Silicon Valley Forum - Agtech week

Over the week of 18-22 April Callaghan Innovation organised a delegation of approx. 35 kiwis to participate in a “Silicon Valley Immersion Programme” organised by SVForum.

Stu Bradbury from Sprout went along and shares some of his learning's and experiences.

Climate Corporation’s massive sphere has four projectors mounted around it to project the world's weather patterns and other data onto a globe.

Climate Corporation’s massive sphere has four projectors mounted around it to project the world's weather patterns and other data onto a globe.

The majority of the crew flew over on Air New Zealand’s NZ8 on Sunday afternoon, giving us time for a walk around town and a catch up on Sunday evening. Monday morning kicked off an action-packed week with a trip to Climate Corporation. Recently acquired by Monsanto for $1 billion, ‘Climate’ greeted us with a giant sphere with the globe projected on it, showing at the time the world’s weather for the past 30 days.

USA has experienced a 75% drop in wireless data transmission costs over the past four years. We can only expect prices to further decrease, so we got a glimpse of how ‘Climate’ are working on various technologies such as a CANBUS ‘puck’ to take data from tractors and implements to the cloud so that big data can be analysed to create insights to help improve productivity and feed the world.

The next stop was at the Granular office, where we learned how Granular, a relatively new start-up raised $25m, to begin a company focused on selling to the top 10% of US farmers to help manage their operations by focusing on dollar yield rather than bushel yield.

This was a perfect illustration of the “Silicon Valley way”, whereby capital is raised, a team is formed and product is created and delivered to the market as quickly as possible.

We finished off day one with several speakers including Dan Bloomer from Precision Agriculture Association NZ (PAANZ), Dougal Fergusson from the Lincoln Hub, Ian Proudfoot from KPMG and Leon Grice – NZ Consul General, LA. The general message from Leon was that if NZ companies are going to scale they need to get to the USA before they think they need to!

Day two took us out to UC Davis, where we heard presentations from several researchers looking at ways to help California’s drought issues.

Thorsten Knipfer showed how they were using X-Ray computed tomography to examine water flow through trees and find out how they react to and recover from moisture stress. This type of research could help to determine what new-breed root-stocks will perform best without having to wait so long to find out by trial and error.

Thorston Knipfer explaining the effects of drought stress on the way water flows from roots to leaves.

Thorston Knipfer explaining the effects of drought stress on the way water flows from roots to leaves.

After our minds had been blown by the visits on Monday and the technical information on Tuesday morning, we went out to Napa Valley for a demonstration of remote controlled aerial spraying of vineyards using UAV technology, followed by a tour of Robert Mondavi Winery and of course some tasting!

Wednesday was another action packed day with the bus leaving for Salinas at 7am sharp. Mareese Keane presented the Thrive Agritech Accelerator. I caught up with Mareese afterwards and will continue to build a relationship between Thrive and Sprout.

The bus then headed to Driscoll’s facility where they head a global $3b/yr berry operation. We learned about the application of technology in their operation and heard pitches from several start-ups who are working on Driscoll’s growers’ farms.

It was great to see that our Sprout companies’ pitches were right up there with these guys!

We followed up with a trip to Plugandplay and heard about how companies have used Plugandplay as a springboard to get their businesses in the right space to scale at a rate we in NZ, can hardly comprehend.

A key take-home message is not to take your business to USA for their money - take it there for the market. Pointing at success in your home market won’t cut it for US investors – they need to see success in the US market before they will consider investing.

Matt Flowerday presents GPS-IT and the technologies they have adopted to solve problems in the Kiwifruit and Agricultural industries.

Matt Flowerday presents GPS-IT and the technologies they have adopted to solve problems in the Kiwifruit and Agricultural industries.

Thursdays conference was a chance for NZ to showcase some of the innovative and interesting things we do down here. Our speakers were fantastic and the “Kiwi way” was well received.

Friday was a chance for all the kiwis to get together and reflect on what was a huge week of learning, compare notes and brainstorm some ideas for how NZ might make the most of everything the week taught us.

If I had to try and summarise my learning's, it might be something like this:

“NZ simply can’t compete with Silicon Valley in terms of capital available or availability of employable technical skill. What we do have in our favour, is our innovative culture and our ‘Two degrees of separation’ where it is easy for our farmers/innovators/entrepreneurs/businesses to connect. In fact – often they can be the same people! We need to exploit our strengths, continue to innovate and then work out which vehicle we utilise to enter the global market and really scale from there!’