Global agtech investors find 'rich pipeline of opportunities' in Israel

"We're looking to find Israel companies that are building compelling intellectual technology here but are looking to get their product into North America."

A drip irrigation farm. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A drip irrigation farm.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel may be second in line only to North America in the world of agricultural entrepreneurship, an international investor in sector told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
"It's the Start-Up Nation," said Arama Kukutai, a co-founder and partner at Finistere Ventures. "I have no bias toward Israel other than observing what I see, which is an entrepreneurial ecosystem, more akin to what we see in Silicon Valley."
Originally from New Zealand, Kukutai came with more than 20 years of agribusiness experience to Finistere, a San Diego-based venture capital firm that aims “to build disruptive companies changing modern agriculture,” according to the company. He spoke with the Post on the sidelines of AgriVest 2016, at a conference in Rehovot organized by the Israeli agricultural investment group Trendlines Agtech. 
Kukutai’s first exposure to Israeli agricultural entrepreneurship occurred during his former role as executive chairman of New Zealand’s PKW Farms, which was one of the first customers in the southern hemisphere of the Israeli dairy technology giant Afimilk. Since then, Israel has risen to become one of four agritech regions in the world Kukutai considers to be “world class” – alongside North America, Australasia and Europe, he explained.
“In my opinion, it's number two, in line with America,” he said. “I think it's in front of Europe."
Australasia and Europe might have higher budgets for public research and development, but Israel simply has “more entrepreneurs” in the agricultural technology sector, according to Kukutai.
"I think it's one of the world's leading centers of excellence from a technology standpoint, starting with research at places like Weizmann [Institute] and Volcani [Center] and many decades of distinguished scientists," he said.
The beauty of agricultural technology is the way the sector is “equipped to adapt” to existing know-how, Kukutai explained.
"Agriculture is really a cannabilizer of other technologies," he said, noting that the sector has become intertwined with fields like genomics, synthetic biology and software – areas in which Israel particularly excels.
“Agriculture is the last great industry to get digitized," he added.
While Finistere Ventures still mostly focuses on American companies, one of the firm’s key investments is Israeli adaptive irrigation service CropX. The Tel Aviv-based company received $9 million in initial financing from Finistere, Innovation Endeavors and GreenSoil Investments in June of last year.
Finistere is currently reviewing an additional five Israeli companies, with a particular focus on plant sciences, crop protection, digital agriculture, water management, novel farming systems, high-value nutrition and indoor agriculture, Kukutai explained.
"Israel has technology companies in all of these areas,” he said. “It is a very rich pipeline of opportunities."
"We're looking to find Israel companies that are building compelling intellectual technology here but are looking to get their product into North America," he added.
At AgriVest 2016,  experts from around the world gathered to share their perspectives on the future of agricultural innovation as well as investment trends. In addition, budding Israeli agtech firms competed to earn the title "best start-up," with participants voting and ranking them in real-time.
"We live in an interesting area of radical and dramatic changes," said Oded Distel, director of Israel NewTech at the Economy Ministry. "The idea is to understand and to go along with those changes."
Agricultural technology is likewise undergoing such changes, with increasing digitization and automation, as well as a convergence with fields like biology, Kukutai explained. In this way, farming has become “more of a knowledge-based enterprise,” he added.
As far as the Israeli entrepreneurial environment in particular is concerned, Kukutai expressed his enthusiasm that on each visit to the country, he is able to see dozens of new companies promoting their technologies.
"Part of what I think is exciting about Israeli agtech is the ability to set up presence and partnerships in the US, but keep the core excellence of science and technology here,” he added.