Agritech firms must work together to overcome innovative challenges of the future, experts say

April 27, 2015 21:11
3 minute read.

KKL-JNF and Desert Agriculture 758x530. (photo credit: KKL-JNF)


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Tackling the challenges of the ever-evolving agricultural technology field will require companies large and small, as well as regulators, to work in collaboration, experts agreed at a conference on Monday.

“A lot of drivers force us to change – climate change, growing population,” said Oded Distel, director of Israel NewTech.

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“For all those good reasons, we must change and do things differently from the ways we used to.”

Distel was addressing participants in the third AgriVest Conference, during which panelists focused on agricultural technology and investment needs for the future, placing a particular emphasis on the sector’s rapidly changing environment and resultant needs for cooperative advancement. Such progress can pose a variety of impediments due to escalating costs, patent ambiguities and increasing demands, but behooves stakeholders to think collaboratively, experts agreed.

“The challenge that I see ahead of us is for all this community to work together – being the entrepreneurs, the investors, the regulators, the policymakers, the government and the market,” Distel said. “Everybody has to see that we basically share the same vision and have the same goals, and try to work together.”

Held at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, AgriVest was organized by the agricultural technologies investment firm Trendlines Agtech, in collaboration with GreenSoil Investments and the Economy Ministry’s Israel NewTech. Some 350 people attended the conference from around the world, on the day prior to Israel’s annual AgriTech Exhibition, which takes place in Tel Aviv Tuesday through Thursday.

Although food demand is going to only increase, the agricultural sector is “going to have to deal with less inputs like soil and water,” explained Sam Fiorello, COO at the Missouri- based Danforth Plant Science Center and president of Bio-Research and Development Growth Park. As a result, much more efficient agricultural systems will be obligatory moving forward, he said.

“The way we’re going to do it is changing and is putting a higher premium on collaboration,” Fiorello added.

The necessity of cooperation will apply to both small startups and large companies, he explained. Because the cost of doing business for small agricultural firms is rising prohibitively, these companies must seek out larger places to leverage investments, he said.

However, large corporations also need to mine for outside technologies, Fiorello continued, saying use of the old model whereby big companies can simply employ in-house research and development models “is not going to be enough.”

“It’s going to be new ideas from new innovators,” he said.

Barry Schindler, co-chair of global-patent prosecution group at the international law firm Greenberg Traurig, likewise described how a “convergence of all different technologies” is occurring and that “agriculture, electronics, everybody is just merging together.”

Although agreeing that such cooperation is becoming increasingly dominant in successful ventures, Schindler warned that this very collaboration is frightening to lawyers in the agricultural technology sector.

“When we hear the word collaboration, that scares us,” said Schindler, who is based in the New Jersey and New York offices of the firm, which also has a location in Tel Aviv. “Who’s going to own what? It’s an issue that the lawyers are constantly grappling with. This is one of the issues when technology is way ahead of the law.”

Schindler warned that when agricultural technology firms begin a relationship together, they must take pains to work out such crucial issues like patent ownership at the very beginning, during what he described as their “honeymoon period.”

Another questionable area in the agricultural sector of the future is data ownership – where the data is going and how it is going to be used, Schindler explained.

“It’s the Wild Wild West in the United States, it’s the Wild Wild West in Europe with regards to agriculture,” he said.

The sector is certainly “going through a digital transformation” and over the next few years, agriculturalists will be adapting “innovative uses of information in all aspects of farming,” said Eyal Lipetz-Eliassi, Israel country manager and innovation-based growth leader at DuPont.

As companies continue to develop agricultural tools that heavily rely on data, they must ensure that such data is easily accessible and usable for farmers, Fiorello added.

The forthcoming omnipresence of data in agriculture, monitoring everything from organic practices to pesticide use to a variety of other farming operations, will require clear contracts so that such data does not slip into the wrong hands, Schindler cautioned.

“Big Brother will be there,” he said.

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