Before you can collaborate, you need to navigate the landscape. This handy guide will help you through.
The UK government has made a lot of warm noises in recent years about encouraging innovation in Agritech because as a nation:
- We’re quite good at the innovation side (despite having just 0.3% of the world’s agricultural land1)
- It helps to stimulate exports (quoted to be a $250bn market world-wide2).
- We’re in the middle of Brexit agonies, yet import nearly half of our food3. Greater self sufficiency starts to look more important.
Nonetheless, it’s not the easiest landscape to navigate. There’s a veritable alphabet soup of institutions hoping to grow Agritech in the UK.
There are government departments with interest in this field. Some universities and research organisations have specialism in this area. Then there are organisations who help translate knowledge from academia into commercialisation. We have organisations to support private-sector companies and entrepreneurs in this space. And there are organisations to bridge between these organisations. You can see why it rapidly gets confusing, even leaving aside the accelerators, VCs and angel investor organisations with an interest in this sector.
Navigating the Field – Government & Associated Bodies
Starting at the centre, Agritech spreads across three government departments:
- BEIS (pronounced “Bays”) – The Department of Business, Energy and Industry Strategy. The goal is to use innovation in this area to stimulate the economy
- DEFRA – Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In crude oversimplification, their main interest to mitigate the environmental impact of agriculture.
- DIT – The Department of International Trade. There is much more farmland elsewhere than here in the UK, so exporting our bright ideas is key to growth and impact.
BEIS & its predecessor(s?) have given birth to three further organisations relevant to this story, which sit inside each other like Russian Dolls:
- UKRI – UK Research and Innovation was created in 2018 through an amalgamation of the Research councils (which used to awarding funding for academic research projects) and Innovate UK which focuses on stimulating industry.
- Innovate UK – from Aerospace to Zenware, this agency cutts across all areas of innovation to “drive the science and technology innovations that will grow the UK economy”. For instance, they manage the competitive process of granting public funding to support risky research and development projects within private companies. It is funded by UKRI.
- KTN – the Knowledge Transfer Network. Set up by Innovate UK, the KTN aims to “speed up innovation, solve problems and find new markets” and “connect science, creativity and business”. They advise business Innovate UK funding competitions, help build collaborations etc.
The Agritech Centres
More recent and Agtech specific additions to the alphabet soup come from the development of The Centres. These “address grand challenges”, and “tackle the issues that no one part of the sector can address alone and establish new networks”. They also hope to “translate agricultural innovation into commercial opportunities for UK businesses… stimulate inward investment and help to revolutionise farming practices”. They are:
- Agri-EPI – Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre focused primarily on hardware
- Agrimetrics Centre – the “Big Data Centre of Excellence” (for agriculture).
- CHAP – The Centre for Crop Health and Protection focused on all things crop, pest, soil related
- CIEL – The Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock who, as the name suggests, focus on livestock.
Lastly, there are the research and non-profit organisations who are heavily involved in innovation or research in this sector. Here’s a (not-exhaustive) list:
AFBI – The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute – Northern Ireland’s home for agricultural, environmental and related biosciences research.
BBSRC – The Bioscience arm of UKRI and funding gateway for much early stage / academic research.
CABI – Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International – a not-for-profit organisation focused on providing scientific information to farmers around the world.
N8 – A collaboration between 8 universities in the North of England focused on two specific areas, one of which is Agri-Food. The aim is to create a massive, multidisciplinary research network.
NIAB – National Institute of Agricultural Botany – a Cambridge based not-for-profit organisation that focuses especially on plant science and plant breeding for agriculture and horticulture.
NAFIC – National Agri-Food Innovation Campus – a life sciences campus based near York, home to:
APHA – Animal and Plant Heath Agency, an offshoot of DEFRA tasked with identifying and controlling pests and diseases and the research and procedures around this.
FERA Science Ltd, a Capita / Government partnership to undertake research and testing across the food supply chain
SRUC – Scotland’s Rural College – a Higher education college in Scotland, focused on agriculture which combines education, consulting and research.
STC – Stockbridge Technology Centre – a not for profit organisation which focuses on research and innovation in Horticulture
I should also add to this that there are other organisations whose names are not acronyms (eg Rothamsted Research, The John Innes Centre, James Hutton Institute) who are also on the scene… I’ll keep them for another post! Consider this a starter for 10 and please do chip in and leave me a comment if you think that there is room for improvement in my travel guide to assist you through this brave new world….
- FAO, 2013 data
- Government Spending Review 2015