Agtech Perspectives From Two Days With the Crop Chemicals Crowd

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spray a variety of crops. On wine grapes, drones were able to reduce the number of fungicide applications required on wine grapes compared to ground-based spraying. On almond orchards, their sprays were able to penetrate the tree canopy.

But spraying crops from a UAV introduces some challenges. As the growing season progresses, it’s harder to penetrate the canopy, Giles said. Consequently, drones will likely need to be combined with some ground spraying later in the season. There are also logistical challenges. Federal Aviation Administration rules require that drones fly only within the pilot’s line of sight. That means that for orchard spraying, the pilot must be in a pruning tower elevated above the canopy.

Farms will need ground support for their aircraft, such as a landing site, along with an eye wash system and first aid station in case of chemical injuries. Giles added that drone technology still must adapt to carrying chemicals. Drones have capacity limitations and the payload that they do carry can be agitated by the mechanical function of the vehicle—a potential problem for some chemicals. Nonetheless, Giles said that in specialty crops such as wine grapes, drones could offer a safer and more economical alternative to spraying from the ground or by plane.

‘Continuous Improvement’ in Ag Innovation

Big companies can spend a decade or more to bring a novel chemical or biological discovery through testing, at the cost of tens of millions of dollars. That applies to both pharmaceutical and agriculture ventures. Ag companies are borrowing technologies and techniques from pharma, but they’re also forming their own strategies out of necessity.

I had the opportunity to moderate a Crops & Chemicals panel that discussed how innovations in pharma have made their way into agricultural applications. Like pharma companies, big ag companies are ramping up efforts to acquire new technologies and product candidates that come from outside their own labs. Big companies can no longer do everything internally, said panelist Ray Shillito, a research fellow at Bayer. Bayer now offers programs that support startups doing early-stage discovery work.

Bayer took a bigger step to support early research last year when it became one of the investors in AgTech Accelerator, which aims to find university technology that can be developed further at the accelerator’s Research Triangle Park, NC, facility. The goal is to advance a technology to the point where it can then can either land additional investment to grow, or perhaps even find a new home at a large company. This approach is necessary because the exit opportunities for pharma startups don’t exist for agtech companies, said the accelerator’s CEO, John Dombrosky. Pharma companies that have a potential breakthrough drug have reasonable certainty that, if approved, insurance companies will pay for it. But in agtech, even if a technology works, there’s only so much money to go around, he said. The model for commercializing products in pharma does not translate well to ag, so the ag industry needs to find other approaches, Dombrosky said.

Meanwhile, Novozymes has adapted pharma tools for its own applications. The company’s research efforts include screening soil samples to discover microbes that have potential for agricultural applications. But Novozymes has also looked beyond pharma for innovation. Mary Beth Miranda, senior manager for technology sourcing and external R&D at Novozymes, calls the approach “continuous improvement.” In addition to looking for technologies from pharma, the company also looks to other industries, such as the sensor and robotics sectors. If you’re not looking outside of ag for innovation, you’ll be left behind, Miranda said.

Photo by Flickr user Ted Van Pelt via a Creative Commons license.

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