Supercharging innovation: a new approach to old ways in New Zealand

By Jo Mazzocchi

Innovation can be accelerated, according to David Downs, this is one of the many things that COVID-19 has taught us.

David Downs, General Manager at New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (NZTE), works with the technology sector to help fast-growing tech companies scale internationally. He’s been tasked with supercharging the New Zealand agritech sector, working in close collaboration with industry. One of the lessons for the sector in 2020 is that change can happen when you least expect it.

“In New Zealand, it was fascinating to see how quickly we were able to innovate in education, healthcare and business,” said David.

“Things that would normally take months were able to be done in days. I hope we remember that we can move quickly when we need to.”

And moving quickly is something David is very used to. Before his current role, he spent thirteen years at Microsoft in New Zealand and as Regional Director for South East Asia.

There are clear lessons he admits for those wanting growth, post-COVID-19.

“Collaboration. I know it’s a cliché, but when we look at the success stories, it’s coming from companies that can work with others; investors, government, research organisations and other ‘go to market’ partners,” said David.

“A number of our agritech companies have been successful, for example the Gallagher Group, who has been a leader in the sector for many years. Or Robotics Plus, who’ve been very successful in securing investment from Yamaha ventures.”

“We are very keen to pursue more joint activity with Australia,” he added.

His opinions are regularly sought and as a speaker at this year’s evokeAG. attendees wanted to know more about the levers driving innovation.

“People were really interested to hear about how the New Zealand government is working with industry in collaboration. We worked very closely together to create a strategy for New Zealand in the agritech space. Delegates were keen to hear more about how we’d managed to do that,” said David.

That strategy has just been launched and it’s called the Agritech industry transformation plan but don’t let its plain name fool you.

It’s rich in bold ideas, like the innovative animal management system that harnesses natural intelligence, Halter.

Halter features a GPS-enabled, solar-powered cow collar that uses sound stimuli to gently direct livestock on-farm and keep them away from waterways or hazards, all controlled via smartphone or tablet. The system lets farmers shift livestock remotely or bring them in for milking without even stepping outside. It also tracks individual feed intake and gives early alerts for potential health concerns – all adding up to time and labour savings, healthier animals, and the potential to transform pastoral livestock farming.

Then there’s precision seafood harvesting and the new approach to an old way of fishing. With this technology fish are contained and swim comfortably underwater inside a large flexible PVC liner, where the correct size and species can be selected before being brought on-board the fishing vessel. This new way of seafood harvesting is the result of a Primary Growth Partnership programme between the Ministry for Primary Industries, Sealord Group, and Moana New Zealand & Sanford Ltd.

Innovation on its own though is not enough. The New Zealand agritech story has been greatly assisted by ‘Powered by Place’ which tracks the backstory.

“The idea behind ‘Powered by Place’ is that environment and heritage has brought about a sense of innovation, and a huge variety of different ideas based on the variety of growing conditions and farming systems,” said David.

“The design of the ‘Powered by Place’ messaging is that we use it as an ‘umbrella’ across the messages that companies use. A strong message, based on facts and data, with some good storytelling, told consistently – that’s the plan.”

So, what does the future of farming innovation look like?

“For New Zealand, it will be about how we take our technology from our traditional areas of strength such as agriculture and transfer those lessons into other adjacent areas such as hort,” said David.

“One example is the work we are doing in horticultural robotics. We also need to look at the deep tech innovations, embracing alternative proteins, vertical farming etc, which are moving very quickly globally,” said David.

“We will also need to consider nutrient and water management, and the impact of environmental change.”

Next step will be its delivery to a world that is hungry for change.

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