capital in New Zealand is hampering the ability of the Kiwi AgTech sector to scale globally

Not every experience was as positive. In my blog post prior to the visit, I had talked about the issue of Silicon Valley’s scale and the impact this would have on the delegation. I was not to be disappointed. The issue of scale was discussed repeatedly. Nowhere is this more evident than in the availability and access to capital.

We experienced this at first hand. On the first day of the AgTech Immersion Program, we visited Granular. This is an early stage start-up building some interesting software solutions. The USD 24 million they had already raised, obviously helps that build. On Wednesday, another company we had met on the Program, PrecisionHawk, announced that they had just raised a USD 18 million Series C round from a group of venture funds. Back to Climate Corporation. Last year, Monsanto invested close to USD 1 billion into the business. And they still call themselves a startup!

Presentation to Kiwi AgTech delegation at Climate Corporation

Presentation to Kiwi AgTech delegation at Climate Corporation

To scale effectively in major global markets such as the US, Kiwi AgTech companies require access to significant funding. At present, our own relatively small capital market makes this a real challenge. Connecting with Silicon Valley venture capital therefore became a key talking point amongst the delegation. The good news is that I know of one venture fund that is already planning a trip to New Zealand to follow up on some of the conversations last week.

When pitching for capital in the Valley, I think it’s fair to say that we are sometimes our own worst enemy. Our natural modesty and humilty, together with our unwillingness to talk up our significant technology advantage and its global market potential can hold us back. In some ways, you can thank our tall poppy syndrome for that. One of the sessions I found most interesting took place at Driscoll’s in Watsonville. Here, we heard seven US-based startups give a 10-minute presentation of their story. They spoke about their teams and the billion-dollar market opportunity they were addressing. They were a mix of confident and aggressive. Great lessons for Kiwi AgTech companies wishing to pitch to Valley investors.

Whilst Government in the form of Callaghan Innovation & New Zealand Trade & Enterprise can facilitate and support, it is the responsibility of industry to take the lead

The whole week would not have happened without the active sponsorship and support provided by Callaghan Innovation and New Zealand Trade & Enterprise. Both prior to and during the week, their contribution was immense. Hat doffed particularly to Simon, Andrew, Victoria and Friederike from Callaghan and James and Catherine from NZTE. You guys rock!

On Friday, the whole delegation got together to discuss how best to build on the opportunities the visit had generated. Much more will no doubt be said about this going forward. I have always said that this week was a platform and not an event.

One key feature of this blog over the past two years has been discussion around the roles that different stakeholders take in the build of an ecosystem. In his book, ‘Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City’, Brad Feld talks about the importance of entrepreneurs taking the lead in this process. Government, universities, research institutes and investor networks are all key stakeholders, but their principal role is to support and facilitate the entrepreneurs. This same logic in my view applies to the build and development of New Zealand’s own AgTech ecosystem. It is the AgTech companies and entrepreneurs who must lead this process.

New Zealand’s AgTech sector needs to formalise a strategy to connect and engage more aggressively with the key global market players

As part of this process, developing an NZ Inc. strategy to connect and engage more aggressively (read, effectively) with the key global market players is critical.

This will be done by establishing a framework in which each player’s role is formally defined. In March, I attended a great session in Auckland based around the concept of Fresh Thinking for AgTech. That concept must now be supplemented by an additional dynamic: Big Thinking for AgTech. If New Zealand is going to take a global thought leadership position in this space, building such a framework should be a priority.

Learning from a panel of leading Silicon Valley venture funds

Learning from a panel of leading Silicon Valley venture funds

New Zealand has the domain expertise in terms of technology, agricultural diversity and collaborative culture to become a global hub for the AgTech sector

When I look at New Zealand’s potential to become a global AgTech hub, I just see so many compelling reasons and attributes that can make this happen. In no particular order, they include;

  • Today, digital technology, rather than large machines, is the key enabler of transformation. Robotics, drones, sensors, big data are a space that New Zealand can play in successfully
  • Being small, distant and exposed means we are forced to be alert, agile and innovative. New Zealand has the full range of farming systems within a very small geographical area
  • New Zealand farmers have a history of working cooperatively through producer boards. They are used to collaborating and they understand the whole of the value supply chain
  • New Zealand’s farming system is completely unfettered by subsidies. This fuels innovation and real focussed value
  • New Zealand is a cohesive and well connected society. 2 degrees of separation mean we can connect and collaborate to develop and test technology on the farm
  • New Zealand has specialist R&D organisations with world class technologists to go with its world class agriculture sector. Universities of Waikato, Massey & Lincoln Hub are great examples. Crown Research Institutes include AgResearch, Plant & Food, Landcare Research & Environmental Science Research
  • AgTech in New Zealand goes beyond the farm gate. This is reflected in world first originating technologies from New Zealand such as refrigerated transport
  • New Zealand is a great place for multinational R&D. Our strong and diverse agriculture sector is a great place to develop new ideas and try things out – without affecting other main markets. We also map northern hemisphere growing seasons allowing R&D opportunities to take place year round.
  • Government is committed to supporting innovation. The regulatory environment is principle based, efficient and effective and regulators accessible and responsive

All these factors (and there are many more) make New Zealand an ideal location for a global AgTech Hub.

The good news is that progress is already underway. The Lincoln Hub in South Island has a strong vision and with AgTech becoming a key sector focus for Callaghan Innovation and source of inward multinational R&D investment for MBIE, the future looks bright. Connecting the dots through that framework becomes ever more important.

Over the coming weeks, this blog will return to several of the significant themes that emerged last week in Silicon Valley and begin to analyse them in more depth. The great news is that a large amount of content was captured and will be available online to share. Silicon Valley is already taking note. Check this online article published yesterday by Silicon Valley Robotics.

To all those who took part in the Silicon Valley visit: Many thanks for your immense contributions. It’s time now to build on the opportunity that we have collectively created.