How is NIAB with its sectoral expertise in crop sciences supporting AgriTech UK?

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Read on to find out how working with NIAB can help to expedite the sustainability of the sector.

In this is article we hear from Michael Gifford, Director of Commercialisation - who talks to us about some of the ongoing research and projects that NIAB, and it’s two incubator sites are involved in. Showcasing how collaboration within their research can positively enhance outcomes transferred into practice.

Tell us about the overall objectives NIAB.

NIAB is at the centre of innovation in crop science. Established in 1919 to assess the merits of varieties and seed quality, NIAB has grown in size, expanding its cropping and research expertise to the extent that it is now a major international research organisation in plant science, crop evaluation and agronomy.

With expertise in genetics and breeding, varieties and seeds and agronomy, NIAB works on a wide range of crops from cereals and oilseeds to potatoes, ornamentals, non-food crops,top and soft fruit. We produce new genetic diversity in pre-breeding material for arable crops, as well as plant breeding services for the fruit sector.

NIAB is unique in being an independent science-based research organisation with a very large farmer and industry based membership who help to ensure that research outcomes are transferred into practice.

In what areas are you currently undertaking R&D at NIAB?

NIAB’s research covers both agriculture and horticulture. NIAB has skills in molecular genetics, genomics, pest and disease biology and management, crop and post-harvest physiology, agronomy and environmental science. We use that knowledge of how genetics, environment and management interact to increase quality production and cope with a more variable and changing climate, in ways that are profitable for producers. NIAB also enhances the provision of other ecosystem services, increases the efficiency of resources, resulting in less waste across the food system, and minimises greenhouse gas emissions.

NIAB’s pre-breeding platform has accelerated genetic advances in wheat, including ground-breaking synthetic wheat research. Our crop transformation capability provides cutting-edge scientific services to UK and international research teams. Crop protection research is focused on improving disease resistance, working closely with universities and institutes around the world.

What makes Barn4 so special?

Barn4 is a brand new, purpose built facility and as such has high quality, office, meeting room, lab and workshop facilities available for its members.  While this is pretty special in itself what really makes it stand out is that it is embedded within NIAB, one of the UK’s leading crop science research organisations.

Members are able to work directly with NIAB teams on collaborative projects, get advice when they hit a technical challenge or use NIAB’s specialist facilities.  These include glasshouses, trials plots, cutting edge laboratory equipment and high performance computing resource.

Can you tell us a bit about some of the projects that you are involved in?

My remit is quite wide-ranging.  Just in the past few weeks I have spent time looking at our cannabis and hemp strategy, soil management approach, digital model development, 2nd generation energy crops and the possibilities around extending Barn4’s footprint across NIAB’s sites.

As the Director of Commercialisation I tend to get involved in trying to find funding to get projects off the ground and to find routes to commercialisation of intellectual property coming out of these projects.

Where have you seen the greatest collaborative approaches within these projects?

All of the projects mentioned above involve collaboration with both internal and external partners.  Where it is clearest, is often when putting together a collaborative proposal.  In the final days to submission I am on and off the phone and Zoom with the other partners tweaking the wording, agreeing the finances and getting the best ideas from every party into the proposal.

Who do think should be more involved in future projects?

I would like to see deeper involvement of the growers and their agronomists in future projects.  NIAB has extremely good connections into these stakeholders and while we work closely with them I really want to see a more direct link between their needs and the tech that is being developed.

What does the future look like for AgriTech – what do you think the next big thing will be?

The future for AgriTech is very bright.  Having said that it is clear that not all start-ups or technologies will succeed.  At present it feels like there are a lot of areas where the technology has been developed but the “so-what” question has yet to be answered.  The winners will be the companies that are able to provide directly actionable insights and the route to those actions.

What will be really big is when these technologies start to be integrated into a single platform.  At the moment we are still leaving the growers with too much work to do.  If the weather forecasting, the crop model, the satellite imagery and the in-field monitoring could all be linked to a central “intelligent” decision making tool that automatically turned on the irrigation system and informed the customers what the revised crop yield forecasts are then the farmer could sit back and thumb through the latest John Deere catalogue.

What is the best way for someone to approach yourselves to gain a collaborative project?

With Barn4 we have a very direct route to linking in to NIAB to collaborate.  The best approach is to contact either me or one of the Barn4 team and we can set up a time to understand your business and look at where NIAB can support it.  What’s more we can find the right people within NIAB to help solve those tricky technical problems such as “how to grow hexagonal potatoes in order to improve the packing density”.

Want to know more? Email Michael

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