ONE OF the frequent laments from the Australian ag sector in regards to research and development (R&D) is a lack of scale hampering investment.
However, a Middle Eastern nation is making a mockery of the school of thought you need a giant agriculture industry behind you to generate the investment needed to have a cutting edge R&D sector.
Karen Ross, Elders general manager, innovation, digital and brand recently toured Israel as part of a visit organised by the Australian-Israeli Chamber of Commerce and was blown away by the output in terms of agricultural R&D start-ups, as part of a broad focus on R&D across all industries.
“Israel is a tiny nation in terms of population, just 8.7 million but they have this environment that really fosters innovation,” Ms Ross said.
She said the Israeli government played a key role in fostering this creativity, with a $500 million R&D program just to fund start-ups.
Ms Ross said it was not just the finance for R&D that the Israeli government has nailed, but the system surrounding the projects that was working.
“The Israeli government’s ethos is that if developers don’t succeed at first, then they’ve learned something from that process and they should apply again for funding.
“That’s probably a bit different to Australia where if you’ve failed it can be harder to get a second shot at it.”
Another key difference to R&D in Australia is the clear delineation in roles.
“There is a very clear idea of what a business incubator is and what a business accelerator is in Israel, whereas here those lines may be more blurry.
“This precise vision of who does what seems to be helping them get projects up and running, it is good for companies who are putting up the money, like an Elders, that they know exactly what they are buying into, which helps generate investment.”
“Investors know whether they are buying a business at the edge of commercialization or whether they are buying an idea and the can assess the different levels of support and equity it requires.”
From the developers’ perspective there are processes in place to ensure they are rewarded.
“If you develop an innovation the lead researcher is generally offered an equity stake in the product they help develop,” Ms Ross said.
She said the Israeli focus on R&D had tangible benefits.
“You’ve got 400 plus ag-tech start-ups doing business in Israel, at least half of those only started in the past couple of years and there’s some really cool technology coming out of it.”
She said Israel was an unlikely hotbed of ag innovation.
“You look at the landscape, it’s a small country in a semi-arid part of the world with virtually no arable land.
“There is also hardly any water, yet through ag-tech cutting water use they are now an exporter of water to neighbouring nations.”
She said the Israeli climate meant there were a lot of similarities that can be taken back to Australia.
“There are great parallels, especially with somewhere like South Australia where I am based, how do we use our water wisely, there is some really exciting work on drip irrigation in Israel that could definitely have application in Aussie horticulture and viticulture.”
But in terms of the wow factor nothing competes with the Israeli business that has set up literally irrigation crops out of thin air.
The technology, dubbed condensation irrigation, allows plants to be watered from the condensation of humidity in the air.
“It takes water-saving to the next level,” Ms Ross said.
Aside from water-saving, Ms Ross said she was also interested in the use of agri-data, not just in terms of record keeping but linking it with a full suite of services and support to get the most out of information gathered.
Importantly, Ms Ross said the success stories in Israel were not a result of an inherently better research sector.
“There is not a higher rate of success per project, it is a matter of having more irons in the fire, the more projects, the more chance of success.”