Agriculture is a diverse industry. Although farmers are often viewed as one indistinguishable conglomerate, the truth is that agriculture is done a little differently everywhere. The same could be said for the problems farmers often face. While certain issues like labor shortages, environmental concerns and shrinking profit margins impact everyone, the solutions cannot be one-size-fits-all and succeed.
This, in turn, creates a challenge for the agtech companies attempting to develop robust products and services. These innovators frequently have amazing ideas, but executing them means doing quite a bit of homework. Beyond simply conducting research and talking to farmers, companies have to ask themselves a number of essential questions, such as: What is the right business model for my solution? Which markets will benefit from this product or service? What crop or crops can this machine work with?
Industry experts know that answering these questions and taking an idea—even a really good one—from the conceptual phase all the way to market is a heavy lift. The agROBOfood Project was designed to ensure that no one had to do this work alone. It sought to realize this goal by bringing together a pan-European group of experts that included small and medium-sized enterprises, mechanical engineers, research organizations, universities, farmers, thought leaders, policymakers, and more, and gave them a place to gather online. The result was a professional network with digital innovation hubs that acted as one-stop shops where members could learn, grow and support one another.
“Together, all these digital innovation hubs formed a pan-European network of experts in robotics for agrifood,” says Dr. Kees Lokhorst, a senior scientist specializing in precision livestock farming and robotics and the coordinator for the agROBOfood Project. “This provides an added value because if you, as an individual digital innovation hub, are asked to provide help, you might not have the proper knowledge or the proper answer because you are working, for instance, in Italy, which might have different agricultural sectors in a different stage of development than in Finland, for example.”
“So, to be able to connect to and be a part of that wider pan-European network is good because you are much stronger,” Lokhorst continues. “You have a much better insight into the European market overall. And sometimes the specific expertise a company needed came from another country. If you go to a digital innovation hub in your own neighborhood, you’re limited by the depth of their knowledge. With the network, you get the right support instead of being dependent on whichever door you knock.”
Another benefit of the agROBOfood Project is that the network challenged the members to look at the big picture. As Lokhorst pointed out, the journey from a basic idea to selling a solution in the marketplace tends to be a long one. There’s also a tendency for agtech companies to focus entirely on the technology and lose sight of the end users and their real-world constraints and limitations. Within the agROBOfood ecosystem, companies couldn’t avoid the details.
“They are all working on innovative solutions and were open to receiving support, but what they really liked was that they were stretched,” Lokhorst says. “The European aspect of the network meant that their solution shouldn’t take place in just one place. They had to have a cross-border look and understand the differences between countries. We stretched them in the design phase, the development phase and the market phase, so they wouldn’t lose all their time working on the technology without thinking about their customers, their business model and how to approach the different markets. Then, we had specific services from our network that would help them with each of these things.”
This approach helped a lot of members to advance their projects. In the four-and-a-half years that the agROBOfood Project has been active, the network has been able to mentor and support 20 innovation experiments for companies working on robotic solutions in the agri-food sector. Approximately half of these companies will be a part of agROBOfood’s booth at World FIRA 2024 in February, where they will demonstrate their solutions, make new connections and find support to continue their work. This is a positive next step, as the current iteration of the agROBOfood Project will end at the end of the same month.
Fortunately, the project will continue, albeit a little differently than before. agROBOfood’s founding partners, which together form the agROBOfood Network, will actively maintain the digital innovation hubs and support the members in the coming years. This is the project’s legacy. In the absence of additional funding, however, agROBOfood will require members to invest in the assistance they receive. While Lokhorst believes this transformation might pose some challenges, he knows that the professional network creates a lot of value for those who use it. The partners will find a way forward.
Lokhorst, for his part, is proud of what’s already been created. In the last few years, agROBOfood has been able to develop together with euRobotics a strategic agenda that includes the challenges related to robotics, experiences from a global food perspective, technical issues, ecosystem development information, and marketplace perceptions. The agenda also discusses how these challenges should be worked on and addressed. It’s also open source, so anyone interested in this information can read it and use it.
Ultimately, this is just one small part of what the agROBOfood Project accomplished. While Lokhorst says the exact value can be hard to grasp in terms of numbers, the network was able to increase the opportunities members had to receive support with whatever they were working on. The impact of this assistance will reverberate throughout the industry for years to come.
“Robotics are indeed a part of the future, but there are also a lot of companies that need guidance throughout the process of getting them to market,” Lokhorst says. “Our conclusion is that there is still a need for a dedicated network of experts working on robotics in the agri-food sector. Otherwise, the environment for digitalization can get diluted. With this need in mind, we decided to go for it. It should take at least a couple of years for people to see the benefits of the network, but it is helping to move the industry forward.”