Last week EverythingIoT held the third of five planned events on IoT innovation in Australia. Hosted by Sydney’s leading startup incubator, Blue Chilli, the event brought together over a hundred academics, AgTech entrepreneurs, industry leaders, policy makers, and even a few farmers for a forum on the opportunities for IoT technologies in Australian agriculture. The event included multiple local and global perspectives on the current and future state of agriculture in Australia, the voices of four Australian AgTech startups, and a panel discussion on the future potential of IoT.
Here are my five takeaways:
1. IoT has potential to enable huge improvements in agriculture
The overall pulse of the event was largely positive and forward looking, focusing on the many promising applications for IoT technologies throughout the agricultural value chain. Speakers painted a future where IoT enables trait optimization, paddock to plate transparency, novel opportunities for financing, and enhanced livestock feed gap decision-making. IoT technologies themselves can be valuable; however, the real value will be unlocked when sensors are connected with powerful analytics and intuitive interfaces to inform decisions that can improve quality and productivity.
2. The value proposition for farmers is not yet clear
The future of IoT in agriculture is a compelling one, but we are not there yet. IoT business models need to appreciate the realities of grower operations, such as the tax conditions and seasonal variations that can make capital expenditures more attractive than operating expenditures. Entrepreneurs must also articulate how the technological capabilities they provide will solve a real problem for their users. Delivering soil health improvements, for example, can help build a compelling case for productivity increases. Finally, the products themselves must also instill trust: growers need to be able to install, move, and fix their sensors autonomously.
3. We need an ecosystem perspective
Growers draw on the support of a community of advisors, such as other farmers, industry organizations, and agronomists. Achieving widespread adoption of IoT technologies will require tapping into these existing trusted networks. But this ground-up approach is only part of the solution: policy improvements are also necessary. Education is also a critical component. Entrepreneurs need to learn how to attract capital, and we have to equip and inspire the next generation of grower-entrepreneurs. Finally, though Australia has unique characteristics that must be appreciated, the industry can learn from the successes and failures of AgTech in other countries.
4. Innovators are everywhere
The urban entrepreneur is one of many categories of innovators that are building the future of AgTech. Corporations are increasingly supporting external innovation through equity investing and partnerships. Industry organizations are validating new technologies through on-farm pilots. Incubators, co-working spaces, and hackathons are popping up in rural areas to connect leading technologies to on-farm realities. And the partners and children of farmers are scouting (and building) technologies that add immediate value.
5. Does AgTech have a marketing problem?
Forums like this one are great for making connections, building momentum, and learning from experts within the industry, but we need to start getting the word out beyond the existing community. Great ideas and powerful technologies will not realize their potential unless we raise awareness about the opportunities (and challenges) for technologies like IoT in Australian agriculture. Reaching an audience “outside the bubble” will help bring in leading innovators (and investors), as well as bridge the gap between the state of the technology and the realities of current practice. MasterChef and Shark Tank brought food and entrepreneurship to mainstream Australia. Maybe AgTech needs a reality TV show, too.
About the Author: Sarah Nolet is the Founder of AgThentic, an innovation and sustainability consulting firm for the food system. Sarah received a masters in System Design and Management from MIT, where she ran the Food and Agriculture Club, co-founded the MIT-Rabobank Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize, and wrote her thesis on “Accelerating Sustainability-Oriented Innovations in Agribusiness”. Nolet also holds a B.S. in both Computer Science and Human Factors Engineering from Tufts University. She now lives in Sydney, Australia.