A Conversation with...
Former John Innes Centre scientist Dr Belinda Clarke has been Director at AgritechE since its launch in 2014. Originally trained as a plant scientist, Dr Clarke has worked for a number of innovation-driven organisations, including Innovate UK. Here she tells CHAP about her passion for UK agriculture and innovation
How do you generally introduce yourself and the work you do?
I usually start by saying I’m part of the team that has built Agri-TechE (from the network formerly known as Agri-Tech East). I may be nominally the ‘Director’ but one of the best parts of my job is working alongside my amazing colleagues.
I then explain that we have built an agri-tech ‘innovation ecosystem’ which brings together farmers and growers with tech developers and researchers. Investors, entrepreneurs and technical and professional service providers are also a key part of the network.
Our aim is to help inform and accelerate the journey of new innovations into the field. Or livestock herd/ flock. Or glasshouse. Or polytunnel. Or insect house (then I usually shut up as I see people start to glaze over!).
What does a typical day look like for you and what are you currently working on?
Like a lot of people, I don’t really have typical days. But making connections for and between members, planning future events and activities, and thinking about strategy to grow the business is key. Currently we are working our on GROW agri-tech business plan competition to help identify some new early stage ventures who are keen to bring innovative ideas to the market. We have harnessed the expertise of our Professional Service Provider members who are generously offering Prizes to the winner(s) such as IP advice, office / lab accommodation, PR and comms support and insights into how to build a winning agri-tech team.
A typical day also inevitably involves chocolate consumption of some sort.
How does your job as Director of AgriTechE differ from previous roles at Innovate UK and ideaSpace?
Well, running a business rather than having one’s job supported through public funding brings a very different mindset. We receive no core public funding, so we earn revenues through member subscriptions, event income and sponsorship. Also, we are a tiny team – just 4.5 of us – whereas obviously Innovate UK was a much bigger entity. It was a huge privilege to work at Innovate UK, but I am loving being part of a small team where we can make quick decisions and adapt to our members’ needs or do new and exciting things – that’s much harder in a larger public sector organization.
Plus, I didn’t used to carry my farm boots in my car when I was entirely office based. There wasn’t much need for a high-vis jacket either.
What prompted the move/How did you make the transition?
I have been preparing for this job for pretty much my whole career! I left school after A Levels and became a lab technician at the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich. We worked on take-all disease of wheat and black rot disease of brassicas and I was inspired by the potential to bring farmers and researchers together. I did a Nuffield Scholarship on this topic which supported my hypothesis that both communities are massive innovators and bringing them together would create something special. The opportunity to build a new entity – which we initially called Agri-Tech East – was an opportunity not to be missed!
What aspect of your job do you find most challenging? And the most rewarding?
Starting with the positive – I could go on all day about the most rewarding bits! Seeing innovations making a difference in a farm setting is really exciting, I love that. Our 250-odd members are also just the most innovative and forward-thinking group you can imagine. They inspire me every day.
The most challenging – as we have grown as an organisation I have had to get used to personally not knowing absolutely everything about everything! When you start a business from scratch you know it all inside out. That isn’t possible as you scale up and expand, so you have to let go and empower others to run with things. I’m sure my team would also point out how we are all challenged by my (apparent) lack of IT proficiency.
What do you think will be the biggest change for farmers over the next few years?
Undoubtedly, we will see some restructuring of the industry in the UK as the policies from the Agriculture Bill start to make an impact on farm. Who knows what the post-Covid-19 world will look like in terms of citizens’ attitudes to food production, so that’s a new dimension that I wouldn’t have considered had I been asked that question a few months ago.
And of course, innovation will become more mainstream – probably robotics, automation, use of AI, “smart” and precision agriculture, use of biologicals to maintain crop and animal health – as well as an increased emphasis on ecosystem service delivery.
Do you have a mentor or someone whose work inspired you? Who were they and how have they influenced what you do?
I have been lucky enough to have had a number of great mentors over the years. As my career has evolved I have reached out to different people to guide, support and challenge me. My first boss at the Sainsbury Laboratory, my PhD supervisor, various colleagues more senior and experienced than I have all played their part in shaping my thinking and helping me grow.
In terms of inspiring people: Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Matthai, who led the revolution to establish the Green Belt Movement in Kenya is extraordinary. Everyone should read her autobiogaphy, Unbowed.
What is your biggest achievement to date – professional and/or personal?
That’s a tough one. The opportunity to create and build Agri-TechE came along at the right time when the UK and global zeitgeist was very positive about agri-tech and I guess I am pretty chuffed how we are now the largest private sector network organisation for agri-tech in Europe, (as far as we can tell). Winning the Networking Group of the Year category at the SME National Business Awards last year has to be up there as a highlight I guess.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about making their career in agriculture?
It would depend what they wanted to do and achieve, where their skillset and passion lay and the opportunities available to them. As a sector I think we are facing some really exciting times – challenging, but exciting – and we are going to need fresh thinking, an open-minded attitude and willingness to adapt to the new post-Brexit world. So I guess my advice would be to surround oneself with as many people as possible who know more than you do who can give advice.
And I would advise drinking lots of gin. Always, drink lots of gin.
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