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“They understand the pain points”: Boost for WA agtechs as AgriStart CONNECT bags $500,000 in funding

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

Agtech

AgriStart co-founder and managing director Natasha Ayers. Source: Supplied.

Regional agtech startups in Western Australia are set to receive some much-needed government support, with AgriStart’s CONNECT: Regional Innovation Hubs program securing a share of $2 million in grants for Aussie incubators.

The federal government awarded grants to six incubator programs as part of its $23 million Entrepreneurs’ Program.

AgriStart CONNECT secured $485,000, which will be put towards supporting startups in three of its rural innovation hubs.

Speaking to StartupSmart, AgriStart co-founder and managing director Natasha Ayers said the grant will help support some 50 startups, through two six-month programs.

It’s a bold projection, but projects like this can do quite a lot with relatively little, she says.

“It’s a huge start, and it’s really enabled us to leverage other funding,” she adds.

“I’m a researcher by background, so I know how to do a lot with little money.”

Equally, “there’s so much goodwill in the sector”, with people always willing to give up their time to help early-stage startups along.

“I give up my time for a lot of things for free, and I get that returned back to me,” Ayers says.

The other successful grant applicants included another agriculture-focused incubator, the University of New England’s SRI AgTech Gateway, in New South Wales.

The University of Adelaide’s ThincLab international incubator program, and Clinic Media’s business incubator — focused on supporting startups working on organic food innovation — also secured grant funding.

The final recipients were Queensland’s Vektor Innovations Ark hardware incubator, and the Hunter Business Centre’s Start House, which promotes diversity in innovation.

City startups see more support

Ayers says the funding will help the CONNECT program “finally provide some support in regional areas”.

Having grown up in WA’s wheat belt, Ayers is passionate about promoting regional startups.

“There are so many amazing innovators and entrepreneurs in those areas, but they just don’t get the same level of support that you see in the city,” she says.

While it’s important to have support for agtechs in the cities, technology experts should be connecting with regional towns, too.

“There are lots of great ideas coming from people who are either working on a farm or know farmers. They understand the pain points, so they’re better able to design solutions that are actually going to fix problems.”

Equally, for people who are also running agricultural businesses day-to-day, it’s not always feasible to travel to Perth once a week for an accelerator program, Ayers says. People often have other family commitments, and travel from some of WA’s most rural areas can be time-consuming and expensive.

“It’s a lot easier to bring some of the investors or pitch coaches to the regions than it is to bring all the startups to Perth,” she says.

“It’s a really good way to link people into some of these experts in the city, and to inspire the investors to the opportunities in regional towns as well.”

Buzz around agtech

There’s something of a buzz around the agtech industry of late, and for Ayers and AgriStart, it’s the right time to promote innovation here.

A mining downturn in WA has meant people are looking for work in other sectors, while at the same time more availability of data and better connectivity has created more opportunities for technology to be adopted on farms.

There’s also been a slight shift in the consumer markets.

“People care more about where their food is coming from, there’s a lot more awareness about environmental production of food, everything is coming together to have a buzz around agtech at the moment,” Ayers says.

And there’s a demand for products that will make farmers’ and other agricultural workers’ lives easier.

One livestock-pricing app startup, designed to improve price transparency, picked up 1,000 users in its first week of operation.

For rural and regional entrepreneurs hoping to get an idea off the ground, Ayers’ advice is to reach out and ask for help.

“There are probably other people in their town who have been through something similar,” she says.

“There are resources out there, but It’s all about connecting to the right people in their area,” she adds.

There are a lot of people with good ideas, but it’s bringing those idea to a commercial reality that’s the challenge.

Anyone can come up with a good idea, but actually putting it into action is the challenge. But, activity fosters activity, Ayers says. The more regional startups emerge, the more will follow.

“Sometimes there’s that culture of tall-poppy syndrome – if one person is doing something good, people don’t believe they can do it,” Ayers says.

“But, if they see an innovation community and lots of people helping each other and working in teams to actually get businesses off the ground, then they can see that it’s actually doable.”

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

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

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