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Innovation

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Edinburgh based start-up leads the way in grain monitoring

A cutting-edge grain analysis project has won £366,000 in innovation funding under the Defra Farming Innovation Programme from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Crover is an Edinburgh-based company creating robotic grain storage solutions for improved and automated monitoring and management of grains.

Cereal grains are the basis of staple food, yet post-harvest losses during long-term storage are exceptionally high, above 20% in the UK and worldwide. Pests are to blame, with grain moisture content and temperature being the most significant factors. Cereal storage sites such as farms, grain merchants, millers, and breweries, experience these challenges, which have high-cost implications in terms of lost revenue and costs to rectify.

Crover is developing a novel non-contact sensor for non-contact grain analysis able to detect specific molecular compounds within a radius of up to a few tens of centimetres, based on a novel miniaturised sensing technology. Crover aims to integrate this sensor onto their CROVER robot, the world’s first ‘underground drone’, which swims through grain bulks, and which is at the core of the CROVER autonomous Grain Storage Management system.

Lorenzo Conti, Founder and Managing Director of Crover says:

“At the moment the only grain bulk parameters that can be measured directly in-situ via sensors, without requiring a sample to be collected, are temperature, humidity/moisture and CO2 – we go into this project with the big ambition to expand that range significantly and to take measurements that are currently only possible in the lab into the grain bulk, while implementing that into the CROVER robot and system – think superman partners with batman, in a grain monitoring sense.”

Down the line, the result of this project is expected to allow for the expansion of the parameters that Crover will be able to measure, including specific nutrient measurements, insect presence and species identification aligned with different customer requirements. The project is being worked on in partnership with Agri-EPI Centre and Dyson Farming (formerly known as Beeswax).

“Having worked with the Agri-EPI Centre on other projects before, they are by now our go-to place for knowledge exchange, stakeholder engagement, events and project management in the UK. The project further strengthens the collaboration between our two entities.”

Duncan Ross, Business Development Manager (Crops) at Agri-EPI Centre explains:

“Working with Crover has shown how Agri-EPI Centre can support with the development of innovative, disruptive technologies. The Crover team has expanded both their ambition and number of employees as they’ve developed their robot, from idea formation to on-farm testing towards the creation of a commercial product that will tackle waste issues in bulk grain storage.

Ed Ford, Technical Agronomist at Dyson Farming says:

“We are excited to working with Crover on this project. The potential for this technology is twofold when it comes to gathering sampling parameters instore. Not only will it allow farmers to understand the quality and conditions of the grains they have but will also help improve health and safety around grain sampling”

The project aims to address the arable sector and wholegrain value chain’s need for novel and alternative crop protection solutions, in support of the current push toward holistic Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approaches.

Small family business becomes market leader in hoof health

An innovative project leading the way in hoof health has won nearly £250,000 in innovation funding.

Hoofcount is a 10-year-old family business, focusing on how to keep cows’ hoofs clean and healthy. Their project is aimed at using vision to develop an early detection lameness monitoring system. It has won funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), part of Defra’s Farming Innovation Programme, for feasibility studies combining innovation with research and collaboration with farmers and growers.

Hoof health is a prevalent issue in agriculture, particularly in the dairy industry, as it is one of the main factors leading to poor milk production. Dairy cows are susceptible to a range of hoof issues including Digital dermatitis, sole ulcers, white line disease and overgrown hooves. These often show a visual change in the underside and back of the hoof. These issues can develop initially without the animal showing visual signs in its gait.

John Hardiman, Software Engineer at Hoofcount explained:

“Lameness is a key issue in dairy herds, with conservative estimates of 25% of dairy cattle suffering from lameness and each lame cow costing more than £300 in loss of production and treatment. The Hoofcount footbath is trusted and recommended by farmers, vets and hoof trimmers internationally as they are seeing a continuous fall in lameness on farms using the Hoofcount Automatic Footbath.”

Detecting and treating these issues at an early stage is beneficial to the animal in keeping the hooves healthy and preventing severe lameness which leads to a lower production, increased veterinary and treatment costs, reduced animal welfare, a higher Carbon footprint, and many other issues. Developing a system that can visualise these changes daily and detect any potential issues early will be of huge benefit to the national herd. Utilising computer vision and machine learning is Hoofcount’s preferred method for monitoring and detecting these issues.

“Collaboration with farmers is core to Hoofcount’s continued innovation and leading reputation in reliable foot-bathing for herd hoof health. Agri-EPI Centre has bolstered our collaboration, with the introduction of The Centre for Machine Vision (CMV) at University of the West of England Bristol and successful application for Innovate UK funding (IUK). CMV has a track record of successful computer vision within agriculture. Agri-EPI has been instrumental in the project funding application and continues to support the project organisation with its network of research farms.”

“As with our automatic footbaths, we know that we will never get rid of Digital dermatitis and hoof health issues completely, however we want to do everything we can to minimise the effects of them and reduce the spread.”

Duncan Forbes, Head of Dairy at Agri-EPI Centre said:

“This is a great example of the sort of practical collaborations we seek to create, bringing together innovative companies like Hoofcount with leading research experts like the team at CMV at UWE Bristol. Early detection of lameness is vital to meeting the challenge of delivering a substantial reduction in lameness prevalence in dairy herds. UK milk producers will very much welcome the benefits to cow welfare and cost reduction that this emerging technical solution will deliver.”

Aquaculture Innovation Centre opens on Scotland’s Argyll coast

An array of aquaculture specialists, academics and industry representatives gathered at Loch Fyne on Scotland’s Argyll coast yesterday, 15th June, to witness the formal opening of Agri-EPI Centre’s new Marine Aquaculture Innovation Centre (MAIC).

 

Guests of the launch event were welcomed by Managing Director of Otter Ferry Seafish, Alastair Barge, and CEO of Agri-EPI Centre, Dave Ross, who introduced the new centre.

 

“The facility is scaled and configured to bridge gaps identified by industry, including testing of instrumentation and validation of operational welfare indicators, and other trials, under controlled conditions with near market-sized farmed fish. The proposed investment is industry led – responding to industry demand and taking design and direction from that demand.”

 

Guests enjoyed a tour of the facilities, a networking lunch, and the witnessing of the formal opening of the centre.

 

In conjunction with independent aquaculture company, Otter Ferry Seafish (OFS) – and jointly funded by Innovate UK and Agri-EPI Centre – the Marine Aquaculture Innovation Centre offers fully serviced research and development facilities to aquaculture producers and technology providers and is aimed at helping to drive sustainable solutions and improve efficiency for the UK aquaculture industry.

 

Alastair Barge, Managing Director of Otter Ferry Seafish, explained:

“Research has been at the heart of the company since day one, but our recent collaboration with Agri-EPI has added new impact and a new species in salmon. We have a great mix of industry and research, and together we can forge the way as innovators in sustainable aquaculture.”

 

Agri-EPI Centre has over 220 industry focused stakeholder members spanning retailers, supply chain associations, and high-tech companies, large and small, and this collaboration helps drive innovation and solutions within the sector.

 

“Enabling assets such as the new Marine Aquaculture Innovation Centre provide industry and academia with bespoke industry-focused facilities to perform development testing, validation and solution-finding.”

 

If you would like more information about Agri-EPI Centre, please visit: https://twc.agri-epicentre.com/

New innovation centre unlocks aquaculture opportunities

Agri-EPI Centre’s latest innovation hub at Loch Fyne on Scotland’s Argyll coast will help to drive sustainable solutions and improve efficiency for the UK aquaculture industry.

In partnership with independent aquaculture company, Otter Ferry Seafish (OFS) – and jointly funded by Innovate UK and Agri-EPI Centre – the Marine Aquaculture and Innovation Centre (MAIC) offers fully serviced research and development facilities to aquaculture producers and technology providers.

For further information on the MAIC facility or to enquire about research collaboration please contact Charlie Bowyer.

charlie.bowyer@agri-epicentre.com

“We’ve been involved in aquaculture innovation and new species development since 1968,” says Alastair Barge, Managing Director at OFS.

“For this initiative, we did market research to see what the sector needed to deliver sustainable solutions – R&D requires facilities, and most businesses can’t afford to run their own research stations 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”

The MAIC comprises a series of replicated small and large land-based tanks, located indoors under programmable lighting.

“The tanks have water capacities of two cubic metres and 20m3, respectively. In the 12 smaller tanks we can test four different regimes or diets, in triplicate, as commonly required for scientific evaluation,” Mr Barge explains. “In the six larger tanks, we can rear salmon and other farmed species to near-harvest weight.”

The tanks have a water flow-through system, incorporating pre-treatment using sand filtration and UV sterilisation. They are fitted with particle separators to measure uneaten food and fish waste.

Eduardo Jimenez, OFS’s Research and Development Manager, says:

“Land-based tanks offer greater environmental control than cages or other sea-based growing systems, improving the reliability of trials data. Interference from environmental factors is minimised because we can control and replicate conditions like lighting, water exchange rate, and oxygen levels.”

And the first trials are already under way.

“At the moment we are running a benchmarking feed trial for a commercial client comparing three diets, to assess which is best in terms of fish growth and feed conversion efficiency.”

As well as helping to improve diets and treatments for farmed fish and shellfish, the MAIC is well suited for evaluating different strains of commercial farmed species and for developing rearing methods for up-and-coming species like seaweeds. It also provides a platform for validating new aquaculture technologies for counting and observing livestock and monitoring water quality.

“This is a great new resource supporting UK aquaculture innovation and we’re going to keep improving the facilities, bringing in new species and trials,” says Dr Jimenez.

Improving aquaculture sustainability is at the core of the partnership and the MAIC.

“I think this centre can be a model for innovation, all with a background of sustainability,” adds Mr Barge.

Lisa Williams, Director of Business Development at Agri-EPI, is excited about the range of R&D projects which the centre can help with.

“It’s one of a kind in the UK. The centre will facilitate a range of trial work that will enable us to really look at efficiencies within the sector. It also opens the opportunity to carry out near-market trials, as well as linking into the long-term sustainability of the sector and wider ecosystem within that supply chain.”

“The partnership is a perfect combination to drive forward change and is a valuable resource to aquaculture businesses that want to initiate and progress R&D projects. If any business is interested in undertaking a project, then we encourage them to get in touch.”

 

Get inventive and take control of tax

The agricultural sector is taking undeniable initiative when it comes to innovation. But many farming and agri-businesses are missing out on a big opportunity to claim tax relief.

R&D is not all white lab coats and PhDs; farmers often carry out activities that are claimable under the R&D Tax Credit Scheme – a retrospective exercise which offers up to 33% of R&D costs as a tax credit.

Financial consultancy Leyton is working with agri-tech enablers, Agri-EPI, to make more UK farmers aware of the scheme and its potential to provide important cashflow, while aiding the improvement of operational efficiencies.

“The scheme can be applicable to work that is happening on farms day to day – but there is huge value underclaimed within agriculture because farmers don’t classify what they are doing as R&D and don’t fully understand their eligibility,” says George Stuffins, Business Development Manager at Leyton.

Broadly speaking, R&D occurs when farmers make improvements based on three key questions: How do they increase the quality of produce? How do they increase yield? And how do they become more sustainable?

Examples range from poultry farmers experimenting with feeding times and lighting concentrations to improve feed conversion or growth rates, to arable farms engineering weed control equipment to reduce reliance on chemicals and improve soil biology. Rewardable R&D is within the realms of every farm business and can be very lucrative, he says.

“Failed projects can qualify too, not everything goes right first time, and in HMRC’s eyes such work can still add significant value to knowledge in the sector.”

So how do farm businesses qualify for R&D tax credits?

Matilda Hayward, senior R&D technical consultant at Leyton, says that conversations with prospective applicants begin on farm with the aforementioned three key questions.

“It drives the project and outlines the business’ main goals, then looks at what R&D is already occurring on the farm and what other R&D strategies could be explored to capitalise on the R&D tax credit scheme.”

Criteria include:

  1. It must seek a scientific or technological advancement,
  2. It must be meeting a scientific or technological challenge to get the results or determine unfeasibility,
  3. It must show a systematic approach and be your own activity.

Eligibility is not exclusive to large scale businesses – it is entirely based on a business’ project meeting the key criteria – nor is there a maximum number of project claims.

So what can farm businesses claim?

As a retrospective scheme, applicants claim back money spent on innovative projects over the past two years at the end of a financial year.

The bulk of an R&D claim covers PAYE salaries but there is a rate for contracted staff like seasonal workers and consultants. A portion of utility costs are also claimable – albeit quite nominal, as are software licences.

However, high value claims come from projects using a lot of consumables like feed, medicines and artificial insemination products and services.

“The claim could also include a proportion of costs in relation to mortality within the R&D trial,” says Dr Hayward.

Businesses can’t claim capital costs under the scheme – but there are still opportunities under the Capital Allowance Scheme and through grants, says Mr Stuffins.

How the tax benefit is received depends on tax position as well as the amount the business is claiming back. But a misconception is that businesses in a loss-making position can’t claim.

“Businesses in this position can actually claim for a higher percentage of qualifying expenditure as cash,” he explains.

Looking forward, if a business decides to move ahead, then they need to treat it like an R&D project, says Dr Hayward.

She recommends keeping all the project details and data in one place, including trial results and analysis, when the trials took place, who was involved and the time spent on each activity.

“HMRC now looks for better audit trails so it’s about making sure it’s documented in the right way to make the most of tax credits,” she says. “And it also benefits the business because it can better justify claimed costs.”

Farmers often have a bank of information that can be used, like health monitoring, soil analysis, and data from audits and surveys.

“A consultant can help a business collate the retrospective data for work they didn’t even consider as an R&D project, as well as the best way to collect and collate data going forwards,” she explains.

“Farmers can claim directly. But involving a consultant takes the pressure off the farmer and gives them the security that the claim is compliant and includes all possible business improvements for maximum return.”

Investbridge Capital launches specialised Agricultural Technologies fund

Agri-EPI member, Investbridge Capital, has launched a specialised Agricultural Technologies (AgTech) fund with the goal of creating a market leading VC fund investing in the most scalable and innovative technology companies revolutionising global food production.

Unity Technologies Founder, Nicholas Francis, has made a career predicting how software will develop in the face of massive hardware and societal changes and sees another tremendous investment opportunity in AgTech. To this end, he has committed $10 million as a cornerstone investor. Working alongside the Investbridge team, Francis will use his experience in entrepreneurialism, VC and the global tech market to help the portfolio companies flourish and reach their full potential, and deliver exceptional outcomes for investors.

Agriculture is the least technologically developed of any major industry, whilst food production needs to advance at a much faster pace than it has over the past 100 years. A rising population, worldwide food and labor shortages, and supply chain issues, are all presenting significant challenges for agriculture. By 2050, it’s estimated that the earth’s population will reach nine billion and global food production will need to jump by 70%-100% to feed everyone.*

Innovation will be the key to addressing these issues, and with the farming sector already seeing an influx of start-ups looking to use data analysis and technology such as robotics and AI to improve processes, the AgTech market is primed for significant growth and subsequent investment returns.

Nicholas Francis, AgTech Investment Committee Member, said: “We are standing at the crossroads of two megatrends. On one hand, software is eating the world, and agriculture is one of the last hold-outs. On the other hand, there is a global push to mitigate the climate impact of one of the most important industries of our planet, an industry which contributes almost a quarter of the world’s greenhouse emissions. Over the next decade, we will see tremendous investment influx into the sector, making this the perfect time to help these nascent companies grow.

“Climate change is perhaps humanity’s biggest challenge and the stakes are enormous. Thankfully throughout our history, humanity has always risen to such challenges and we are proud to be at the forefront of this transition. We are not alone, agricultural stakeholders and climate investors are realising the scale of the challenges — and are looking to technologies from end to end, in order to improve their production.”

Oliver Hogg, CEO, Investbridge Capital, commented: “Welcoming Nicholas to the team marks a significant new venture for us. With his unrivalled experience in the tech market and his leadership of our new fund, we are extremely well-positioned to capitalise on the investment opportunities within AgTech. I look forward to working closely with Nicholas as we grow our offering in this space.”  

The AgTech market has already grown rapidly in recent years. The sector experienced a six-fold increase in deal flow between 2012-2018 and a 370% increase in investments from 2013 to 2019. In 2020 alone, it raised over $26 billion in investments, compared to around $12 billion just three years prior. **

Alongside Francis, the wider team includes Keith Norman, who brings 40 years’ experience in agriculture and AgTech, and Kelvin Au, a VC investor with 15 years’ experience in tech investment and managing high-growth operations.

Investbridge Capital is a leading alternative asset manager that specialises in real estate, private credit and venture capital. Founded in 2004, the company has offices in Dubai and London and has advised and transacted on deals in excess of USD 5billion.

“At the Agri-EPI Centre, our mission is to bridge the gap between agri-tech innovators, academics and farmers to drive sustainable and profitable food supply chain solutions. The launch of this new fund is a phenomenal opportunity for our members and the wider agri-tech startup community in the UK to scale and help us together to achieve our mission.” Lisa Williams, Director of Business Development, Agri-EPI Centre

For further information on the fund and Agri-EPI’s membership network and Agri-Tech innovation solutions contact the team at team@agri-epicentre.com

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