Providing the right environment for ag-tech development

Peer Schenk, Nexgen Plants chief technical officer and Lara-Simone Pretorius, Nexgen researcher examine rice at the company's research facilities.
Peer Schenk, Nexgen Plants chief technical officer and Lara-Simone Pretorius, Nexgen researcher examine rice at the company's research facilities.

GOVERNMENTS do not need to provide a sackful of cash for ag-tech start-ups to succeed, but rather can play their role by providing a regulatory framework that can foster innovation.

This is the view of Brian Ruddle, the managing director of Nexgen Plants, a Brisbane-based plant trait business formed in 2013.

The company now is working to commercialise a number of non-GM traits across a range of species, including rice, sorghum and tomatoes.

Mr Ruddle said recent developments with the company’s salt tolerant rice traits showed how a regulatory framework could help a start-up business.

“We have already got US Department of Agriculture (USDA) confirmation that our rice product can be classified as non-genetically modified (non-GM) and therefore does not fall under regulation requirements in the US,” Mr Ruddle said.

“In Australia, we are still waiting for approval from the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) and that delay means we can’t get the product out to market.”

“This is not a criticism of the OGTR process, the fact it is so rigourous is a good thing in that it means consumers can have absolute confidence in the procedure, but by allocating more staff to this type of thing, the government could speed the process up.”

He said there were similar sorts of interventions in other areas of ag-tech that could have the same positive impact.

“It is not about handing businesses pots of money, we just want a streamlined process that allows us to do what we do efficiently.”

Mr Ruddle said it was an exciting time for the ag-tech sector.

“There are a host of applications, whether it be in the data analysis field or plant technology or in systems development, but there is a lot happening in the ag tech space at present.

“Importantly, I think we are starting to see products coming online that meet a grower need, perhaps in the past there have been nifty solutions to problems that aren’t that important to growers.”

“People outside agriculture are also aware of what is happening and are becoming increasingly willing to invest.

“It is not just seed capital dedicated to agriculture projects that is being invested, the broader investment community is really looking at what is happening – they see the potential in agriculture and can see there are a lot of developments in the space.”

However, Mr Ruddle cautioned the battle for capital was ultra-competitive.

“You’ve got finance technology start-ups, there are people in health doing tech stuff, we are competing in an open market and need to have a product that people in the sector will consider worthwhile.”

On his own company’s front, Mr Ruddle said work would continue its work on projects such as the salt tolerant rice, pathogen and virus resistant tomatoes and more aromatic rice, to tap into high value premium rice markets.

“We’re very busy with a number of things are present and we’re confident they will deliver some real benefit to the industry.”

Nexgen Plants emerged from the University of Queensland’s research arm.

The University’s commercialisation company, UniQuest, provided proof-of-concept funding in 2010 and based on the outcome, set up Nexgen Plants in 2013, dedicated to translating the plant breeding research into commercial and societal benefits.