Kiwi Agritech innovators Darryn Keiller from WayBeyond, Jason Wargent from BioLumic, and Tijs Robinson from Hot Lime Labs, on the ground-breaking science and innovative technology helping to change how we feed the planet.
When you think of New Zealand agriculture you might picture rolling pastures with hundreds of dairy cows contentedly chewing the cud. Or a hill country station dotted with thousands of sheep. Or an orchard in Central Otago selling sweet, juicy stone fruit in the summer sunshine.
The new reality for farming is very different. Farming and food production is transitioning from the outdoors where climate, soil and the grower’s expertise are the keys to productivity, to an indoor model using technology, data and innovation to drive efficiency and sustainability.
Three New Zealand companies — WayBeyond, BioLumic and Hot Lime Labs — are at the cutting edge of this farming revolution; developing innovative, science-based solutions that are changing the way the world farms.
“We’re trying to solve these really gnarly global problems,” is how Darryn Keiller of WayBeyond describes the challenge of working with the horticulture industry to sustainably grow food to feed the world.
It’s clear many different tools and technologies are needed to address these problems. Farmers want profitable businesses; consumers want nutritious, sustainably produced food. Neither are easy to achieve given the growing climate challenges and other problems facing the sector.
“It’s not just about technology; it’s about how we grow our food. We’ve got to change.”— Darryn Keiller, WayBeyond
The Perfect Storm
A number of factors have come together to create a real sense of urgency around how we grow our fresh produce. First, there’s the dietary shift caused by greater awareness of health and wellness. Then, there’s the concern about the environmental impact and carbon footprint of the food industry.
As a result, there’s been a move towards more fruit, vegetables and local produce; a growing demand for plant-based protein; and an explosion in the popularity of superfoods. Take for example, the boom in blueberries. Global production more than doubled between 2010 and 2019, helped in no small part by wellness influencers and the ‘smoothie generation.’
Labour shortages and the brain drain from the industry is another complicating factor. According to a report by Perkins, the average age of a farmer in the United States of America (USA) is 57; in the United Kingdom (UK) it’s 60; and in Japan the average age is 67.
“A lot of these knowledge workers are retiring and taking their know-how with them,” says Keiller. “We’re building bigger farms but we don’t have enough experienced people to manage them.”
The next generation are reluctant to enter the horticulture industry because they’ve seen first hand just how hard and demanding the work is. Innovation in the sector is not about getting rid of people to reduce cost and increase profits. The reality is there aren’t enough skilled people willing to do this kind of work. Innovation is essential to develop knowledge based solutions that don’t depend on the grower having years of experience to make informed decisions.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted another huge problem for the horticulture sector; the overreliance on immigrant labour. Closed borders in New Zealand and global travel restrictions meant fruit and vegetables couldn’t be harvested and the resultant price rises added to inflationary pressures and the cost of living crisis around the globe. Both of these factors have accelerated the interest in automation and innovative technology solutions.
According to Keiller, “the pandemic also revealed problems with the supply chain, our food system and its frailties, As well as the natural challenges the sector faces — including climate change, water shortages, soil degradation and the availability of suitable agricultural land — the pandemic highlighted the urgent need to shift away from more traditional, manual and mechanistic farming methods and embrace emerging technologies.”
“The need for the industry to transform is obvious,” he says. “We have to move towards a digital and data driven model that is less reliant on knowledge workers and manual labour. It’s not just about technology; it’s about how we farm and grow our food. We’ve got to change.”
Waybeyond: The future is now
From its headquarters on Auckland’s North Shore, WayBeyond develops technology solutions for commercial growers around the globe. Solutions that allow growers to do more with less: to harness new technologies, connect disparate systems and leverage plant and environmental data to optimise farming processes.
The WayBeyond story begins in late 2015 when Darryn Keiller had a vision for the future of global agriculture. According to WayBeyond’s website:
‘This vision was Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA), combining advanced plant science and the latest technology with an open ecosystem, to provide high yielding and sustainably produced crops. In January 2016, Darryn pitched his vision at an Agritech investor event. Reaction was ambivalent — few understood what CEA even was.’
Six years later, Keiller is recognised globally as one of the pioneers and thought leaders in the CEA sector which is growing at a rapid rate. Investment in the sector is projected to increase from US$2.4 billion in 2018 to US$18 billion by 2026.
CEA is the umbrella term for different forms of farming that includes indoor or vertical farming, protected cropping (crops that are grown outdoors with some protection against the elements — for example, hoop houses, tunnel houses or canopies) and greenhouses. Vertical farming dominates the headlines when it comes to CEA but greenhouses are the most mature category.
Greenhouses range from low tech to high tech where you have a high degree of control over the environment. In New Zealand, there are somewhere between 180 to 250 hectares of commercial greenhouses. Globally there are 500,000 hectares and the sector is growing by up to 10 percent per year. The size of the prize and the complexity of the challenge attracted Keiller to the industry.
“Our focus is almost completely offshore because that’s where the opportunity is,” he says. “We’ve got people on the ground in key markets — for example, Mexico — and we’ve partnered with some great companies in other countries including Vietnam. We’re working with the large multinational corporate growers (MNCs) and the seed and agrochemical giants because they’re trying to solve the same problems we are. These MNCs are a channel to the customer and they’re hugely influential. WayBeyond is closely aligned with these MNCs around where the industry needs to go and how it’s likely to get there and the potential collaboration with these companies is very exciting.”
From dated to data
Keiller’s introduction to the horticulture sector came in 2014 when he started working with Autogrow, a climate computer and farm automation company that develops systems for small-to-medium fresh produce growers to control the growing environment — heating, cooling and so on.
Initially an investor, he was appointed Autogrow’s CEO in 2016 and saw an opportunity to transform the sector. With an extensive career in the business technology sector behind him, Keiller was surprised at how little innovation there was in horticulture.
“I could see a way to harness technology,” he says. “Using technology to solve problems is something I understand really well. When I first started, growers were essentially farming the same way they had for the last 100 years. There was no significant investment in robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), or data.”
“The thing is, robots are not the answer for many farmers. Apart from the huge conglomerate growers, most operations, in New Zealand and globally, are not set up to optimise that type of advanced technology. They need an alternative way to increase yield and productivity.”
Folium is WayBeyond’s climate monitoring system that analyses the temperature, humidity, radiation and carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in a greenhouse, giving growers a comprehensive overview of the microclimate and optimal growing conditions. Plant sensors monitor the physiological response of the plant to the environment, nutrients and other inputs.
Traditionally, growing decisions were largely based on the farmers’ expertise and intuition. Now, the data supports the grower to make more informed decisions based on science and technology.
“The goal [of growers] is consistent output. Consistency is not just a function of volume, it’s a function of quality.”— Darryn Keiller, WayBeyond
The company’s FarmRoad crop management software enables growers to bring together all of their farming data in one powerful, unified, and easy-to-use platform.
Knowledge is power
“We’re creating a knowledge based system for farmers,” says Keiller. “Our technology is based on a framework developed by the plant research industry: Genetics x Environment x Management (GxExM). Those are the three big levers you can pull to optimise a crop.”
“Currently, there’s no silver bullet for more predictable and stable yields because of the complexity involved in trying to control these different levers. The goal is consistent output. Consistency is not just a function of volume, it’s a function of quality.”
“The big challenge for the horticulture industry is quality control. If you’re growing apples, oranges, kiwifruit, or whatever, the grower wants to be able to regulate outlier events that impact quality. For a premium fruit or vegetable, you get anywhere from three to five times more dollars per kilo than you do for second grade output.”
“We’re moving from gathering and analysing data to prescribing solutions. You can take a photo of a plant and the system will give you feedback on what it needs. Then you will be able to start looking at patterns and predictions to avoid pest outbreaks for example. That will also allow us to advise growers on more sustainable and environmentally friendly practices using data and AI.”
“It’s what distinguishes us from a lot of other companies that are focused on the mechanistic control layer. We’re all about that knowledge-based, AI, learning layer. That’s what we’re placing our bets on because if we get it right it will really change the game.”
“I would never have embarked on this journey if I wasn’t absolutely convinced that there was an opportunity to lead positive change in the food system. There’s still a massive gap between where the industry is today and what it will look like in the very near future but that’s why we’re doing this.”
WayBeyond’s ultimate goal is to develop virtual agronomists using an interactive system that is smarter than the grower. Farmers won’t need to worry about all the different environmental factors and inputs needed to produce high yield, high quality fruit and vegetables because the WayBeyond system will have all the data necessary to optimise production.
“Once you’ve got data from all these farms around the world you can start asking questions like: “Why does this crop on this farm in this country perform better than the same crop in a different environment?” says Keiller. “The data will give you the answer and the optimum conditions necessary to consistently produce high quality fruit and vegetables at the lowest possible cost. The goal is better crop outcomes with less inputs so that farming is more sustainable and efficient.
WayBeyond is not only committed to making individual farmers’ lives easier, the company has a bigger goal in mind. The data from farms around the world will enable growers to tackle the big issues like labour, water and energy optimisation.
Agritech entrepreneurs in New Zealand have to deal with what Keiller calls ‘the tyranny of distance.’
“The other centres of Agritech innovation around the world including Israel, the Netherlands, Belgium and certain parts of the USA, have easy access to corporate growers, willing partners and massive markets,” he says. “They’ve got access to more capital and so when they roll out a new piece of technology it can scale really quickly. Trying to do that from New Zealand, you’re up against it.”
“One of the first challenges is how do you get people to know who you are, what you’re doing and why it matters. To do that, you’ve got to get out into the world. You’ve got to be present at the big trade events. You’ve got to meet customers in the flesh to build strong relationships. You’ve got to visit farms and talk to the growers to learn what their real problems are. You’ve got to hustle. We launched WayBeyond in the pandemic so getting overseas to do that kind of work has been a huge challenge.”
Another challenge is the fact that farming and horticulture are typically conservative, risk averse industries.
“You build something that works, that is innovative and potentially game changing and you think, ‘Well, of course companies will want to buy it,’” says Keillier. “But usually they will want to trial it over an entire season which is a long time. You’re talking nine months to a year before the customer feels confident in what you’re selling before they’re prepared to pay for it. By that stage you’ve invested a lot of money in developing and building the product and you’re burning cash all the time. So you’ve got to be patient and be prepared for it to take longer than you think.”
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BioLumic: Lights, cannabis, action!
Where WayBeyond is focused on bringing growers into the Data Age, BioLumic is shining a light on the untapped potential that already exists in the crops we grow. Their focus is on the plants, not the people who grow the plants.
BioLumic UV technology delivers ultraviolet light to seeds and seedlings to trigger biological mechanisms that increase plant growth, vigour and yields. Their world-first technology is clean and green.
When people think about Agritech they tend to think about shiny, state-of-the art robots and automation that eliminates the human element from farming. BioLumic is bringing it right back to the basics: how can we give plants the best start possible.
“Robots are exciting, but there’s a bunch of other stuff that’s less visible with huge potential to transform the industry,” says Jason Wargent, the founder of BioLumic. “I studied ecology at university and we used to joke about the lopsided focus on ‘charismatic megafauna’ — the large animal species with popular appeal. It’s similar in Agritech. There are definitely some categories that are ‘shinier’ than others.”
“There’s gas in the tank that is untapped and the more ways we can find to unlock the potential in crops, the more sustainable the sector will be.”— Jason Wargent, BioLumic
Dr Jason Wargent (founder, BioLumic) speaks at E Tipu 2021: The Boma NZ Agri Summit on using clean, green UV technology and GM-free tech to boost plant yields.
The company has tested the technology on more than a dozen crops to date including cannabis, corn, canola, lettuce, soybeans and strawberries.
“We can come up with a light recipe to unlock a plant’s potential at different stages, starting with the seed,” says Wargent. “We call it a light recipe because it’s essentially like baking a cake. You need to combine the right ingredients for the magic to happen. We’re not talking about zapping seeds and plants with a laser. It’s more like a smart biological nudge to push a plant down the right path.”
“There’s gas in the tank that is untapped and the more ways we can find to unlock the potential in crops, the more sustainable the sector will be. Growers won’t need to use so many chemicals or GM crops, not that I’m anti either of those. But our focus is on developing cleaner, greener, cost-effective options to get the most out of crops without having to rely on environmentally unfriendly chemicals, or costly, time consuming GM.”
According to Wargent, BioLumic is the only company in the world using UV light in this way.
“I’m tempted to say that’s because it’s bloody hard,” he says. “It’s a paradigm shift. We’re building a whole new biological understanding and biology is hard. But you have to ride the roller coaster if you want to have a real, meaningful impact on the world.”
“Growing up, I was always asking questions, like ‘Where’s the edge of the universe?’ and ‘How do my uncle’s prize-winning pumpkins grow so big,’” says Wargent. “While I was at uni I became increasingly aware of climate change and the depleted ozone layer and this feeling that we don’t have time to mess around. I’ve had that feeling my whole life, a sense of urgency to tackle big issues.”
For his Masters degree, Wargent studied leafy greens to understand how ultraviolet (UV) light affects pests and plants. He learned that plants exposed to UV light are less enticing to pests.
“UV light switches on signalling pathways in plants,” he explains. “This was the first inkling we had that UV light treatment made plants pest-resistant. It stimulated a self-defence response. An added bonus was the fact that the defence compounds or ‘eau de plant’ triggered by UV light attracted the good bugs that attacked the pests that were eating the plants.
Wargent went on to study how UV exposure affected plant disease and the results were equally positive. “There are still things we don’t know but the research showed that plants exposed to UV light were less susceptible to disease,” he says.
Wargent left Britain in 2010 to take up a faculty position at Massey University in Palmerston North, which is where BioLumic was born. By this stage he was a world-leading plant UV photobiologist. The next step was considering how UV photobiology could be harnessed to improve yield and productivity.
Wargent discovered light programming has so many benefits in terms of crop improvement and sustainability, pest and disease defence, stress protection against heat and drought, and nutrient use efficiency.
“While I was at Massey, I saw the opportunity to harness and control UV light in an agricultural system,” he says. “The very first UV light-emitting diodes (LEDs) came on the market around the same time so instead of relying on UV in sunlight, which is not dependable or controllable, we started exploring if LEDs could deliver controlled, accurate UV treatments. We started by treating lettuce seedlings with UV light. The results were impressive and that’s when I realised the commercial potential for the idea.”
“Entrepreneurship is riddled with discomfort because it has to be. This stuff’s not easy. Any innovation by its nature is controversial. If it isn’t controverisal, you’re not being innovative enough. You’re not trying hard enough”.
Jason Wargent, BioLumic
Riding the roller coaster
Wargent describes himself as a scientific entrepreneur and he’s an advocate for academics to engage more with the commercial sector.
“I know many academics are reluctant to go down that road because they invest so much time and effort into climbing the ladder to become a professor or whatever. It’s a risk to jump from academia into industry because it’s so challenging.”
“But if you’re an expert on a particular piece of science with huge commercial potential, to not be intimately involved in its commercialisation is something of a cop out. It’s about having the courage of your convictions, grasping the enormity of the challenge and not being overwhelmed by it.”
With the help of a great team and support from Massey University and outside investors, Wargent has married great science with commercial capability. BioLumic’s largest R&D facility is co-located with Massey where the knowledge and expertise of the students and staff has been a key factor in the evolution of the technology. However, Wargent realised that New Zealand was not the largest scalable market and so BioLumic worked with overseas partners to trial and validate the technology.
“If you want to solve global problems there’s a balancing act between testing the technology in your backyard in New Zealand and being ready to test at scale for larger overseas clients,” he says. “There’s a big difference between ‘we’ve done some tests, so we have a product’, as opposed to, ‘we have a product that is ready to test at scale in many different environments.”
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Hot Lime Labs: Carbon champions
Dr Vlatko Materic is another academic who has turned his expertise into a commercial opportunity, in his case meeting the huge unmet demand for clean carbon dioxide (CO2) in the greenhouse industry. The company he founded, Hot Lime Labs, is developing technology that enables greenhouses to be more productive, efficient and sustainable by providing cheaper, cleaner CO2. It didn’t start out that way. Materic’s focus was originally on how to capture carbon, not create it.
He researched carbon capture systems for thermal power plants for over a decade at the former government research institute, Industrial Research Limited (now Callaghan Innovation). The technology showed great promise but the power plant stakeholders Materic talked to weren’t interested in paying for something with compelling environmental benefits but little or no commercial upside.
Materic was lost in the wilderness trying to figure out what to do next when he stumbled upon the connection between CO2 and greenhouses. He was on a tour of a greenhouse and the owner was talking about how they would love to figure out a way to access more CO2. Sensing an opportunity, Materic jumped on a plane to Europe to research the concept where his hunch was confirmed.
He set up Hot Lime Labs in Wellington in 2017 with support from a number of investors, including Tijs Robinson, now the company’s Chief Growth Officer. Robinson’s task is to engage with customers and investors to finance what is a capital intensive technology.
“It’s hard to be a nimble startup when you’re manufacturing big pieces of equipment worth up to a million dollars,” says Robinson. “We need a lot of capital and New Zealand doesn’t have deep capital reserves. Investors are more likely to put their money into a software company where they might get a return in six months.”
“The other challenge is the depth of talent available. Kiwis are super smart and super innovative but we’ve only got a population of five million people compared to 750 million people in Europe. It’s hard to find skilled talent in our specific area of expertise but we’re lucky to have a business and a vision that gets people excited and we’ve managed to attract amazing staff so far.”
Greening the greenhouses
“We put the green back in greenhouses,” says Robinson. “Green means renewable, so we’re looking at moving CO2 production away from fossil fuels and into green energy. Green also stands for greenbacks or dollars; we make growers more money by reducing their energy costs and increasing yields.”
Currently, most greenhouses use natural gas to generate the CO2 they need to feed their plants. In New Zealand and worldwide, there’s a push to move away from fossil based fuels to more renewable sources. The Russia-Ukraine war has caused massive disruption to the natural gas supply in Europe and led to massive price spikes around the world. Hot Lime Labs solution is to extract CO2 from biomass, including wood and waste materials from greenhouses.
“Growers around the world want to shift away from natural gas but they need an alternative source of CO2,” explains Robinson. “It’s a vital ingredient in growing crops and plants. In a greenhouse you can optimise the temperature and humidity.”
“You can eliminate pests and microdose the plants with the right nutrients. You can control all of the growing variables except CO2 which is often the limiting variable in greenhouses. If plants don’t get enough CO2 they go into stress mode and become less productive. But if growers can access more CO2 they can increase their yield by 20 to 30 percent.”
Surfing the wave
The Hot Lime Labs prototype capture system converts wood waste into clean CO2 because there’s an endless supply of wood chips in New Zealand. The company is also developing their system to use other forms of biomass, including green waste from greenhouses — for example tomato vines.
“We’ve jumped on the wave at the right time,” says Robinson. “The world is looking for clean, green solutions; the climate’s not going to become more predictable; land prices aren’t going down and the demand for fresh fruit and vegetables is not going to reduce. These trends are only going in one direction and CEA and greenhouses are going to be a vital part of the future of food.”
“We’ve got a product that solves a lot of problems. It can be the catalyst or enabler for wholesale energy transition. By 2030, we want half the world’s greenhouses to create their own supply of sustainable CO2 using our technology. We want to make a huge impact on reducing carbon emissions but it has to make economic sense first. That’s our guiding principle. The environmental impacts are a beautiful by-product.”
“…the climate’s not going to become more predictable; land prices aren’t going down and the demand for fresh fruit and vegetables is not going to reduce. These trends are only going in one direction and CEA and greenhouses are going to be a vital part of the future of food.”— Tijs Robinson, Hot Lime Labs
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