Sparking & cultivating ag innovations
By Susan Gough Henly
7 February 2022
This article was originally published on The Farmer Magazine.
In case you’re under the impression that Australia’s business and finance powerhouses are all located in either Sydney and Melbourne, think again.
SparkLabs Cultiv8 is a global agriculture and food technology accelerator headquartered in Orange, but it is part of a world-wide network of SparkLabs accelerators that stretches from Seoul and Singapore to Beijing and California.
Founded in 2017 by Australian investment experts Jonathon Quigley and Malcolm Nutt in association with SparkLabs Global Ventures co-founders Seoul-based Jimmy Kim and Frank Meehan, SparkLabs Cultiv8 offers its chosen founders access to more than 65 global mentors as well as 13,000 hectares of experimental farmland in four different climatic zones across NSW.
To date, its portfolio of diverse companies has raised $200 million in capital made up of 38 direct investments that will help them to enter the next phase of commercial growth.
It has a 50-50 portfolio of Australian to international start-ups, and according to AgFunder, the company was voted the third most active Ag and Food Tech Accelerator on the planet in 2021.
“We can offer global reach for Australian start-ups through our international networks. In addition, given Australia’s time zone and proximity to Asia, we can be an effective portal to that market as well,” explains Jonathon Quigley.
‘The Australian market is also reflective of the US, UK, Canada, Brazil and Argentina. Australia is a large producer of grains, pulses, oilseed and wine, so we can offer additional crop trial work (due to the Northern Hemisphere seasonal differences) to double the pace of product development.”
Cultiv8 traces its roots back to 2010 when Malcolm Nutt met engineer Jimmy Kim in Singapore, and helped raise some capital for one of SparkLab’s funds.
It has since partnered with the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) on the Agricultural Institute site in Orange, which is a 500-acre farm with 120 researchers.
“When they wanted to expand in Australia we suggested focusing on the agricultural and food area,” says Jonathon. “Half of our funding comes from Korea and half is domestic.”
Korea is emerging globally against its Asian peers as a key startup hub. Kim realised that early-stage entrepreneurs there had trouble scaling up so he founded SparkLabs to help them go global. There are now seven interconnected SparkLabs around the world.
Jonathon explains that the base in Orange is ideal because it is close to a wide range of large-scale broad-acre agriculture, viticulture, fruit, vegetable and livestock properties.
“The base makes it perfect for trialling pilot projects and which will certainly benefit from any agricultural innovation,” says Jonathon.
“We formed an association with DPI’s Global Ag-Tech Ecosystem so we could work together as an innovation hub to fast-track adoption of agricultural research and development to increase productivity and, as such, we have access to their 25 agricultural research stations across NSW.”
Australia’s Cultiv8 is the only SparkLabs accelerator focusing on the agricultural space and it’s helping the founders access the same global opportunities.
Cultiv8’s five-member committee regularly reviews its portfolio and strategic objectives to ensure the company has a diversity of technologies spanning agricultural and food industries as well as apps in the consumer space.
The committee selects companies at different stages: some may be just ideas on a page but have a particularly strong founder while others are already down the path of developing a business model.
“We evaluate about 350 start-ups a year before selecting 10 to support annually,” explains Jonathon. “The decision must be unanimous.”
The selected start-ups are given a cash investment of $100,000, the opportunity to work with scientists and engineers in a wide array of research labs and agricultural trial sites as well as access to expert mentors, top-tier venture capitalists, angel investors and partner entrepreneurs across the globe.
“We focus on helping our start-ups build something so enticing that adoption is a fait accompli. We push founders to focus on offering solutions to real problems facing farmers, for instance,” says Jonathon.
“Our model varies depending on what companies are doing and what stage they’re at. We’ll do workshops on branding, product market fit, sales and marketing and investor readiness. We also regularly offer one-on-one guidance for each startup.”
To that end, Cultiv8 has worked with a diverse range of Australian founders developing innovative solutions for Australian agriculture and food resources as well as start-ups in Israel, India, Singapore, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States that have come up with novel farming and food solutions.
Here are some examples of the ones that made the cut:
Check out FutureFeed
Canadian scientist Dr Rob Kinley in conjunction with the CSIRO, MLA and James Cook University has discovered that tiny amounts of two types of asparagopsis red seaweed can reduce methane emissions of ruminant animals by over 80 per cent.
This has been scientifically proven for the feedlot market and research is currently underway with open grazing animals. CSIRO recognised the potential for the technology and spun off FutureFeed as a commercial entity last year and is in the process of developing a certified trademark and licensing seaweed growers to sell into the livestock market worldwide.
“The mentors we accessed through Cultiv8 helped us during critical early growth stages,” says Eve Faulkner, head of marketing and communications. “The networking and access to industry experts has been phenomenal as we start building an entirely new industry. We anticipate early supply from our seaweed growers to hit the market in early 2022.”
Introducing Zetifi and its ag innovations
Wagga Wagga-based network engineer, Dan Winson – the CEO and founder of Zetifi – had a light-bulb moment when he envisioned how Wi-Fi might go into low-power receiver mode that could wake up when needed. He filed a patent and built a team of 15 engineers who are now developing reliable, affordable, off-grid wireless networks that are specifically designed for people in rural and remote areas.
The team proudly uses the term “ruggedized” to describe the unique mix of farm-tough hardware and resilient networks with backup data connections that have become the hallmark of the company’s solutions. The company have a federal grant to move into mass manufacture in Wagga Wagga over the next 12 months.
“Cultiv8’s introductions to the biggest and best farming operations enabled me to access industry-specific insights to solve the right problems, which are critical for a start-up. Early on I realised that the reality of deploying networks to remote areas is that you can’t rely on having a network engineer to finish the job, so designing the hardware and software to enable installation by local electricians has been key to our success,” says Dan.
“The support of the Cultiv8 team gave me the confidence to aim higher and consider solving rural and remote connectivity issues worldwide, not just around Wagga Wagga. Jonathon put us forward when Cornell University approached him regarding the Grow-NY business competition and we came in second, winning $500,000. We’re about to set up a team now in Rochester, New York, which I couldn’t possibly have envisioned when I began this journey.”
Here comes BioScout
Under the company name of BioScout, Sydney University engineering PhD candidate and one of the Australian Department of Agriculture’s 2019 Young Scientists of the Year, Lewis Collins, and colleagues have developed fully autonomous sensors that provide world-first airborne disease tracking capacities two weeks before symptoms show in crops.
Initially working with drones, they’ve now created fixed sensors that operate year-round and have active pilots with farmers in wheat (to detect stripe rust and Septoria Tritici blotch), barley (net form net blotch and powdery mildew) and wine grapes (powdery mildew, downy mildew and botrytis) and are currently starting commercial deployments.
“After going through other start-up incubators and learning the ropes of running a start-up, we were still looking for mentorship in the agriculture space. So, when Jonathon approached us about joining Cultiv8 we jumped at the opportunity,” say Lewis. “They brought us much more into the agricultural fold and made some great introductions. It’s helped us do a much better job of solving farmers’ real-world problems.”
Salicrop is growing
Israeli-based Salicrop has developed sustainable, non-GM seed treatments, based on proprietary know-how, which induce crops to grow well in stress conditions like heat, drought and highly saline soils or when irrigated with brackish water, all of which have been exacerbated by climate change.
“We’re working with rice in India, corn in South America, and tomatoes in Spain and Morocco,” says CEO Carmit Oron.
“SparkLabs Cultiv8 is a great partner for us working with wheat in Australia. They’ve given us some wonderful strategic connections, most notably with the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), and we plan to be in Western Australia in April 2022 to conduct large field trials with our treated wheat seeds for the next sowing season. I’m sure the team will continue to support us with our next funding round.”