In recent years, innovation in the world of agriculture has come through technology startups. They have given rise to new economic models and less intensive or optimised modes of cultivation.
Whether they put their innovations at the service of “producing better”, or facilitate interaction between farmers or with their suppliers and customers, they all have one thing in common. These companies use all types of data (market, meteorological, geographical, agronomic) through cutting-edge technologies to encourage farmers to improve their economic model, their yield or their environmental footprint.
The agricultural sector is one of the main land users in Europe, shaping the landscapes of rural areas. It has various direct and indirect impacts on the environment and is itself dependent on natural resources. Agricultural land plays an important role in land use patterns in the EU. Meadows and cultivated land together account for 39% of Europe’s land cover.
However, current agricultural models have shown their limits in terms of their impact on the environment, biodiversity and production with negative effects such as pollution, biodiversity loss and shrinking yields over time. A growing global population obviously has put the question of sustainability at the centre.
But here is when technologies come into play. In the last years, we have seen the introduction of many new agricultural innovations that will influence the way agriculture management is done. So, what kind of future can we expect for agtech companies in Europe and agriculture at large?
Europe as a driving force
Europe has always been a dominant force in the food and agriculture industry. France, Germany and the Netherlands are the top three food exporters. Europe is also home to leading knowledge institutes in the field of food and agriculture, such as Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands or Rothamsted Research in the UK.
Startup activity in the field of food and agricultural innovation is developing in Europe, fast. Over the last three years, investment activity has increased while many resources to support food and agri-food startups have been developed, including accelerators, incubators such as StartLife, a Netherlands-based incubator for agri food tech startups, government programmes and corporate initiatives.
For instance, The European Commission has its Horizon2020 programme, a €79 billion fund to stimulate early-stage research and innovation across sectors and bring new technologies to market across Europe. The programme requires the public sector and industry, including startups, to work together to make innovation happen. It will soon be followed by Horizon Europe, the next research and innovation framework programme. The Commission’s proposal for Horizon Europe is an ambitious €100 billion research and innovation programme to succeed Horizon 2020.
European food tech startups are also attracting investors, with investments having more than doubled in 2019 to €2.3 billion and some European ‘Next Gen’ startups gaining momentum. Around €5.3 billion has been invested in agtech startups since 2013.
With that being said, what are the main agritech innovations that are currently convincing investors, society and consumers?
Vertical Farming, the practice of growing crops in vertically stacked layers, often incorporated in controlled-environment agriculture systems, has become a high growth, profitable market worth €0.73 billion in Europe in 2020. It is expected to grow to almost €2 billion by 2025. The main forces driving this growing trend are consumer demand for organic food, free from pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It also has the potential to reduce the dependency of countries on food imports and reduce CO2 emission linked to global supply chains.
One of the startups introducing us to delicious ‘vertical farming’ food is French startup Agricool (founded in 2015), who has creating small urban farms using old shipping containers called “cooltainers” to grow strawberries vertically without any pesticides. These cooltainers use LED lights powered by 100% renewable energy and require 90% less water than those grown in the ground. The team raised a €25 million Series A in 2018, and paved the way for newcomers like fast-growing Helsinki-based startup iFarm (founded in 2017), who are providing ‘plug&play’ automated vertical farms for stores, restaurants, warehouses and even homes. It’s likely that we’ll hear about more startups in this sector in the coming years, so keep an eye out.
Virtual reality and AI
Another innovation that has earned its place in the agtech sector is virtual reality. Farmers are already using it to survey the field and determine the quality of the soil, pick up the appropriate crops and use the soil potential for crop production. But what if farmers could also use it for herd management and better dairy production?
That’s what the intelligent, dairy farmers assistant, Ida is about. Built by Dutch company Connecterra (founded in 2014), Ida is an AI software that uses machine learning to help manage dairy cows. They have developed an app that gives users the ability to keep track of individual cows and manage them appropriately, with insights into milk yield, antibiotic plans and biological cycles. They have recently raised €7.8 million to make dairy more productive and sustainable.
While almost all sectors of the economy have to deal with the climate crisis and the issue of sustainability, agriculture and food production is one of the areas at the forefront of rapid and revolutionary change. AI plays an important role, from crop protection, assessing the best time to harvest and monitor herd crop or herd performance, there are many applications. For instance, Lille-based Sencrop (founded in 2016) has become the largest network (over 13,000) of connected ag-weather stations to support farmers with their daily operations.
Weather sensors, predictive softwares, drones scanning entire plots of land…it’s clear that agtech startups can totally re-imagine the future of food production.
With a growing global population expected to reach 9 billion people, we will most likely see a sharp increase in food demand, and technologies can be part of the solution to this challenge. European agtech startups are already at the forefront of harnessing innovation in this sector, and can surely also attend to growing concerns over sustainability and the hygiene of animal agriculture.
To keep your finger on the pulse on this growing sector, stay tuned for our list of hot agtech startups to watch throughout 2020 and beyond.