A Trip to the Emerald City
AgFrontier leading the way in Agtech Innovation in Central Queensland.
Ten minutes out of Rockhampton I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere.Ten minutes turned into three hours of flat scrub. Even the town of “Dingo” which I was quite excited to pass through and had visions in my mind of getting a nice espresso coffee was underwhelming, and no espresso coffee.
After three hours I arrived in Emerald. An oasis in the barren and harsh landscape of Central Queensland. Not the Emerald City by any stretch of the imagination but a beautiful town in an otherwise unforgiving country.
As I was to discover. My day would be one of the most exciting days I have spent with a wonderful group of committed people who are working with Producers and Entrepreneurs to develop an Agtech – Eco System 3 hours West of Rockhampton.
The Central Highlands Development Corporation received funding from the Department of Industry Innovation and Science, Incubator Support Grant in late 2018, to establish an Ag tech Incubator Program called AgFrontier.
Like most incubators in regional locations the general feeling at the time the project was established was a mixture of excitement to one of cynicism within the local community. Would it would work?, Would they get enough interest?, Would the quality of ideas be of a high enough quality to justify the cost and effort? After 6 months the answer is a resounding yes to all of these questions.
My first meeting was with the team at CHDC in their offices at Emerald. Sandra Hobbs, Liz Alexander and Sonya Comiskey are three powerful regional women who understand the challenges and complexities of what it takes to develop a start up in Regional Australia. The work they have done to establish this Incubator Program has been outstanding.
I was impressed by a number of aspects of this program.
1) The reach of the program – Applications were received from as far South as Narrabri in the NSW North West, to as far North as Mount Molloy situated North of Cairns. The cohort selected is as varied in the type of companies as they are in geographic location. 45% of Applications were received from remote regional communities, 12% very remote, 22% inner regional, 22% outer regional.
2) The innovation represented in the cohort – there are some ground breaking businesses coming from regional Queensland. Given time they could potentially change the way farming is currently done globally. The first Cohort in the AgFrontier Program includes:
Bos C Agri, Broken Plains Pastoral Co, Data Farming, Farmer Meets Foodie, LYRO, Spotbooked Feedlots, Swarm Farm, Thin and Trim Holdings and Big Sky Technologies.
DATA Farming (founded in Toowoomba) has been recognised as one of the 15 most promising Agtech start ups in Asia Pacific and Swarm Farm who have previously received an Accelerating Commercialisation Grant from the Department of Industry Innovation and Science, are now moving out of the intensive R&D phase of the business into the commercialisation and shipping of the product. With international orders from Brazil.
The start-ups are based out of the CHDC Co-working space in Wally McKenzie House in Emerald which is a quaint building with a state of the art fit out.
3) The collaboration with X-lab and Start Up Catalyst -Rather than build an incubator program from scratch CHDC have partnered with Xlabs as their Incubator Delivery partner and Start Up Catalyst as their partner developing their international missions. These partnerships are working extremely well and have been essential in the acceleration of delivering a quality program. More importantly they are building capacity in the region so that AgFrontier can be sustained for the long term.
4) The cadence of the program – AgFrontier will only run every 2 years and will coincide with some of the biggest Agtech conferences around the world. This demonstrates a real understanding of how to build an ecosystem in Regional Australia and ensure quality over quantity.
The second part of my day involved driving from Emerald about 45 minutes to a remote farm were Swarm Farm are headquartered. Coming into the farm there was a field with a robot weed spraying with better precision than a human being on a tractor ever could.
Another 500m up the road we came to Swarm Farms new temporary headquarters. There I met Andrew and Jocie Bate, the Founders of Swarm Farm.
I was introduced to the team of around 7 of the 15 mechatronic engineering team,employees who were from all over Australia and decided to move to Emerald to be part of this exciting Start- up.
I was taken through the evolution of the robot and discussed some of the challenges that Andrew and Jocie have had to overcome in developing Swarm Farm to what it is today.
Besides the typical challenges associated with founding a start-up, they have had to solve additional challenges entrepreneurs in metro locations don’t have to deal with. One of the biggest, being getting a big enough pipe for data throughput. NBN while available in the region is grossly inadequate for their data requirements (no surprises with that) so they have had to install microwave stations to meet their data needs, which has added an additional $13,000.00 in set up costs plus monthly recurring costs that are far more expensive than their metro counterparts have to incur. This would stop most metro based founders, but for Swarm Farm it was just another obstacle that needed to be solved. It’s this can do attitude that can make Regional Australia a real force to reckon with in the Global Digital Economy.
Swarmfarm also understand the need of a legitimate farming presence – averting the issue of being urban based problems looking for solutions. This has lead Swarm Farm to double down and invest $500k into building a state of the art headquarters for their rapidly expanding business on their farm. This further contributes to regional economic development.
I then spent some time talking with Andrew and Joc about the challenges they face being a Regional start up founder many of which were previously mentioned by the AgFrontier team earlier in the day. These challenges include:
- Dealing with one of the worst droughts in recorded history while building their start-up.
Taking a soil up approach rather than a technology down approach. One of the key differences that set Agtech start ups apart is the need to have dirt on their boots and a legitimate farming presence.
The challenges of poor telecommunications infrastructure and the additional costs of having to solve that problem on their own.
Navigating the complex world of raising capital without support or knowledge of how best to go about it. (It has set them back at least 12 months in scaling their business.)
The isolation of not having like minded innovators and mentors to guide them through the start up process.
These challenges are why Programs like AgFrontier are so important to regional Australia. Australia’s Start-Up Ecosystem and Industry, needs to support Not for Profit Organisations like CHDC to continue to run these programs.
There is proof in Regional Queensland that Australian Producers are innovating and developing world class, game changing companies and ensuring the support is provided long term and the development of a start-up ecosystem in Regional areas such as Emerald are critical to Australia’s economic future.
We need to continue to get behind Regional Australia and encourage more innovation in a sector that Australia can lead the world in.
If you believe you have something to offer the Agfrontier team as they continue to build out the program please do not hesitate to contact Liz or Sonia at CHDC.