First described as the ‘Agtech Island’ five years ago by Kieran Furlong, Ireland is still waiting to justify that moniker. Already established a reputation as the digital hub of the EU for digital technology, Ireland houses many of the world’s tech giants, among them Intel, Google, Microsoft, Meta-Facebook. Eight of the top ten US tech companies and 16 of the top 20 global software leaders are based on the island. Equally Ireland is known as a food producer. A country of just 5 million people which produces enough food to feed ten times that number, so Ireland can plausibly marry its farm level expertise with tech to become a leader in the new frontier of agriculture: the exploding market for food-tech and agritech. Taking a place at global top table of agritech however, alongside Israel, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and US hubs such as St Louis, requires a purpose built agri innovation ecosystem to foster and support the entrepreneurs who develop new ideas, and hothouse them through to fruition. Although Ireland’s ecosystem has successfully generated several high-profile unicorns, when it comes to agritech startup success building momentum in Ireland the glass is very clearly half empty.
History suggests Ireland is the right place for innovation to start. The first evidence of farmers in Western Europe has been found by archeologists in Ireland’s Boyne valley. That ability to produce abundant food allowed for some of the earliest known architectural achievements: the passage tombs of Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth, more than 5500 years ago. Ireland’s strength is still in its land, and its ability to produce grass and other feeding stuffs, is a function of one of the world’s most precious commodities: water. While land is more limited and the weather not as sunny as the lands of Africa or Brazil the fact of plentiful rainfall makes it one of the few places on earth where water is not a limitation to the continued growth of farming.
The Irish Food board (Bord Bia) estimated Irish agriculture and food exports at Euro 13.5 bn in 2021, representing 8% of Irelands total exports. Agriculture employs 160,000 or 8% of the working population. More than half of agricultural output is in beef and milk production, almost all of which is exported (~90% of net beef output, making it number one in Europe, and 85% of dairy products including milk powder which represents 10% of the global total). In 2011, the value of Irish food and drink exports totaled nearly $9.6 billion. Ireland is one of the world’s most profitable and efficient agricultural economies, focused on high yields and efficient methods of pasture-based production. In fact in view of the current Ukraine war Justin McCarthy of the Farmers Journal argues that no only does Ireland feed ten times its population but has a moral duty to do so.
Ireland has been extremely successful at attracting foreign companies to be based in Ireland, while supporting the generation of the indigenous industry. For nearly 75 years, successive governments have provided direct and indirect support and funding to developing the corporate sector in Ireland. This effort is recognized as ‘best in class’ and a model for other countries and regions and most recently has been a key part of the development of Ireland’s status as a digital hub.
With the global market for agtech estimated to reach $22.5 billion by 2025 (up from just $9 billion in 2020), the time is obviously right for Ireland to bring these two sides together: combine its native advantages in agriculture with its more recent strengths in technology to develop a unique agritech hub.
Ireland has generated interest from around the world, some driven by the diaspora, but more from global groups recognizing the inherent logic of Ireland as an agritech hub. Examples include Yield Lab, Finistere, Hatch Blue, AgriTech Capital, SOSV, SVG Ventures and more are active in Ireland. RebelBio (formerly IndieBio EU) is a Cork-based SOSV-backed seed-stage biotech accelerator has graduated several agriculture-focused startups from their program. The Pearse Lyons Cultivator which I had the pleasure to help build was the first international agtech accelerators and incubators to be based in Ireland. The Irish government has also recognized the potential of the sector for Ireland. Enterprise Ireland (the government agency responsible for developing and promoting Ireland’s business sector) has been particularly active in identifying successful companies in the sector to support. The Ireland Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF) whose role is to support home grown business development on the island has been given a financially significant fund, demonstrating the serious commitment of the Irish Government to the business of innovation. Agtech Ireland (led by Padraig Hennessy, CEO of Terra NutriTECH wants Ireland to create a space for agtech companies to come together and share ideas, help influence government policies and support research on the island. The aim is to showcase the benefits of technology on the farm, demonstrate the importance of agtech in sustainability, and provide real solutions that farmers can act on. The CONSUS partnership of Origin Enterprises, University College Dublin (UCD) and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) to commit 17.6 million euros over a 5-year period to create digital tools for growers and agronomists, to more precisely address in season decision processes and reduce agri inputs. CONSUS will involve 52 new R&D hires and 19 academics within the University system. Northern Ireland also has committed to develop strong agtech innovation through Queens University and the University of Ulster and further supported through its multinational agribusiness including Devenish, Provita and Norbrook. Northern Ireland’s Agri-Engineering is part of an industry responsible for 40% of the world’s mobile crushing and screening equipment. The range of agtech companies operating today on the island of Ireland represent an impressively broad range of sectors and technologies (see end for the list of agtech startups).
So, how can Ireland position itself successfully to become a leading agtech hub? I asked for comments from a dozen leading thinkers to inform my own experience in this area, for their comments, and these were combined and condensed into the points below.
1) Pilot Farms
Almost all the experts identified a serious gap in Ireland’s agtech ecosystem – that when startups want to test their technologies, they often all end up on the same farms. The lack of an identified list of lead-users, early adopters, first movers or whatever the innovator list would be called is a failing for a country the size of Ireland. Most additionally suggest that Ireland should have grant incentives for more farmers (especially those in the mid-adopters) to want to join the innovation process, both for early innovation and for scaling of new technologies.
2) A single point of contact for the island of Ireland.
Ireland (North and South) needs one voice, one representative for agtech. The lesson learned from other successful agtech countries such as New Zealand, the Netherlands is that having a single portal, or even single individual. represent the best way to coordinate incoming and outgoing technologies and interested parties. For Investors, Governments, Banks, Policy makers and even startups it makes it all infinitely easier to know who to contact and while Israel has created several hubs within the country, the fact that they are based in Tel Aviv and coordinate tightly with each other, combined with a strong pipeline of innovators, overcomes the potential lack of coherence. Multiple locations in Ireland aim to be in the center of agritech, the largest being AgtechUCD at the Lyons estate. On a small island such as Ireland this lack of clarity has led to an explosion in different actors trying to take leadership and responsibility, with the potential to dissipate and waste resources.
3) Focus on the big Consumer issues
Climate, Carbon, Sustainability. As a country heavily dependent on exports for their food business the big issues Ireland has both the challenge and the opportunity to use the current climate goals as a working framework. Achieving these goals drives technological adoption of better genetics, farm practices, supplements to reduce methane, farm management practices, food, and farm waste- all areas in which Ireland has the ability to shine. Ireland’s food and agri leaders know that their customers expect, and reality demands, that they pay attention to climate goals. An initiative by Dogpatch Labs in Dublin to create an accelerator focused specifically on sustainability is attracting attention from the country’s largest corporations.
Creating successful startups doesn’t have to just start by waiting for the company to walk through the door with a great idea. Other sectors have shown the benefits of identifying the right people, and subsequently putting them together with ideas, technologies. With so many ideas being spun out of Irish Universities (North and South), Teagasc and other centers it is always a struggle to accelerate the transition of these to being fully fledged businesses and match making between these innovations and people who could take them to market is part of the next generation of thinking, of whom Dogpatch Labs have been the leading proponent on the island.
5) Hothouse home grown agtech
Irish agtech has been characterized by not enough startups, a narrow pipeline in numbers, even if it seems impressive on a per capita basis. Entrepreneurs/ Startups need funding, mentoring, international exposure. Thoughts to address this by my experts include the potential to encourage easier funding at the seed level through creating tax efficient ways to encourage higher net worth individuals or Corporations to be quicker to invest at a very early stage in startups. The mentoring systems are best accommodated by a centralized physical location, or at least greater coordination to get the right mentors for the right entrepreneurs. Finally fostering successful Irish agtech startups requires that that agtech isn’t just appropriate for Irish agriculture, but that it is internationally relevant. Agribusiness, both Irish and Global ones, from Ireland, are the most likely to help hone an offering that appeals to the world’s farmers.
6) Bring in the best
Not everything needs to be home grown, and many international startups would be willing to relocate to a country that can support their growth plans, as New Zealand has shown. The Identification of non-Irish agtech startups and bringing them to Ireland can become a coordinated process if a coherent plan can be agreed on. Part of this requires also clear marketing of what Ireland is, what it offers, what successes it has had. Ireland’s diaspora can be part of this, the 100 million global citizens who claim Irish ancestry. Global sourcing startups, offering global mentors, offer non-Irish experience and open global doors.
Hopefully these six points help direct policy and supports for the vital development of agri-technologies, startups and innovations and might even help others create their own frameworks.
Many thanks (alphabetically) to Conan Condon, Danny O’Brien, Edmond Harty, Kieran Furlong, Lorcan Bannon, Mareese Keane, Menno Axt, Niamh Collins, Nicky Deasy, Padraig Hennessy, Patrick Barrett, Patrick Walsh, Robert Walker for the ideas and contributions to this blog. These six points can help direct policy and supports for the vital development of agri-technologies, startups and innovations and might even help others create their own frameworks.
Click here to read the full article by Aidan Connolly: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/ireland-become-agtech-island-aidan-connolly/