Blog Article 18 Jun 2018

by Maeve Crowley, IDA Ireland

With an expected two billion more mouths to feed on the planet by 2050, it's no surprise that the Agtech industry is looking at new approaches today to achieve this goal, searching for lower-cost technology that will deliver higher yields with less environmental impact. American Agtech companies are under increased pressure as the United States recently slipped from first to fourth place in the rankings of most "food-secure" nations worldwide, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.  

The report noted that America has "stagnated" when it comes to its food affordability, availability, quality and safety.  Perhaps that's a factor influencing some U.S. Agtech tech companies that have been turning to technologies in other countries to improve food systems through affordable innovation.  Agtech firms are now a laboratory where new ideas are developed, tested and exported.

Supporting the environment

Ireland is a country of four million inhabitants that now produces enough food to feed 35 million, thus sustainable, environmentally sound practices must play a big role if the country is to continue doing so. This reflects the broader mindset in much of Europe and particularly in Ireland, which has been investing in programs such as Origin Green to make a tangible difference. An initiative of the Irish Food Board, Origin Green is the nation's food and drink sustainability program, setting up measurable sustainability targets in order to deliver continuous improvement and make Ireland a world leader in this area working with farmers, manufacturers and retailers.

This environmental consciousness has been one of the attractants for U.S. Agtech tech companies setting up Irish operations, particularly those whose products factor in sustainable practices. For example, Kentucky-based Alltech is a leading producer and processor of yeast and organic trace minerals whose products improve the health and value of crops and animals, with a site in Ireland that performs much of the company's molecular research into animal health.

With more than 100 people in place, Alltech Ireland's goal is to develop technologies and support programs that enable farmers to realize greater efficiency and sustainability.  To further this objective, Alltech acquired leading Irish farm solutions company Keenan Systems last year, which uses technology to improve feed efficiency as well as ethical and profitable farming solutions.

It's all about the data

As is true for many Agtech companies, Alltech's Keenan Systems is driven by data -- in this case, one of the world's largest field databases on cows living in more than 25 countries worldwide.  An unprecedented level of data analysis helps Keenan improve the performance of dairy and beef herds by its farmer customers.  Meanwhile, a cornerstone of cattle raising in Ireland is a government-supported centralized database that holds all the genetic markers for cattle born in the country since 2009.  With this DNA data, breeders are able to improve the genetic make-up of animals that results in better beef, milk and other products.

Demonstrating the close ties between American and Irish companies, A California biotech firm that creates genetics solutions teamed with Keenan on developing the DNA database, providing powerful life science tools that enable large-scale analysis of genetic variation and function.

Data is at the heart of another American-Irish operation, this one from Micro Focus, a UK data firm acquired by HP Software that has a flourishing subsidiary in Galway. Dedicated to end-to-end supply chain traceability, thus Micro Focus development lab has created a "farm-to-fork" initiative in which QR codes enable food products to be tracked throughout the supply chain, increasing efficiency and precision. 

Economic growth attracting investment

After Brexit, Ireland will be the largest English-speaking country in the EU and it keeps delivering the EU's fastest-growing economy.  The opportunities in Ireland haven't gone unnoticed by the investment sector. Consider Finistere Ventures, a California-based Agtech tech venture capital fund that supports promising companies across the agricultural and food value chains. Finistere has set up the Ireland AgTech Fund in partnership with the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund to seek and support startups. In addition to new Irish companies whose breakthrough will end up being used by American agriculture, the fund helps overseas companies seeking to establish a presence in the EU leveraging Ireland’s talent pool, research partnerships and market access.

Another Agtech tech business accelerator that has discovered the fruitful environment in Ireland is Missouri-based Yield Lab, whose goal is increasing the global food supply sustainably.  Its Yield Lab Galway invests money in promising portfolio companies, providing funding, mentoring and connections. Just a few of the news-making ideas coming out of this accelerator include: a company making in-hive, retrofitted sensors that unobtrusively monitor honey bee colonies; a startup with a technology to convert vegetable waste into environmentally friendly proteins for the aquaculture fish feed market; another young firm serving this market through cost-effective oral vaccines to improve disease management and food security.

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