John Hamer, Investment Director, Monsanto Growth Ventures
What role do you think advanced agricultural technologies have in achieving world food security?
Farmers and land managers can make use of modern farming technologies to dramatically improve
food production and land value. Everything about the use of data and analytical systems (e.g. the cloud, mobility, IOT) can be used to inform decision making, make better use of land. Managers can develop long term plans for improving land value through sustainable management of inputs, soil quality and harvest potential.
What is the potential of big data in agriculture and how could the future look?
The potential is significant, particularly in areas of the world where there is facile access to large quantities of historical yield, weather, water, topography and soil data to develop decision algorithms and support optimization of various models. In other parts of the world, we will need to rely on advancing remote sensing technologies to collect data. One can imagine that there would be a future where every aspect of land management and farming operations are informed through real- time data collection, analytics and decision support tools. All of this could roll up under a modeling scenario that optimizes farm inputs and outputs and improves land management value over the long-term.
What is the single most important thing that a governments can do to stimulate the adoption of advanced agricultural technologies?
First, Governments need to play a role in educating the broader public about food, land and resource management. Unnecessary regulation, mis-information campaigns and pastoral idealism could hamper the advancement of needed technologies. Governments should also endeavour to have policies and laws that don’t just support incumbents at the expense of new innovators. The playing field should be level. Finally, science must be at the root of all regulatory policy regarding food production and land.
In your opinion what is the biggest challenge in facing agriculture technology companies in taking their solutions to market?
For some seed technology companies, the maturity of the industry (5-8 major players) and long regulatory paths, particularly for biotech traits is certainly an encumbrance. However some companies have done well through partnering like Evogene, Keygene, and Chromatin. Another challenge can be the cyclical nature of the market. Other challenges include price discovery and value sharing. Companies need to understand what value they are bringing to the growers, formulator/processors or end users and develop an approach to capturing a portion of that value.
Are there any sectors within agriculture where you would like to see more innovation? In your opinion what’s ripe for disruption?
It’s hard to think of an area where we are lacking innovation at the moment. But a few areas could use more. The manufacturing of crop inputs might be one area. We sell bags of seeds/chemicals/fertilizer in prescribed weights and volumes—why don’t we make products just in time, specifically tailored for various fields?
Which types of agri-technologies are currently generating the most interest amongst the investment community?
We are seeing a lot of interest in software analytics and remote monitoring. Microbial seed treatments are also interesting.
In your view, which countries/regions are poised to transform into hubs for agricultural innovation? Where do you see the next wave of new technologies emerging?
The central valley of California and Israel are two areas of intense speeds of innovation. Both regions grow high value crops for export markets.
How do you identify which start-up companies to invest in?
We use a format typical of most VCs—size of the immediate and future addressable market, quality of the team, potential of the technology to be disruptive.
If you had to name a company as “one to watch” over the next 12 months, who would it be?
Monsanto—what else should I say!!