Since my return from April’s Silicon Valley Forum AgTech Immersion Program & Conference, I have been talking to a number of Kiwi AgTech companies & investors in Silicon Valley about how we can attract inward investment for significant R&D here. I am not alone.

Last year, the New Zealand Government announced a new national strategy to attract more overseas investment in research and development, especially encouraging multinational corporations to locate their R&D activity to New Zealand. One target domain for this inward R&D activity is AgTech.

This strategy was at the back of the minds of those organising April’s Silicon Valley trip. In my post, ‘My 6 key takeaways from the NZ AgTech Tour of Silicon Valley’, I listed a number of reasons why New Zealand can make its case to advance this outcome. They included;

  • 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

These are all good and positive arguments to advance New Zealand’s case to be a centre of global AgTech R&D excellence. Before I flew to San Francisco, I had the opportunity to sit down with Kjesten Wiig, Taskforce Lead from MBIE, to discuss the initiative. I am grateful to Venture Centre for helping facilitate the interview. I wanted to get a better understanding of the drivers behind the Government’s strategy.

I had three key questions to ask Kjesten. They were, together with their response:

Hi Kjesten. Can you please tell me a little more about the inward investment program that Government has activated to attract multinational R&D investment into New Zealand?

Which five areas of tech has the task force identified for this program?

What can organisations such as Wharf42 and Venture Centre do to support this program?

Today, my question is how does New Zealand present its case to those multinational companies to relocate their R&D to New Zealand? There does not appear to be an obvious magic bullet.

One of the most significant things I picked up from my discussion with Kjesten was that much of the input into this program will indeed come from organisations such as Wharf42 & Venture Centre. In fact, any public or private sector organisation that has global connections. The AgTech visit to Silicon Valley is a good case in point.

There were several opportunities when the Kiwi delegation presented New Zealand as a great place to do R&D. We expanded on a number of the points I made earlier in this post. I believe they were well received. However, a single visit and a single pitch is unlikely to bear much fruit. It is important that such opportunities are both quantified and qualified. That means constantly reaching out to the target companies to reinforce the message.

I will be returning to Silicon Valley over the coming months to continue some of the conversations we started in April. The recent AgFunderNews announcement was one outcome of this dialog. I just hope that the Government task force has realistic expectations in terms of the timing of such outcomes. It will take several visits, several months, maybe years.

Taken together with the Government’s recent announcement that up to 400 Global Impact Visas will be offered over a four-year pilot beginning later this year, it is a proactive step that should more directly onshore some of the critical research & development and skills that we need to grow our own AgTech sector.

Whilst it’s still early days, this is one initiative that Wharf42 strongly supports.