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Agtech startup FarmLab embarks on soil management mission, with $1.1 million in grant funding

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

FarmLab

FarmLab founders Sam Duncan and Shahriar Jamshidi. Source: Supplied.

New South Wales startup FarmLab has secured $1.1 million in government grant funding for its Soil Tech Project, in collaboration with the University of Sydney, and agtech consultants Andrea Koch and AGRIvision.

The project, funded through the National Landcare Program Smart Farming Partnership grant, will allow FarmLab to develop soil science research into digital tools available for all farmers, free of charge.

FarmLab was a graduate of the SproutX agtech-focused pre-accelerator program back in 2015, where it developed its digital soil- and plant-testing technology.

The startup has now completed testing on the product, and is scheduled to launch early next year.

However, FarmLab co-founder Sam Duncan tells StartupSmart he and his co-founder Shahriar Jamshidi connected with the University of Sydney and fellow SproutX alumni Koch, who is leading the Soil Tech Project, about 18 months ago.

While Koch a well-known thought leader and entrepreneur in the agtech space is heading up the project, AGRIvision’s role is “to get the software we build out there among farmers”, Duncan says.

“The science literature is already in the public domain, but hasn’t really been picked up,” he adds.

The idea is to bridge the gap between the research going on at the university, and the people that research can help.

“This stuff is really good for industry,” Duncan says.

“That’s the meta piece of the project.”

Tough decisions

FarmLab is bringing a hard-and-fast startup mentality to the team. However, for Duncan, the partnership has, in some ways, meant reigning himself in.

While Duncan is inclined to “just get shit done” and start building solutions, he says Koch “has her head completely screwed on”.

Innovation and enthusiasm are all well and good, he says, but with a project like this, he understands the need for a little restraint.

“At the end of the day, we’ve been given a hell of a lot of money by the government. We can’t jump down rabbit holes,” he says.

It means the team has “some really tough decisions to make”.

They have had to consider whether to build a very effective tool for a small part of the industry, or a slightly less effective, but more broad-reaching tool, that would benefit more businesses.

Ultimately, they’re building six digital soil-management tools, ranging from ultra-local weather forecasting to advanced tools for visualising soil.

However, “not all may work”, Duncan admits.

“We’re being very ambitious with some of the research”, he says.

For founders trying to establish partnerships and embark on projects like this, Duncan says it’s all about the networking, and mainly networking with the industry.

“If you’re starting a soil startup, it’s all well and good to talk to agtech people, but you also need to speak to people in the industry.”

Industry contacts can be optimised, Duncan says, and for FarmLab, connecting with senior and well-known people in the industry “has been huge for us”.

Finally, Duncan says founder have to be prepared to fail. FarmLab and the Soil Tech Project partners are “going in with an open mind”, he says.

“I’m pretty sure some of these things will fail,” he adds.

“You have to want it, you have to go out and do it, execute, but also take feedback after you’ve executed,” Duncan advises.

There’s no point in being “pig-headed”, he adds.

“You have to be able to put yourself on the line, take feedback and swallow your pride.”

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is the editor at StartupSmart. You can contact her at [email protected].