Agritech investor: Opportunities abound with Israeli entrepreneurs

Australasia and Europe might have higher budgets for public research and development, according to Kukutai, but Israel simply has “more entrepreneurs” in the agricultural technology sector.

Israel may be second 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,” Arama Kukutai, a co-founder and partner at Finistere Ventures, said on the sidelines of AgriVest 2016, a conference in Rehovot organized by the Israeli agricultural investment group Trendlines Agtech. “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 says it aims “to build disruptive companies changing modern agriculture.”
Kukutai’s first exposure to Israeli agricultural entrepreneurship was 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 that Kukutai considers to be “world class” – alongside North America, Australasia and Europe.
“In my opinion, it’s No. 2, 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, according to Kukutai, but Israel simply has “more entrepreneurs” in the agricultural technology sector.
“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 cannibalizer 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 the 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 2015.
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. It is a very rich pipeline of opportunities,” he said, adding that they were looking for Israeli companies that are “building compelling intellectual technology here, but are looking to get their product into North America.”
Experts from around the world gathered at AgriVest 2016 to share their perspectives on the future of agricultural innovation, as well as investment trends. In addition, budding Israeli agritech 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 New- Tech at the Economy Ministry. “The idea is to understand and go along with those changes.”
Agricultural technology, likewise, is undergoing changes, with increasing digitization and automation, as well as a convergence with fields like biology, said Kukutai, explaining that, in this way, farming has become “more of a knowledge-based enterprise.”
Regarding the Israeli entrepreneurial environment in particular, Kukutai expressed enthusiasm that on each visit to the country, sees dozens of new companies promoting their technologies.
“Part of what I think is exciting about Israeli agritech is the ability to set up presence and partnerships in the US, but keep the core excellence of science and technology here,” he said.