Farming is, without doubt, the most important of all human industries. Here are ten firms improving the lives of farmers and the future of food production.
Agtech innovators often find it difficult to persuade farmers to adopt new technologies. However, technology is changing every industry – and agriculture is learning to adapt. The latest farm innovators have a laser focus and clearer understanding of the farmer’s real needs, offering solutions to major issues such as climate change, food security, traceability, sustainability, human health and farm profitability.
Here is a list of ten companies, from across Ireland and the globe, that are and playing a part in the Agtech revolution.
MagGrow, a Dublin based company, is changing how farmers worldwide spray their crops. Its patented technology offers 80% superior spray drift control and 90% better droplet attachment. This helps keep pesticides from drifting out of farmers’ fields, serving to grow more with less and making it safer both for growers and kinder on the environment. www.maggrow.com
Microgen Biotech is a spin-out from the Institute of Technology Carlow. Microgen use patented microbial products to treat land stressed by pollutants, helping protect both human and environmental health. This technology is particularly relevant in developing countries, where food security takes precedence, requiring that large tracts of stressed arable land be kept in production. www.microgenbiotech.com
Arc-Net, based in Belfast utilises blockchain technology, DNA sampling and data collection at all points in the supply chain, protecting against food fraud from field to plate, ensuring that food products are 100% authentic and traceable. Blockchain is considered to be a disruptive foundational technology and has been dubbed ‘the trust machine’ by the Economist magazine. www.arc-net.io
Anu Dairy from Cork is an Irish dairy biotechnology company. It promotes soil biodiversity and uses 100% organic milk from 100% grass-fed cows to produce the world’s first premium, vitamin K2 butter, which can have added benefits in the fight against osteoporosis. www.anudairy.com
Moocall, an innovative Dublin-based company, has developed a calving sensor that can predict when a cow will give birth to a calf. It’s an IoT wearable device attached to a cow’s tail that provides calving alerts to any mobile phone within one hour of calving. This allows time for the farmer to attend the birth, to assist or intervene if necessary. Moocall’s latest IoT device is a heat-detecting sensor. www.moocall.com
FarmEye is a startup that developed from research work carried out at NUIG. It is a visual, map-based soil management system that digitally transforms the traditional paper trail of field maps, soil results and nutrient management planning, onto an online platform. For agri-food producers it offers traceability from soil to the supermarket and for farmers it offers big data analytics, to help them save time and money. www.eye.farm/index.html
BHSL from Limerick uses patented technology which converts poultry manure into heat and energy for use on the poultry farm. The idea for the technology arose from a ban on spreading chicken manure in the west Limerick region. www.bhsl.com
Blue River Technology
Blue River Technology is a three-year-old company, based in Silicon Valley. Its ‘See & Spray’ machine, equip farmers to apply herbicide, by spot spraying weeds only. Farmers can save up to 90% of sprayed herbicide, compared to conventional methods of spraying the whole field. ‘See & Spray’ uses machine learning, as the world’s ultimate, expert weed identifier. It combines robotics to bring to market the world’s first machine allowing farmers to optimize every plant. Blue River Technology has recently been sold to John Deere for $305m. www.bluerivertechnology.com
Hargol FoodTech based in Israel is the only active commercial grasshopper farm in the world. It produces a reliable, sustainable, high-quality source of protein, the demand for which is expected to double by the year 2050. Hargol, Marrow and Moocall are three of the top ten Agtech startups, selected for the prestigious Pearse Lyons Accelerator held in Dublin. www.hargol.com
Harrington Seed Destructor
iHSD – Integrated Harrington Seed Destructor is a revolution in Harvest Weed Seed Control, which is highly effective against herbicide-resistant weed populations. Integrated at the rear of a combine harvester, iHSD kills weed seeds contained in harvest trash and returns the inert organic matter to the field, all in a single pass without changing harvesting practices. Harvest Weed Seed Control (HWSC) has become a pillar of no-till farming practice in Australian cropping operations and is gaining momentum quickly across the world. Farming practices that rely heavily on broad-spectrum herbicides to control weeds have led to the emergence of genetic herbicide-resistant weed populations. www.ihsd.com
“Californian based Finistere Ventures is to open its first EU office in Ireland, led by Wexford native Kieran Furlong.”
The sky is the limit
There is no reason why Ireland cannot become a major hub for Agtech startups. Recently the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF) launched the Ireland Agtech Fund (IAF) in partnership with Finistere-managed Agtech venture funds. It is a major Agtech startup fund set up to help assist Agtech’s economic impact in Ireland. The ISIF is to invest a total of €40 million in Finistere-managed Agtech venture funds – €20 million in the Ireland Agtech Fund and €20 million in a global Agtech fund. Californian based Finistere Ventures is to open its first EU office in Ireland, led by Wexford native Kieran Furlong.
Every year €30 billion worth of Europe’s water is contaminated by pesticide run-off. Irish entrepreneur Gary Wickham wants to change this.
Gary Wickham’s career spans thirty years, working initially as a process chemist with Loctite, then as head of Reheis Pharmaceutical, to co-founding StayDublin (StayCity) a very successful serviced apartment company with revenues of €50m. Since then he has on co-founded MagGrow, a startup pioneering magnetic spraying technology for arable crops and horticulture – collecting prestigious international awards along the way.
Where did you get the idea for MagGrow?
It came from a chance meeting a few years ago, when my brother Derek met Ted Lenhardt, a Florida-based inventor with a background in agriculture spanning 40 years.
Ted had developed the basic concept for what is now MagGrow. From his extensive research, he was aware that existing pesticide spray technologies for crops were a compromise, between coverage and drift control, which meant that approx 70% of what is sprayed during conventional pesticide spraying is wasted.
“This is a game-changer for the 500 million small farm holders worldwide.”
What problem are you solving?
In conventional crop spraying technology, one of the biggest challenges is controlling pesticide spray drift from moving outside its intended target area.
Drift can occur during spraying applications, when pesticide droplets drift into adjacent fields of the farm, into neighbouring farmland or water sources, causing potential cross-contamination.
Crucially in Europe, spray drift is also a big problem, as every year €30 billion worth of Europe’s water is contaminated by pesticide run-off.
Why did you become involved?
I am passionate about technology and was intrigued by Ted Lenhardt’s work, then my brother and I, along with David Moore, decided to invest in the system, with the aim of revolutionising crop spraying technology across the world.
What’s been the journey so far?
In 2013 we launched MagGrow with two employees along with backing from Enterprise Ireland. Our head office is now located at Orchard House, Clonskeagh Road and since then employee numbers have risen to almost forty. By July 2017 this number is expected to total to one hundred, with offices in San Francisco, Ethiopia and Kenya.
We operate across four regions: Africa; Europe; the US and South America. Since we started, our technology has been patented across 127 countries, which equates to 85% of our addressable market. We have just launched commercially, after spending the last three years developing three products and then testing them with leading research centres and select customers and have forecast sales of €20m for 2017.
Presently we have three main product lines: our plug and play crop sprayer system, retrofitted to a tractor for field scale operations, our backpack sprayer system for large greenhouse operations and backpack unit for small farm holders, which represent 65% of the world’s farmers.
How has the company been funded to date?
To date, we raised a total of €6 million, all of which came from within my network of family, friends and personal resources and without any reliance on venture capital. During this period the value of the company has been driven five-fold.
How does spray drift occur?
Spray drift itself is influenced by factors such as air movement, the wind, nozzle size, tractor speed, boom height and the size of the droplets used – it’s worth bearing in mind that there is an inverse relationship between droplet size and drift.
Using fine droplet size gives more uniform coverage across the bottom and top of a leaf and the leaf canopy, resulting in less risk of pesticide runoff to soil or water. However, using fine droplet size while trying to maximise drift control is a key challenge for conventional drift reduction technologies, as fine droplets take longer to fall out of the air and are harder to control.
How does your technology work?
MagGrow uses off the shelf nozzles – that create fine or smaller droplets, but without the associated drift. MagGrow achieves this by using magnetic inserts to induce a positive and negative charge into the pesticide solution which in turn makes it easier for the droplet to attach to the crop.
Significantly, this charged liquid, in conjunction with fine droplet usage, ensures that the MagGrow system provides superior spray drift control of over 80% along with superior coverage, with a 90% better droplet attachment to the target.
What benefits do farmers derive from your technology?
Greenhouse product: Within the flower industry in Africa, we now have customers using 50% less water and 50% less pesticide with our backpack product.
Small farm holder backpack product: On one particular trial with the Transformation Agency in Ethiopia, a spraying application that typically took a farmer eight hours work, can now be completed in under two hours, with a 300% higher yield while using the same amount of active ingredient. This is a game-changer for the 500 million small farm holders worldwide.
Large-scale commercial farmers: With our tractor boom product, farmers can retrofit their current sprayer boom with our technology at the cost of €24,000 for a typical 24m boom and customers typically have a six to nine-month payback. Worldwide, using conventional technology, 30% of spray goes to the crop and 70% is wasted. With MagGrow less than 5% is lost, with 95% going to the crop.
“In Ethiopia and Kenya, farmers pay for everything using their mobile phones. In effect, this means that they can, ‘text money’.”
What other revenue streams do you have?
We are pioneering the ‘spraying as a service’ model where under a licence we recruit, train and provide backpack sprayers to agents, who in turn act as contractor sprayers for farmers.
Interestingly in Ethiopia and Kenya, farmers pay for everything using their mobile phones. In effect, this means that they can, ‘text money’.
Everything is digitised – so the farmer can pay for each spray event; the phone company gets a transaction fee; the agent gets his spraying fee, and the farmer achieves a higher yield. We, in turn, make money by buying chemicals from the manufacturers and selling directly to the agent. This means that the farmer knows for sure, that the chemical not been tampered with or diluted.
We also sell our product directly. We’ve just completed a trial for a corporation in Ethiopia with a reduction in water usage by 67%, chemical usage by 52% and 55 mins per Ha of land sprayed. They have 125,000 sprayers, and they will currently save €2 million a month on chemicals and plan to triple the size of their operation.
Are there other applications for your technology?
We are researching other innovative applications within the irrigation sector, spraying with drones and digitally collecting basic data to provide agronomy services. We also plan to sell additives that further enhance the performance of our system.
What awards have you won?
This year we received awards at the Ploughing (IRL); the LAMMA Agricultural Show (UK); the THRIVE Accelerator (US); and the GCCA Cleantech Award where we were the only ag-tech award winner and the only company from Ireland to receive an award. Winning awards gives us access to capital, customers, extended networks and the opportunity to work with the leading research institutes
What’s your vision?
We aim to be the biggest ag-tech company in Ireland, if not in Europe and to be part of the solution contributing to help solve the world’s food and water challenges in a meaningful way.
Interview by Brendan Byrne.
Farmers viewed a showcase of emerging ag technology last week at the Illinois Farm Bureau Farm Income & Innovations Conference.
And the key products featured this year include new technology farmers can use to help reduce spray drift and manage crop diseases on their farms.
So, how can farmers reduce spray drift by up to 80 to 90 percent at a time when drift issues spread this season due in part to increased use of dicamba?
The answer lies in a series of magnets placed in sprayers that provide better control and placement of products applied to crops, according to Mike Newland of MagGrow.
“Magnetic technology for sprayers reduces drift, and it utilizes a much higher portion of the product you’re using,” Newland told conference attendees.
The technology was patented by a farmer in the U.S. and turned into a business by Ireland-based MagGrow. The company established business in Europe and came to the U.S. this year to build its distribution network.
The system involves the placement of a series of magnets in three components of a sprayer – the manifolds, sleeves that go in the boom and in the nozzle body.
“There’s no moving parts, and the flush is the same,” Newland said.
The system not only reduces spray drift but also increases the attachment of each product to the plant surface.
“We make it stick,” Newland said.
MagGrow currently is testing the system with dicamba. Newland believes it can help reduce drift of dicamba as well, although volatility issues create other challenges with that product.
Elsewhere, crop-monitoring technology developed in Israel, with a goal of improving crop disease management, is being implemented in the U.S., according to Ofir Schlam, co-founder and CEO of Taranis.
The service includes remote sensing, submillimeter aerial imagery, physical sensing through weather detection stations, field scouting, weather forecasts and biological models that farmers can use to monitor their crops in order to detect diseases or other crop issues in time to treat them.
Farmers who use the system can grow crop yields by 5 to 15 percent, according to Schlam.
Meanwhile, farmers interested in improving their crops below the ground can use Rootella, mycorrhizal inoculants, to increase the soil’s natural fertility, according to Marvin Ulmet of Groundwork BioAg.
The product works as fungi extend root systems and help plants absorb nutrients and water.
“Our best work is in your worst soils,” Ulmet said.
Rootella is available in granular form, powder and seed treatment, among other applications.
Farmers are afraid of using larger nozzles (droplets) for fear of poor coverage but know smaller droplets will deliver better coverage (efficacy) but are afraid of drift. The solution is here and its called MagGrow. This ground breaking technology delivers both superior coverage as well as drift control using small droplets via smaller nozzles. Over 80% less drift and validated by leading research centres and customers. And the good news does not end there. MagGrow can be retrofitted to existing booms without any additional capital cost to the farmer. You just need to fit the MagGrow kit. And MagGrow even controls drift using smaller droplets at higher wind speeds. Its a win:win for everyone as MagGrow helps protect the environment and other crops.
We are delighted to announce that Thomas Frankum has taken up the position of CEO for MagGrow East Africa officially starting on the 1st of May 2017. Tom has over twenty years of experience working in Africa, where he was previously Managing Director for the Flamingo Horticulture business in Kenya. He has first-hand knowledge of MagGrow, as Flamingo were one of the first customers in the region to use the company’s products.
In his new role, Tom will be responsible for all aspects of the MagGrow business in Africa and oversee the growth of the company over the next few years. He will report to Gary Wickham, CEO of the parent company based in Dublin. The MagGrow team are very excited to have someone as experienced as Tom coming on board and would like to wish him every success in his new position.