Agtech and Foodtech – taking the Australian food industry to the next level

Australia has a good reputation in the agritech and foodtech sectors. The government body charged with showcasing that reputation – the Australian Trade and Investment Commission, Austrade, is looking to establish Australia as a global hub for agritech and foodtech, said its Austrade’s senior investment specialist, Karen Caston, at a recent roundtable event held in the country’s capital cities.

“We are seeking increasing interest from overseas enterprises in Australian agricultural and food innovation.” Caston said that about half of the investment enquiries it receives from overseas companies and investors relate directly to these arenas. However, there are certain issues that have arisen that need addressing if Australia is going to take advantage of this reputation. With that in mind, Caston lead the charge at the roundtable with Austrade’s Agriculture 4.0 initiative, which is designed to showcase Australian capability and create a pathway for investment and partnership opportunities.

The video-linked round table that included companies and government bodies from around Australia, talking about the issues and how some of the more contentious problems might be solved. One of the biggest roadblocks that confounds both local and overseas investment is how to identify opportunities.

“The sector is fragmented with many different innovation hubs and states having their own initiatives,” said Caston. “Austrade’s clients – investors and businesses seeking agtech or foodtech services and exports – are confused about where to go for information and help for opportunities in trade and investment. Austrade is also seeing other countries taking a stance in relation to foodtech and agtech capability, which is resulting in increased competition globally in relation to investment and trade opportunities.”

Australia already has a couple of advantages over a lot of its global competition. It has strict standards around the quality of its products, its traceability is of a high standard and only getting better, and its status around the world – especially in the lucrative Asian market – is fantastic.

“There is a broad spectrum of clients approaching Austrade that are investing in agtech and foodtech,” said Caston. “Private clients looking to get a commercial stake in technologies to improve investment returns.

“We have impact investors interested in long-term gains and to meet social license obligations. Institutional investors have created new funding matrixes focussed on technology. International food manufacturers are looking to expand into the Asian market; to meet those consumer characteristics and to capitalise on Australia’s free trade agreements. Multinationals are looking to source and develop specific expertise in order to create regional specialist business units or centres of excellence. ”

Yet, confusion still remains. This is what the Agriculture 4.0 initiative is hoping to address by focussing and streamlining opportunities for partnership and investment. And what does Austrade have in mind to help alleviate some of the concerns of companies navigating their way around the bureaucracy? Caston has already put the wheels in motion and it is a three-pronged strategy.

“First, we will showcase Australia’s capability worldwide through a new micro website that will have video case studies and marketing material,” she said. This site went live in February. “Second, we will establish a Team Australia portal and tool kit that will feature consistent messaging as to the reasons why Australian agtech and foodtech investment and trade are good. This will include new materials to be used by all stake holders including government, research institutes and industry.

“Third, we developed and supported the week-long, themed, inbound missions around the inaugural Evoke Ag conference that was held in Melbourne in February. Austrade’s mission is results based and client focussed. Our collaboration includes market testing through a task force of key stake holders established to provide advice and support for implementation of this initiative.”

A key ingredient is the aforementioned microsite, which is designed to bring the fragmented sector together. Getting all the different stakeholders to come on board will not be easy – each state and territory has its own agenda. However, a taskforce lead by Tenacious Ventures’ Matthew Pryor, is leading the way. Pryor himself is bullish about the task ahead.

“We want and need international investment in our agricultural innovation ecosystem in the way we produce, and in the way we conduct and commercialise research,” he said. “And we should seek to function as a testing ground for agricultural innovation regardless of where they are sourced.

“With the taskforce we are providing feedback on who the stakeholders are and there is a significant amount of stakeholder mapping – and we have to decide, who are the core people we are trying to reach, what are the core messages that we need to deliver?”
He is also adamant about how it needs to be implemented.

“In terms of the establishment of the taskforce and its objectives, it is to grow the innovation brand and Australia’s presence, but it also needs to make some concrete decisions,” he said. “We need to say, ‘if we’ve done this right – we’ve created this global brand and identified the people we want to talk to. We’ve also delivered the message, so how do we know we’ve done something material?”

There is a lot of good work being done in establishing Australia’s status as a global player in the production of food and fibre. Most recently – and the best qualification of this – is the Talking 2030 report where the target of $100 million in farmgate output was established.
“Importantly for us, thinking about what part of that could be influenced, was the $20 billion bounty values that are available to drive the performance of the efficiencies of that system. These are going to be largely underpinned by the adoption of digital technology in Australia’s agricultural branching system,” said Pryor.

“We mention this because we can say, ‘as a country and an initiative, we can directly contribute to helping Australia. As a country and as an initiative, we can contribute to helping Australian farmers adopt new technology’. Some of that will come from our own ag innovation ecosystem, but we also need to promote ourselves as the best place in the world to prove the commercial application of internationally sourced agricultural innovation.”

We want the agritech/foodtech sectors are working towards Australia being a world-class producer of food and fibre.

“We know we do it efficiently because we are one of the least subsidised agriculturally productive economies in the world,” said Pryor. “What we know less about is what we call a ‘knowledge economy’ for agricultural innovations. We know we have world-class researchers and we rank highly in international measures in terms of performance of innovation. What we don’t know is what’s the economic value that flows into the country through exports of technology-based products and services. So this is a major body of work that we intend to pursue.”

A major piece of work the taskforce intends to put forward is helping to deliver on that bounty. The next thing for it, is conducting the necessary research to quantify the country’s current state of how much Australia exports in terms of technology-based products and services and what the aspirational target for that will be.

“The taskforce has regular meetings about once a month,” said Pryor. “The first stage of that was the development of stakeholder mapping and messaging. The second part was how would we get that message to be embedded in the sector’s collective marketing efforts. So, we worked with Austrade to develop the microsite and supporting material. The next collective action was, how can we as taskforce members and those at the roundtables become actively involved to broadly promote this brand? Austrade has outlined the tools they are developing to do that.”

The microsite is a good starting point for anybody who wants to become involved in the initiative and see how Austrade and the taskforce are going in terms of reaching their objectives.