Dr Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-TechE, also announced that SilviBio had been the audience choice. The announcement came at the end of an exciting final in which four early-stage agri-tech companies pitched their business plans to the judges via Zoom.
SilviBio is developing a ‘survival capsule' that will improve the survival of tree seedlings by 40 per cent in drought conditions. Its clearly defined proposition and route to market has made its business plan the overall winner of the GROW 2020 agri-tech business plan competition. The result was announced by Calum Murray of Innovate UK, one of the judges.
Belinda comments: "The portfolio of organisations that were supported through the GROW programme this year were particularly strong. Although SilviBio was the overall winner all the finalists show promise."
SilviBio innovative seed coating improves survival rates by 40% in drought conditions
The need to grow more trees is globally recognised but germination rates are often poor, particularly where seed is applied directly to the ground in new forest projects and in bareroot forest nurseries where seedlings are vulnerable to water shortage.
SilviBio, based in Manchester, has developed a seed coating for conifers, the most economically important species, that improves germination by 40 per cent where there is drought stress. innovative bio-formulation creates a survival capsule for the seedling, providing a water source and slow release nutrition. It also creates a favourable environment for the growth of beneficial microorganisms.
The company has gained the support of Forestry and Land Scotland, the government agency responsible for managing Scotland's forests and SilviBio is to carry out field trials at its nursery.
The other finalists were:
AgriOptimizer, based at the John Innes Centre on the Norwich Research park, is offering rapid, accurate diagnosis of nutrient and health status of growing plants. It uses the plant's molecular signature as a way to precisely determine plant health issues at an early stage and create a fertiliser with a bespoke prescription. Its AgriOptimizer service can be also used as a testing platform for new agrochemical products.
Farmz2U aims to bring traditional Nigerian farming practices into the digital age. In a pilot it succeeded in increasing yield by 20 per cent and doubling farm sales. Much of Nigeria's agricultural data is paper-based with little exploration of historic trends to improve future practices. Farmz2U is digitising this data and combining it with data information on soil composition, weather trends, historic crop yields and animal health to provide tailored advice to farmers delivered by phone.
Glaia, based in Bristol, has developed a new class of plant additives called ‘sugar dots' that can increase photosynthetic efficiency naturally, increasing yields by up to 20 per cent. The technology, developed by a team at the University of Bristol, has a well-defined mode of action, high efficacy and is patent protected.
GROW aims to encourage a pipeline of agri-tech innovation by providing support and guidance through a mentoring programme and then access to a range of prizes provided by service providers in the agri-tech cluster. This includes support for patent protection and management, space in incubators, membership of business clubs, access to training and marketing and business advice.
The judges - Calum Murray, Head of Agriculture and Food at Innovate UK; Kerry Baldwin, Co-Founder of IQ Capital; Rob Alston, director at AF Group; and Andrew McLay, an Innovation Lead for Agriculture at UKRI - reviewed the business plans of all the entrants and selected four companies to go through to the final.
Calum Murray of Innovate UK, the sponsor of GROW, was very pleased with the calibre of each of the finalists: "The business plans presented by all these entrepreneurs show great potential and innovation. Having a sound business model is critically important if innovative technologies are to be successful commercially. Innovate UK is, therefore, delighted to support GROW and encourage the development of ground-breaking technologies and the cluster as a whole."
The guest speaker was Louisa Burwood-Taylor, Head of Research and Media at AgFunder. AgFunder has recently released a report which shows that the UK was one of the most diverse and active agri-tech sectors in Europe. Louisa thought the line-up of finalists at GROW was exciting.
"All the finalists had something distinctive to offer and I am delighted that SilviBio won.
"For me, Farmz2U's work in Nigeria stood out as very interesting; there is so much untapped opportunity across Africa to increase efficiencies but it's incredibly challenging to get technologies into the hands of typically smallholder farmers. We have a company in our portfolio working in East Africa called Wefarm that's successfully brought over 2 million farmers onto its platform by initially providing them with information on any mobile device; they're now creating a marketplace to help them get access to inputs, so it just goes to show how important it is to create an innovative business model to ensure adoption."
Given the global pandemic, Louisa predicts that funding will be harder to find in the coming months, and suggests start-ups across the globe focus on validating their technologies as much as possible to have decent results to show investors when capital markets open up again, but also to help speed adoption.
"Collaborations and partnerships with corporations or governments can be a great way to get these results and sometimes start-ups can be paid for that way, which in a tight funding environment will be important. Other than that, start-ups will have to hustle hard to get their technologies into as many farmers' hands as possible for feedback; the more mature the agtech space becomes, the clearer it becomes that farmers will only consider technologies with a strong value proposition, and in a potential recession they will not entertain anything that's not going to clearly impact the bottom line positively."
The agri-tech cluster benefits from the support of professional services and incubators and a number of these offered prizes to the finalists:
- Agro Mavens - one day of consultancy
- Allia Future Business Centre - two months' access to co-working space Appleyard Lees - IP advice and support
- Barclays Eagle Lab - one month club membership
- Cambridge Judge Business School - free place on the Ignite course.
- Eastern Agri-Tech Innovation Hub - six months' free license
- Incubyte - 12 weeks of hot-desk space and business consultation
- Kendalls PR & Marketing - PR consultation and audit
- Mathys & Squire - IP advice and support
- Norwich Research Park - Virtual tenancy of the Centrum
- PwC - free two-hour sessions with a finance partner and with an R&D specialist
- Redfox Executive Selection - psychometric testing for up to four people
- Rothamsted Enterprises - six months' free hot-desking
- Satellite Applications Catapult - two days of technical consultancy with a leading expert in Earth Observation
More information about GROW can be found at agri-tech-e.co.uk/grow.