What do drug delivery technologies, Charles Darwin and modern day agriculture have in common? At first glance you can probably make a case for the latter two having a connection, after all, the variants of wheat, soy and maize that feed the mouths of billions daily are the result of clever breeding programs to accelerate the principles of ‘survival of the fittest’, but the first one? That seems a stretch – or is it?
The theme of precision agriculture is, after some years of debate and small scale research, really starting to hit its stride, driven by the VCs of Silicon Valley, who have upped their investment in the sector by 300% in the space of two years. This has resulted in a plethora of emerging start-ups each leveraging technology – better sensors, algorithms, wireless communication – with the common goal of improving yields while minimising, or reducing inputs.
This is wonderful to see, after all we need to find ways to feed 10bn by 2050, but one group of existing players in agriculture is noticeable by their absence in this field – machinery OEMs. They are missing a trick. 20 years ago the major drug companies realised that relying on ever better blockbuster drugs to improve patient outcomes and improve drug effectiveness was a high risk and highly costly strategy. So rather than focusing on the drug, or active ingredient if you like, they started approaching the challenge from a more holistic perspective, one where the method of delivery was every bit as important as what subsequently flowed into the patient’s bloodstream. Combination products were born and with them came significant improvements to patient compliance and the overall efficacy of the treatments prescribed.
With the enabling technologies of precision agriculture the opportunity for a similar approach to the world of farming seems obvious, all it would require is better collaboration between the agrichemical majors and the machinery OEMs, but the big equipment manufactures seem hesitant – why? Indeed it’s noticeable that at the upcoming World Agritech Investment Summit in San Francisco, an event where leading start-ups and investment managers review their next targets and the future of the industry, all of the agrichemicals majors are represented (and at a senior level), where not one of the large OEMs is presenting or indeed attending. Such a result could have been foretold given my experiences at Agritechnica, the world’s largest agricultural expo, in November last year. When I pressed some of the OEMs as to their response to the economic uncertainties of the recent times, more often than not I heard replies along the lines of ‘we’re hunkering down, laying off staff, waiting for things to blow over’. Burying your head in the sand and expecting that the products and business model of old will continue to serve you well in a disrupted market place is a recipe for failure – ask Eastman Kodak how that approach worked out from them – but it doesn’t need to be that way.
Indeed the OEMs could start by looking laterally and cast an eye to the major drug companies: combination products hold the key to their future success. That being said, the transition won’t be easy. It requires close collaboration with the agrichemical majors and with the rapid consolidation of such organisations (see the recent tie up between Dow and Dupont) comes the risk of getting into bed with the wrong partner. That’s where independent facilitators have a part to play, ensuring that decisions are made for the right technical as well as commercial reasons. And that’s what gets results.
I will be chairing a discussion on IoT and disruptive change in agritech at the World Agritech Investment Summit on March 16.