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The Sprout Agritech Accelerator is back. Meet the finalists.

The third iteration of the Sprout Agritech Accelerator is ready to kick off – and the farm-to-fork start-ups taking part are ready to take on the world.

The five-month accelerator gives participants access to a pool of more than $500,000 in grants and investments, as well as extensive mentoring from a team of experts and access to four fully-funded block courses at locations around the country designed to upskill them as businesspeople.

This year’s cohort will have an opportunity to showcase their businesses as part of the innovation den at the 2018 National Agricultural Fieldays. They will also get the chance to pitch to a hand-picked group of investors, corporate partners and potential customers.

More than 80 companies from throughout New Zealand and even around the world entered to be part of this year’s edition of Sprout – and the below were the proverbial cream of the crop in the eyes of the selection committee. Let’s check them out, shall we?

Acuris Systems

A company that is building self-driving robots that collect data from kiwifruit and other horticulture sectors, this Auckland-based start-up – the brainchild of Nicholas Woon and Matthew Warner – helps orchardists optimise crop loads and increase high quality yields through data. “Traditionally data in the kiwifruit sector was really scarce,” says Woon. “Current practises in orchard management would see an estimated count of crop size by physically counting fruit on a small fraction of the total orchard. We’ve developed an automated robot that travels under the canopy, taking in lots of data about the fruit or flowers above using cameras, giving orchardists an accurate and thorough count of 100 percent of their crop.”

Woon says he is excited to see how far the company can. “We trialled our first prototype in late 2017 and we hope to perfect it and get it to market hopefully by the end of the year,” he says/ “We’re also looking at parallel industries where the technology could also be used, such as vineyards which is a huge industry both in New Zealand and internationally.

“Sprout’s network of experts will allow us to dissect our company to get advice from industry experts that will help us innovate and perfect our product. We believe with their advice we will be able to develop the business much faster.”

Selection Committee member Damian Lynch, from PGG Wrightson, says the committee was quite impressed by Acuris. “Acuris Systems is a good example of the talent we saw,” he says. “The thing we were most impressed by was how their offering is a combination of design, engineering and software and it’s a business that can scale. They’re young and enthusiastic and will get a lot out of the Sprout Accelerator.”

Hectre

Hectre is an orchard management software mobile app that improves efficiency. Based in Auckland, co-founders Matty Blomfield and Nico Gabarra already have apple and pear growers in New Zealand and Australia who are benefiting from the app.

Blomfield says there was a gap in the market because many growers were still using pen and paper. He says he saw a need to digitise the system to help growers make better decisions, improving efficiency and quality. “Sprout’s experience in both business and agriculture will be beneficial to us to help keep us accountable and prepared for international markets,” he says of why Hectre applied to be in Sprout. “They will be able to help us from a capital raising perspective as well as introducing us to the right networks.”

PGG Wrightson’s Lynch says there were several things about Hectre that impressed Sprout’s selection committee. “The team behind Hectre has been able to apply what they know from software development to create a programme for orchards that increases efficiency and is focused on the end user, and they’ve done this in a very short amount of time,” he says. “Feedback from industry involved in its pilot has been really positive and this is a business model that can really scale.”

Micropod

Another Auckland-based start-up (though located on the North Shore), Micropod has created a smart device that allows you to grow fresh microgreens indoors. The brainchild of Jeffrey Xu, Brian Lai and Oliver McDermott, the goal is to revolutionise people’s connection with food by using innovative smart control systems, LED growing lights and hydroponics to produce the optimum growing environment to produce fresh leafy greens indoors in as little as 12 days.

Xu says he recognised a need for their product due to global trends towards healthy living, reducing waste and knowing the origin of your food. “We are a young start-up with a passionate and ambitious team looking to challenge the current supply chain model.”

Xu is excited to see how far the company can go thanks to being part of the Sprout Accelerator and is currently in the research and development stage, aiming to have a scaled-down device available mid-2018. “We believe that Sprout’s core values perfectly align with ours. Their experience with developing world-class agritech companies and their access to global experts and resources will be a great asset to us.”

Lynch can hardly resist singing Micropod’s praised. “Micropod brings together unique design and an engineering solution to create a consumer product that has great potential for growth,’ he says. “People are really interested in health and wellness, they’re interested in making sure that what they’re putting in their bodies is fresh and nutritious. I can see this having the potential to scale really quickly with a big market opportunity in Asia with the rise of urban living.”

Shellfish Technologies

Automating the process of shucking shellfish using plasma, Barry Davison, Richard Barnett, Alan Guard and Gerrard Peterson are the folks behind Shellfish Technologies. Based in Auckland, the company’s tech reduces labour costs and improves margins for shellfish processors, ultimately creating a better premium product suited for the Asian market. The company has a working prototype that works for mussels and oysters – and they’re hoping to adapt it to work on other shellfish, too.

Barnett says the company is looking for funding options for prototyping, to work towards their first round of investment. “We think Sprout will be able to help us to create a plan for moving forward, using their experts to mentor us in meeting deadlines and milestones,” he says. “Sometimes when you have another job alongside your business, a bit of support and assistance is helpful to give you a bit of a push. Sprout can help us to be driven and get resources together.”

PGG Wrightson’s Lynch says including Shellfish Technologies was an easy choice. He says the company “is showcasing some interesting technology. It is leveraging New Zealand’s primary sector excellence by creating a mechanised approach to open and prepare green lipped mussels, traditionally a very manual process so there’s a good opportunity there.”

ABNZ

A development company to extract collagen from cow hide for use in the US wound care market, ABNZ is based in the Auckland suburb of St Heliers Bay. Founders Brendon Green and Rob Powell are starting pilot trials early this year, and plan to have a plant in Hikurangi, Northland fully operational, certified by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and supplying US customers by 2019. Ambitious? Perhaps.

Green says he is excited to see how far the company can go. “Since inception some 18 months ago ABNZ has been on a steady pathway where it has developed strategic partnerships both in NZ and in the US that combines the hardware and software to bring the development to life,” he says. “We are looking forward to applying Sprout’s expertise to the work we have done and using them to challenge and ultimately enhance our execution strategy as we move to the capital raising phase. 

“We have estimated our capital needs will be around $5 million to get to an operational phase at Hikurangi. This money will be used to expand existing buildings, purchase additional process plant, undertake US FDA certifications and obtain market acceptance with customers.”

Like the rest of the Sprout selection committee, Lynch certainly seems to think the company has potential. “ABNZ is leveraging off New Zealand’s primary sector excellence and is doing so in a unique, value-added way which has huge potential in the international healthcare industry,” he says. “The team know where their strengths lie and they know when to ask for help.”

OnSide

A tool designed to track visitors coming and going from rural properties and manage biosecurity and safety risks, Ryan Higgs, Juliet Maclean and Michael Falconer are the team behind OnSide. The company aims to help rural property owners protect their people and businesses by communicating information on risks to visitors and members of their own teams in a simple and helpful way.

OnSide has almost finished developing new technology that makes use of each property’s visitation records to inform farmers and growers if their land and livestock are at risk of a biosecurity “incursion.” The goal is to put farmers and growers in control of what comes on and off their properties – and the company aims to launch globally by the end of the year.

Higgs says the tool, accessed through a mobile and web app, is designed for industries right across the primary sector, covering everything from beef, dairy and poultry, to apple and kiwifruit orchards, apiaries and vineyards. “Take the example of the poultry sector,” he says. “When the farmers clean out their sheds a large number of people come to the property over a couple of days at all hours of the day or night. There are lots of moving parts and it is a challenge to ensure everyone knows what risks to be aware of and how to behave.

“OnSide is designed to connect anyone visiting a property at a given time, provide an easy way to communicate and deliver up-to-date and relevant information on risks. Our goal is to have every rural property in NZ mapped on OnSide and are working closely with our partners in order to achieve this.”

Higgs believes being part of the Sprout Accelerator will be a boost for the company.

“Being chosen is recognition that our strategy is going in the right direction and what we’re doing is adding value to the sector. We’ve got aggressive growth plans for our company and will benefit from being connected with experts through the Sprout Accelerator.”

And what does Lynch say? “OnSide has come up with a software solution to one of the biggest areas of change in New Zealand’s agricultural sector – how to manage risks, particularly biosecurity and safety – and they’re going about it in an innovative way that’s user-centred and absolutely relevant. Their market isn’t a discretionary market, it’s a must-do market, so there’s huge potential to grow.”

Holsim

A company that creates veterinarian mannequin simulators used for training purposes, Hamilton is where the start-up Holsim calls home. Mike Williams and David Johnson run the company, which makes anatomically correct reusable animal mannequins for veterinary students to practice on so they can get proficient in techniques like artificial insemination or birthing before performing on a real animal.

“We initially started working with artificial insemination company LIC but when speaking with Massey University Veterinary School we quickly realised there was a bigger opportunity with the simulators as they were having trouble with the availability of live animals to practise on,”

Williams says.  “The simulators are available 24/7 for students to practise on hundreds of times before they try it on a live animal. They’re more hygienic for a classroom environment and they don’t smell.”

Holsim prototypes are being used by LIC, and the company has started selling offshore through German distribution company Minitube. Williams hopes being part of Sprout will help the business go even further. “We’ve got lots of other prototypes ready to be put into production or to be perfected and put into production. We really want to build Holsim into a grown up company and we’re looking forward to Sprout helping us with marketing and commercialisation, as well as potential investors.”

Lynch has this to say about them: “What’s cool about this business is they’re leveraging the know-how from their design background and extending it into an adjacent industry. It’s a totally new business opportunity. Sprout will help them prove their business model and grow their manufacturing and sales potential.”

Farmote

Christchurch-based Farmote Systems is the brainchild of Richard Barton, Stuart Brown, Ram Manthry and Souless Yu, who hope to make farming methods more cost effective and less time-consuming. The technology measures growth of pasture and forage crops, and combines this with data on soil and environmental conditions allowing farmers to adapt and make decisions based on accurate, real-time data.

Barton says they aim to launch their product and start deliveries throughout winter of this year. “It’s going to be a crucial time for us over the next six months to bring our product to market and the help, advice, and coaching we receive from Sprout will be essential.”

PGG Wrightson’s Lynch says Farmote was a particularly impressive entry, even compared to the high calibre of the other entries received. “The companies we selected showcase unbridled entrepreneurial ambition,” he says. “These are really good examples of young emerging business leaders who are not afraid to throw everything they’ve got at their idea, and these businesses are moving quite fast, which is exciting to see.”

Striplinks

A company that has created a smart automated crop planter, Palmerston North start-up Striplinks was created by Paul Linklater. Basically, Linklater has created a drill/strip tillage machine that is used for row crops, including maize, beans and beetroot. Striplinks works the soil up and incorporates fertilisers as it precision-plants row crops in a single pass – which reduces the overall cost of growing crops.

Like the other Sprout participants, Linklater says he is excited to see how far the company can go. “I’m pretty stoked to be chosen,” he says. “I think it’s good timing as we’ve gone through five prototypes and this season we’re close to having something commercial to sell to the public. My skills are in agronomy and it will be great to have help in development and steer us in the right direction as we take the machine to market and seek investment.”

And Lynch’s thoughts? “Striplinks solves an age-old problem with an innovative engineering approach, allowing farmers to cultivate their land in a more environmentally sustainable way. The precision drill Paul Linklater has designed is a good example of someone working in isolation with a Number 8 wire mentality.

“Now it’s about turning that into a commercial business with all the other considerations that go into that. Sustainable farming practices are becoming vital for the future of farming so there’s a good opportunity there.”

Here's to hoping these companies sprout... er, grow.

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