Five steps towards a great idea

Is there a recipe for success in agri-tech innovation? What does it take to make an ordinary idea, a truly great one? Whether it’s applying for grant funding or pitching for commercial investment, there is much to consider when developing a product, service or solution. CHAP’s Innovation Technical Lead, Dr Alex McCormack, talks through the five steps that he believes should form the bedrock of all agri-tech ideas.

1. Identify the need

“It might seem obvious, but an innovation needs to solve someone’s pain-point, whether that’s a customer or the industry as a whole. Having a clear focus on that challenge and keeping the end-user in mind is what helps to create market pull.

Sometimes, this can be future-facing, a gap or issue that will occur in years to come. This can make the ideation process tricky, because innovators are developing something that they know people will need in the future, but are yet to realise. An example that we’re working on that illustrates this is precision fungicide application project, SprayBot. Here we’re looking at how to reduce synthetic pesticide usage and make biologicals more competitive, by applying products when and where needed most by the crop.

  1. Generate a clear concept or solution

Clarity is key – can a simple, understandable narrative be constructed to accompany the idea, avoiding academic technicality, scientific jargon or excess detail? This could be perceived as the ‘elevator pitch’.

It’s important to be able to communicate a digestible story, to help demonstrate potential synergies for wider interested parties and potential collaborators outside the immediate sector. This is also crucial when appealing to funders or investors.

Once a coherent approach to the solution is developed, ask is it feasible? Could an initial pilot study help to refine the concept before seeking investment for a long-term R&D project? Examples of this include our recent ‘Proof of Concept’ projects, funded by IUK EDGE, such as Fotenix’s Echo device and Red Planet’s wheat vertical farm.

  1. Know the what, how and who

Identify clear but realistic aims and objectives and what it will take to deliver them, break the process down into work packages or smaller chunks and activities. Take time to fully define individual activities and timelines, ensuring that these fit together to meet your goals and produce tangible outcomes and deliverables.

Consider the scale and detail required, do I need lab-based research, or a field trial? Perhaps it requires user testing or knowledge exchange and demonstration activities. Importantly, how will the end solution complement existing agricultural systems and practices? All questions that should be addressed.

Of course having the correct expertise is vital. Do you have these in house, or do you need external contractors or partners to deliver the R&D or other project work?  Use this as an opportunity to identify project partners with the skills and expertise which will compliment yours and strengthen the project. When looking at larger consortiums, also ensuring that each partner has a clear function and role, both in delivering the project and any future exploitation and commercialisation. Not all partners maybe interested in IP or exploitation, but its worth outlining this at the start.

  1. Ensure a sustainable route to market

There is a lot to discuss here, but it primarily links back to understanding the target market, how they behave and what they actually need. Also, what can they afford or are they willing to invest in an innovation of its type? What is the value being created and how is it reaching them? It’s critical to understand how you access the future customer, and then decide how to get the solution to them. For example, will a farmer buy direct from you, or is it more likely to be sold through a distributor, or even used by service providers such as advisors and agronomists as part of their service package.

Contacts are invaluable in understanding the route to market. For those established, they can lever on existing contacts, but this may prove trickier for new entrants. Here networking events or nexus organisations like CHAP can help to find and develop these.

Another element to consider is the longevity of the target market and challenge to overcome. Does it have the potential to develop over time, is it an immediate but limited need, or a slow-burner? How long will the solution have a place?

Let’s not forget the competition! A detailed competitor analysis is key, as well as considering current barriers for all involved.

Finally, what does landing a successful innovation mean for your business? This could be unlocking the ability to hire new staff, accessing a new sales area or sector, or simply expanding your product line. All worth thinking about.

  1. Understand the real-world impact

Perhaps for many, the most important step of all.

Impact is something that can be split into two – direct and indirect. Direct impact is how it affects a business or the sector’s growth, whereas indirect is how it contributes to bigger picture issues such as the environment, society, sustainability and net zero.

Simply put, what impact will this innovation have? How will agriculture and food production benefit? Sometimes, these benefits take time, particularly if they are instigating systemic system changes.

Conversely, not all impact is positive and it’s critical to have an awareness of any potential negative outcomes. A prime example here is automation and the knock-on effect on the workforce and jobs.

What now, where do you begin?

There are many different routes for agri-tech businesses to put these thoughts into practice, and no one size fits all. However, key sources of funding for such projects can often be found through InnovateUK’s Funding Finder, Defra and UKRI’s recent Farming Innovation Programme, or similar public and private funding organisations.

Opportunities are available, for those with great ideas.”

CHAP aims to build networks of leading scientists, farmers, advisors, businesses and academia to understand industry priorities and develop innovative solutions. Our innovation experts, including Dr McCormack, help to identify the latest calls, project partners, assist with the application process and give assistance in project delivery once won. To contact, e-mail enquiries@chap-solutions.co.uk

Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of CHAP.