Innovation, robotics and AI are about to become a reality for farmers across the globe as technology - accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic - takes the agri-sector into the future.
Limerick native John Hartnett who runs an investment company, SVG Ventures, in Silicon Valley says despite these “unprecedented times” - not just because pf Covid-19 but also because of the aftermath of the previous administration in the US - there is a sense of renewed hope with the inauguration of President Joe Biden and a determined focus on climate change - all of which feeds in to the changes occurring in the global agri-food sector.
“I think Joe Biden is a breath of fresh air; everybody, especially in California, is very excited about him coming on board - for a number of different reasons including the challenges we face because of the pandemic which Biden is taking seriously and he is focused on rolling out 100 million vaccines in his first 100 days,” he added.
“You can see by just the mood in the White House people are more focused on resolving the number one priority which is the Covid-19 situation.
“Climate change is also one of Mr Biden’s top four initiatives and I think that is very important because on the one hand the agriculture sector has its challenges to produce more with less but at the same time we need to be doing that in a sustainable way and we need to be able to take the actions in terms of climate.”
He says the next for years - and possibly eight - are crucial in terms of climate and sustainability.
“It will drive key regulations across the board; the US has plans to come back into the climate forum and work with other countries and I think that the relationship between the EU and the US will become stronger,” Mr Hartnett continued.
“Joe Biden also understands the history and the heritage of Ireland; he was very quick to jump in with regard to Brexit and the specific areas around Northern Ireland in the Withdrawal Agreement.
“That was an important ‘big brother’ for Ireland when he stepped in at that time and I think his presidency will be good for Ireland and for its food sector, not just in terms of trade and doing business.”
The Limerick entrepreneur says there has been a lot of “challenges” in that area because of Trump’s ethos of putting America first while at the same time slapping tariffs and trade barriers on other countries.
“That hurt trade in many areas including the Irish food industry but I feel like the US is going to be back to a ‘new’ normal and that will be good for Ireland and indeed for the world,” Mr Hartnett said.
“The focus on sustainability and climate change will be great for everyone.”
John Hartnett and his company SVG Ventures and its Thrive accelerator programme has a “great” working relationship with the USDA.
He got the opportunity to work with agricultural secretary Sonny Perdue and was on stage with him to announce the USDA goals within the agri sector.
“We are going to continue working with the USDA on innovation within the agri sector; we are also working with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on areas around food safety - both of which area a US and global priority - and will be announcing initiatives with the FDA with regard to Covid-19,” Mr Hartnett continued.
“With Covid-19 there is a lot of good and bad but the good that we have experienced is how it has exposed the fragile nature of our food supply chain and identified areas of focus.
“That now has placed more emphasis on how all of that can be fixed through innovation.
“It has accelerated key trends like a touchless supply chain with regard to bringing automation and robotics into play.” He also highlighted how the FDA has “done a lot of work on block chain” - managing the whole supply chain from end to end.
“Tracking and tracing of food means that if there is an e coli breakout, etc, being able to trace that back in an efficient manner is crucial,” added Mr Hartnett.
“We will be making an announcement on a key initiative in conjunction with the FDA in the coming weeks.
“I have also been fortunate enough to work with the US State Department for the last 11 or 12 years; I worked during Hilary Clinton’s time as secretary of state and was part of her Northern Ireland economic team.
“We have maintained a relationship with the US State Department since through its global partnerships and last year we announced a global initiative for entrepreneurs to solve the key challenges around the world.”
Meanwhile, in conjunction with the US State Department, SVG Ventures launched an initiative that had a specific focus on Africa and is currently running a Thrive Africa challenge where the company is looking for entrepreneurs from across the continent.
“We have had an overwhelming response - over 300 startups came on board and we are now going through an evaluation of all those companies.
“We want to support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
“I feel the Biden administration will focus on innovation, sustainability and building a better linkage worldwide.
“It’s also good for Canada - we launched a Thrive initiative there; Canada is one of the top five ag-producing countries in the world and for them trade in the US is number one.”
Back in Ireland the use of technology has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and Mr Hartnett believes that once trade links are rekindled with the US “much will be possible”.
“I think that some of the tariffs that were imposed by the previous administration will be relaxed and that will be very good for the Irish food sector,” he continued.
“The relationships that are there with the major food companies in the US are strong and I think it will be a positive move.” In terms of innovation, he says the company is seeing robotic automation technologies coming to the fore.
“We are working now with O’Driscoll Berries - a family-owned business in California that has been in operation for 100 years and is committed to growing the finest berries - on robots that can pick the berries; it is pretty fascinating to watch,” he said.
“It’s not easy - it’s not like a manufacturing plant where everything is part of a nice, smooth, even flow, all of this is happening in a very rural type of environment.
“It is an area that the company has focused very heavily on and we have worked very closely with them on it.
“They have implemented seven different types of harvest automation vehicles.”
In addition, Mr Hartnett and his team have been working with the company on controlled environment farming - indoor farming or vertical farming - which is being positioned as the next generation of farming, globally.
“We did a partnership with them and with a company called Plenty - an indoor vertical farming company that uses less space and fewer resources to grow flavorful, healthy, fresh, and clean produce all year-round,” he continued.
“A lot of the vertical farming to date has been about leafy greens which are easier to grow whereas berries are much more complex because of the genetic structure and the ability to grow to a consistent size, quality and taste.
“One of the challenges from an Irish perspective in relation to all of this is the fact that there aren't the huge farms that you have here in the US.
“I think Ireland is definitely going to be a fast follower in some of these technologies but I think the big food companies like Kerry Group, Glanbia, Ornua, etc, will be right up there in terms of adapting technology in the food processing side.”
The company is currently working closely with Ornua in the US on an innovation project specific to food ingredients.
“All will be revealed soon,” added Mr Hartnett before highlighting how the bigger companies that would traditionally have a footprint in the US are also engaging.
“It’s the pure farm to farm basis where the challenge in Ireland is - it’s about scale.
“There is also slower engagement with technology at this level but having said that there are a number of really, really good Irish companies that we have worked with that are doing well.”
Magrow - which is based in Dublin aims to provide the best technology solutions for its customers so they can grow their crops in a sustainable way to solve some of the greatest food and water challenges on the planet - has created a magnetic spraying capability that gets more product onto the crop.
“The company came on our Thrive programme in 2016 and have received significant investment by working with a lot of our partners here in California. It’s a great success story from an Irish perspective.”
Another Irish company Mr Hartnett has been working with is MicroGen Biotech in Carlow which applies proprietary Constructed Functional Microbiome platform technology to develop microbial products to block the uptake of heavy metals by crops to protect food safety, restore soil natural microbiome to increase soil health, crop quality and yields and break down toxic pollutants to remediate contaminated soil.
The company has a team in Carlow and in China and came through the Thrive programme about three years ago.
“The entrepreneurs in Ireland are out there, with the best of them, there is no doubt about that,” continued Mr Hartnett.
“Neurotask is another company - bio technology that is detecting peptides in waste materials - and is now employing over 100 people.
“Of those three success stories from Ireland that came through our programme two of the founders are female.
“So, from an Irish perspective innovation and entrepreneurship is right there but the struggle is how to adopt the technology across the farms.
“It’s as much a challenge in the US because many farmers are hearing all this noise about technology and robots but they are confused about it all.
“We held a webinar in Canada and the US and polled the farmers with regard to what was holding them back in terms of adopting some of these technologies.
“We found the difficulties were more around education and training than anything else.
“I think there is a gap in the market at the moment in relation to the solution/training guide for farmers specific to their needs.
“The adoption of technology is probably going to be the issue and I think there is a role for governments in terms of the provision of information and guidance for farmers on best practice, new technologies and what works well, etc.
“There is a need for a future smart farm to be created in a rural area so that farmers can see what is happening for themselves, look at what works and what doesn’t and learn from each other.
“The ploughing championships is a fantastic event to showcase innovation but in the current environment with Covid-19 that can’t happen. Also is one event in the year in Ireland to showcase technologies sufficient enough? Broadband connectivity of course is also an issue.
“Maybe some of the Irish universities could take a leading role here?”
In his youth, John Hartnett attended Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT) at night as part of his education and established strong links with the institute.
The Hartnett Enterprise Acceleration Centre (HEAC) is the Institute’s on-campus incubator for innovation and growth driven business start-ups in the midwest region and is part of LIT's enterprise ladder.
“In Ireland we are spoilt by the quality of education that is available to us,” said Mr Hartnett.
“It’s practically for free whereas in the US it is not free - an education is very, very expensive.
“The Centre provides an opportunity for me to give something back and try and help.
“It’s New Frontiers entrepreneur programme works in conjunction with Enterprise Ireland and the mission is to deliver a unique business environment that stimulates innovation, research commercialisation, internationalisation and entrepreneurship.
“Through our Hartnett Enterprise Acceleration Centre alone, LIT’s Enterprise Ladder has helped create over 90 companies between since 2006.” Meanwhile, these companies have a significant international sales focus with exports across Europe, China, India, the US and more.
The HEAC is also home to the Research Centres Shannon ABC www.shannonabc.ie and the ACORN Research Centre www.acornresearch.ie The Centre has 18 business incubation units available to promoters of early stage companies. Each of these units is approximately 25 square metres each and can comfortably accommodate one to four entrepreneurs from across the country.
“I participate and do a session with the entrepreneurs. We talk about investment, pitch and establishing links with customers,” added Mr Hartnett.
“There are some great companies coming through that and I also love the fact that LIT is right beside Thomond Park!”.