Blog From Lab to Market: connecting science and business to create Agri-Tech innovations for resilient food systems

The 11th edition of the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit taking place in San Francisco next March 14-15 2023, will bring together founders, corporates, investors and experts from the agri-food sector to discuss and showcase solutions to current global challenges than can be scaled up through public-private partnerships. But why is Agri-Tech innovation so important? And what role does public-private partnership play? 

“We need to invest in innovative technologies to fight against climate change and hunger”. Lately, we’ve been hearing this a lot across the private sector, but few can really grasp how important Agri-Tech innovation is to shift towards more sustainable and resilient food systems. Science-based solutions, data and digital technologies developed by CGIAR and partners can help the agri-food sector turn current global challenges into business opportunities by providing companies with the insights and knowledge needed to face unforeseen climate events, natural disasters, pests and diseases and much more. 

Agri-Tech innovation directly contributes to building a climate-friendly and hunger-free world. In a time where climate change is threatening our ability to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), innovation and technologies in the agri-food sector can increase crop production, counter food loss and waste, reduce the carbon footprint of agricultural production, and adapt agriculture to changing weather patterns. One of the most recent examples of cutting-edge Agri-Tech innovations hosted at the Alliance campus in Palmira is Don Roverto, a crop-roving robot part of Alphabet’s Project Mineral – which helps study crop traits within the world’s largest bean collection hosted at CGIAR’s newest gene bank, Future Seeds. This robot has made possible the impossible. By using digital imaging technology for phenotyping, powered by artificial intelligence (AI), Roverto is not only allowing to measure crop traits at a much higher speed, frequency, and accuracy than before, but it is also giving scientists essential information on how different varieties will cope in different environmental conditions, including higher temperatures and droughts. The project is now going the extra mile, aiming at democratizing access to AI phenotyping technology by introducing a mobile application that smallholders can use to collect information on their crops through their phones. 

The Agri-Tech sector is in steady growth and outperformed other sectors last year. In 2021, more than 50 billion dollars were raised in investment into agri- and food-tech companies and we can expect this number to grow. The reason is simple: companies are hungry for new tools that can help conquer new markets and create differentiation of their offer, reduce production costs, and manage risks in the agri-food sector. Adding to this, consumers demand is rapidly shifting towards healthier and more environmentally sustainable diets, which calls on companies to quickly align with these trends. Finally, international frameworks like the UN Global Compact have created accountability mechanisms that hold the private sector responsible for achieving the SDGs. Today, private sector, including investors, have access to a unique set of innovations, ready to be upscaled and commercialized in the market – from high-yielding crop varieties that better cope with higher temperatures or water scarcity to digital agriculture solutions - that can bring about earnings and do good to people and the planet at the same time, if financed and upscaled. And this is also thanks to public research. 

Collaboration between public research organizations and the private sector is essential to generate locally adapted agri-tech solutions. CGIAR has a long history of working with the private sector, both at national and international level, including farmers’ cooperatives, small and medium-size companies, large companies, impact investors and tech companies. Since 2018, for example, CGIAR has been leading the International Maize Improvement Consortium for Africa, a public-private partnership hosted at CIMMYT, that has helped farmers access high-quality, high-yielding, affordable, and locally adapted maize seed, while creating opportunities for its members to access research services that increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their own breeding programs. Another successful example is the Hybrid Rice Development Consortium, hosted at IRRI, which has been leading the development of resilient and resource efficient rice varieties that are up to market standards. Thanks to this Consortium, member seed companies have gained access to elite genetic material and traits, which has helped to accelerate the development and dissemination of new products to farmers. 

Looking ahead. Building on past successes and looking at strengthening collaboration with private sector (including finance and insurance), CGIAR has recently set up the Private Partnerships for Impact (“PP4I” in short) unit, a new office dedicated to public-private partnerships. PP4I started to engage with the innovation ecosystem through the Accelerate for Impact Platform (A4IP), a venture space aimed at co-designing, accelerating and funding science-driven technologies to address food systems’ challenges. A4IP aims to bring cutting-edge research and ideas from young innovators from lab to market and raise investment to scale them up. Recently, the program ran the AgriTech4Morocco Innovation Challenge, a competition of disruptive Agri-Tech solutions to support Morocco’s Generation Green 2020-2030 Strategy. Organized in partnership with the local accelerator IMPACT Lab, the World Bank Group, the Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture, and GIZ among others, the initiative selected 10 young innovators and enrolled them in a custom acceleration program to upscale their solutions. The Accelerate for Impact Platform is also partnering with Rockstart, an accelerator-Venture Fund, to launch an Investor Readiness Program, which aims to scale up a first cohort of 10 existing CGIAR innovations with clear market potential through mentorship and resource mobilization support. 

As the 11th World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit takes place in San Francisco in these days, CGIAR and partners are already starting to prepare for the London edition in September, gathering innovations across the house that can be scaled up with private sector and financial support. Private-public partnerships are clearly a keyway to develop cutting-edge innovation adapted to the local context. Recognizing this, CGIAR is stepping up efforts to strengthen its ties with the private sector and make a bigger impact on the ground. Our hope is to bring to London CGIAR’s new vision for partnerships with private sector and farmers, one that takes a horizontal approach founded on sharing risks, knowledge, and rewards.  

Notes: Private companies interested in exploring collaboration with CGIAR can contact the newly formed Private Partnerships for Impact (PP4I) team, part of the CGIAR Partnerships & Advocacy unit (Remy Bitoun, Senior Director, Private Partnerships Unit, CGIAR; email: [email protected]).