For some entrepreneurs this is just a dream. For others it’s a reality.
For New Zealand agritech entrepreneurs there’s one man in the Bay of Plenty who is trying to help connect them with like-minded entrepreneurs, investors and customers who reside in this juggernaut of an area, which is Silicon Valley, California.
Peter Wren-Hilton, founder of Wharf42 and co-founder of WNT Ventures has recently joined the Sprout family as a Corporate Supporter and Chelsea had a chat with him last week about all things agritech.
Q: Peter, welcome to the family. Can you give us some background about yourself and your involvement in agritech to date?
A: Thanks Chelsea - it’s great to be connected with you and your team.
About three years ago Wharf42 became involved in agritech as a sector focus for the business. This was after comments from visiting Silicon Valley venture capitalist Bill Reichert, who was surprised New Zealand wasn’t taking more of a thought leadership position on what agritech was doing.
This was back in May 2014 and since then I have taken a lead in connecting New Zealand agritech companies with peers in Silicon Valley.
We have run various events since then including the Silicon Valley AgTech Immersion Program & Conference, co-organised jointly with Silicon Valley Forum, NZTE and Callaghan Innovation, where 27 Kiwi agritech companies went to the valley and spent a week visiting entrepreneurs, investors and agritech companies alike.
This is now planned as an annual event to continue connecting New Zealand agritech companies with the valley.
We ran another event locally during Techweek17 called Farming2020, which attracted 28 presentations across three days in May. We are looking forward to working once again with the Techweek team to organise a headline agritech event in 2018.
Earlier in the year, I was fortunate to work with Fonterra, supporting their Activate 2.0 initiative. This was an opportunity for Fonterra to engage with the wider agritech ecosystem, allowing 400 of their managers to hear three agritech businesses pitch in Wellington.
“A movement in the right direction for sector collaboration.”
Based on these initiatives, we are currently engaged in discussions with a few large corporate agribusinesses and government agencies about building a more structured agritech ecosystem in New Zealand.
According to recent AgFunder reports, we attract very little inward investment from overseas, and when compared to Israel, Holland and Ireland, for example, we export less agritech than they do.
“Collaboration within industry is often missing because the market is small and we are unfortunately very good at taking a siloed approach to agritech. The question to be answered is where does NZ fit in the global agritech sector, as currently we’re an underperformer of agritech exports for a country of our size.”
Q: What’s your view on the agritech ecosystem both nationally & internationally?
A: Our agritech ecosystem is undercooked, partly because of the systematic siloed approach. There needs to be more collaboration between government, corporates and agritech start-ups. Some corporates are taking a more proactive approach in supporting agritech businesses and reaching out to them. We are slowly seeing this happen more and more because the conversations have started and there is more of a will to change.
When it comes to the view on NZ agritech internationally we often use the phrase ‘we punch above our weight in agritech’ - but we don’t.
When it comes to commercialising and selling our tech, we are behind Israel, Holland and Ireland.
This is down in part to the silo effect, poor collaboration and a lack of domestic capital. There isn’t a lot of cost involved in starting a business but there’s a lot of cost in scaling globally and the lack of capital is one of the key factors behind our stunted growth.
We also haven’t developed a compelling, coherent story, such as Origin Green from Ireland. The entrance for potential offshore partners and investors into our agritech sector is hard to find, even unclear, but this will now start to change as the conversations are starting to happen.
“I describe myself as relentlessly positive – the will to collaborate is coming so it’s time to run! We have work to do as a country, to promote and get our story out there to the wider market.”
Q: What high-level pointers would you give New Zealand agritech companies looking to enter Silicon Valley?
You need to realise that when you go to Silicon Valley you have to have a very specific and targeted story. The general problem with NZ, is that because our market is so small, most companies take a horizontal view to the market. In the valley, you have to be focused on delivering a solution to a vertical gap / opportunity in the market.
Farmers don’t want to have to buy multiple solutions from multiple vendors – one or two platforms can address a whole set of issues. Focus on your customer.
Look for partners who you can collaborate with when looking overseas – as an example someone with soil sensors should look to partner with someone who does data collection.
Having traction in NZ is a really good place to start but if you want to get traction in US, you need customers there.
This is where Wharf42 can help.
They have an MOU with Western Growers in Salinas, which allows agritech companies to base themselves at their headquarters and work with members of Western Growers to trial products and services on farm.
“It’s really hard to get market penetration over there if you don’t have these types of opportunities. Utilise them!”
Q: This is your first year partnering with Sprout. Why did you wish to join our family?
A: A fully functioning accelerator is a really important part of the agritech ecosystem. Sprout has done an amazing job to develop two - three cohorts and engage with large corporates since being founded. The fact major agribusinesses are providing mentors shows they understand how, through Sprout, they can reach out to early stage agritech companies in the sector.
The role of Sprout is critically important in the agritech ecosystem and that’s why we’re pleased to become a corporate partner.
Peter Wren-Hilton founded Wharf42 in February 2012 as a vehicle to assist New Zealand start-up and early stage ICT businesses connect with Silicon Valley. This was a result from spending three years at the Plug and Play Tech Centre in Sunnyvale, CA.
Peter’s most recent software venture saw him establish Pingar in New Zealand in 2007. Peter stood down as CEO in July 2013 and in March 2014 formally announced the launch of the Wharf42 Plug and Play Technology Incubator. It has offices in both Tauranga and Sunnyvale, CA and is designed to execute the Wharf42 mission first outlined in 2012.