Ian Wheal, founder of Breedr, grew up on a cattle operation in Australia. He is a great example of a “Farming Foundations” AgTech entrepreneur –an upbringing in farming and a career spent elsewhere, brought together to change how things are done for the future.
Breedr is a technology platform for the livestock industry. It collects and shares data to improve supply chain transparency and farmer productivity.
For some 15 years Ian worked outside agriculture: a computer science degree, followed by consultant and entrepreneurial roles in various industries. Drawing on his family agricultural experience and the tools gathered during his career, Ian created Breedr in the belief that technology could improve productivity and profitability for farmers while simultaneously giving both retailers and consumers greater transparency and confidence.
For the first 6 months of Breedr’s existence, Ian relied on his spare time and own money to refine his thinking. He talked to representatives along the value chain, refined the proposition, and built a prototype. He knew, from understanding farmers, that this had to be good to get meaningful feedback: “Farmers don’t like to trial stuff until it’s reasonably robust. Farmers’ tolerance for shit not working is pretty low. Unless they’re innovating themselves – then it’s very high!”.
This is a common refrain. Connection with and understanding of actual farm practice is a challenge that many AgTech innovators face, while farmers are frequently frustrated to find the promise of some new technology is overblown when it fails to deliver on their own farm.
Ian’s own background with livestock meant he found it easier to build relationships with innovative farmers willing to trial Breedr than some … but it was still not easy. “Getting more on-farm trials, earlier, would be useful [for most young companies]. This means working with people who are wiling to really engage with a product and with the skills to give feedback, even if it’s not 100% complete.”
“AgriTech … is difficult for outside investors”
Ian’s previous experience meant he understood the importance of raising interest among potential investors before he needed investment. As a result, when the time came for seed investment he already had network of potential investors to turn to. Alongside Ian’s experience, industry insight and early traction this put Breedr in an enviable position of being able to be strategic in selecting investors.
He says “AgriTech in general is difficult for outside investors because both the food supply chain and farmers as customers are complicated. Without an Agri background it’s hard to understand what a farmer looks like as a customer. At pre-seed stage private investors tend to overestimate the complexity (‘how will you break in, prove this, get traction?’) while at seed stage they underestimate it (‘You’ve proven this has legs, lets scape up. It’s easy!’).
No company is an island
For Breeder to work, it’s essential to link up the entire supply chain. Here another barrier was encountered. Incentives, thinking and structures between startups and other more established organisations they need to work with – such as large companies and academics – are rarely well aligned.
In Ian’s case, intervention by the UK government offered value “I don’t have nice enough words to say for the guys in KTN and IUK … they help[ed] big behemoths have their costs paid for testing innovation …. It’s very specific to the person [you deal with at IUK / KTN, but our contact]… really helped us get there”.
Nonetheless, there is more to do. Ian believes that the UK government lets down its good work by failing to support the transition from “research project” to true commercialisation. Not only is this a no-go zone for government financial support (citing “State Aid” reasons), the lack of structure even for non-financial support leaves lots of room for inconsistency and unreliability.
The Temptations of Tech
The balance between an entrepreneur following their own course versus listening to advice and taking advantage of opportunities is one of the many key balancing acts startups face. Ian cites taking investors’ advice about team structure as an early mistake that he had to recover from.
Yet, especially in the early days when the risks are too high for many private investors, taking advantage of opportunities to tap into grant funding and other early-stage support are often critical to survival. This sometimes means making “strategic diversions”.
It’s clear that, especially in the early days, Breedr also had to walk a careful line between flexing when insights or opportunism made that attractive, yet sticking to a deeper sense of the right course.
Ian is quite honest in describing at times investigating “deeptech” or buzzword technologies (such as blockchain), despite a suspicion it would not be the right path to pursue. Doing so helped him source funding and satisfied academic and governmental stakeholders, even if he usually found that simpler technologies, used correctly, were more appropriate.
|Breedr – An AgTech Startup Masterclass|
Built on a really solid understanding of the key customer (farmers), their needs and preferences. Understanding the other value chain participants has been actively developed.
Government support was used wisely in the vulnerable early days, and not allowed to distort the company’s priorities
Ian is building a “real business” – focusing on meaningful adoption and revenue generation. There is no better indicator that customers get value from this product
The Breedr story is also a case study in the importance of relationships and incentives. However, key breakthroughs were a consequence of good relationships within the ecosystem, being connected to the right people at the right time.
Success in building a startup relies on a lot of hard work, but also a generous portion of luck. Ian recognises that his timing of Breedr coincided well with a wave of interest in AgTech and an openness to change among key partners which has helped hugely.
This does not take away from Ian and his team’s success in playing their hand well. In AgTech, going from concept to Series A with hundreds of customers in roughly two years is warp-speed progress. It will be exciting to watch Breedr on their path to drive a real change in the livestock sector.