Lack of national strategy and scale undermines the potential to develop world class agriculture and food innovation hubs

It seems that every district and city council in New Zealand has an innovation hub or at least thinking about one to help stimulate economic activity in their region. Similarly universities and research institutions all appear to have developed various innovation hubs, cores or centres (either on their own or in partnership with one another) to leverage upon their respective strengths, particularly in fields of related or local research endeavour.

A quick search of the internet shows over a dozen innovation hubs or clusters focused on food and agriculture in New Zealand. The fact that they exist is certainly better than not having them, or is it? Do disparate objectives, motivations and egos associated with the establishment of innovative hubs across the country necessarily increase the profitability and productivity base of New Zealand's primary industries and the wider economy?

As part of my Winston Churchill Memorial Fellowship I was fortunate enough to visit a number of innovation hubs and clusters in the US, Canada and Europe. This included visits to the University of Illinois Research Park, MaRS based in Toronto, Food Valley Wageningen in the Netherlands, and the Agro Food Park in Denmark.

The main purpose of my visits was to investigate emerging disruptive technologies on the horizon that are likely to impact the way in which food is produced and processed for consumption, and to consider how New Zealand might respond to associated structural shifts on-farm and along the supply chain to market.

I was also interested in understanding how innovation hubs and clusters can boost the performance, speed and effectiveness of agribusiness and research institutions involved, and it is this area I wish to delve into further.

So what does a successful innovation hub within the food and agriculture sector look like? Having reflected upon this, there seem to be a number of common elements that have contributed toward the success of the innovation hubs I visited, including:

  • Location: Innovation hubs have greater success when centred in places where entrepreneurs, commercial companies, investors and talented individuals want to work, live and play. By way of an example, MaRS is based in a newly-renovated campus in downtown Toronto, next door to the highly-rated University of Toronto, the commercial district, numerous café ¡nd access to central transport routes and international airport. They note that it's a place that everyone wants to be and attribute their location as being a key factor of their success.
  • Industry involvement: Strong industry engagement is critical to ensure relevancy in testing innovative ideas and concepts, and in providing pathways to market. Both Food Valley and Agro Food Park are largely industry owned and led with a strong focus on speeding up and coordinating the innovative performance of the companies involved.
  • Business development: Rather than just providing office space and using this as a measure of success, the innovation hubs visited are very active in assisting and guiding entrepreneurs and new start-ups in building business competency through access to advisors, mentoring services and facilitating networking opportunities with aligned businesses and investors. But, their focus was not just start-ups. There was also a willingness to embrace established businesses in scaling up opportunities, including new technology platforms.
  • Access to capital: Providing a platform for entrepreneurs and new start-ups to meet with investors to explore funding opportunities to take ideas and concepts to market. The location of innovation hubs is therefore important to facilitate such arrangements easily. In the case of MaRS they also have a venture capital fund to invest in start-ups.
  • Research: Strong alignment and access to research institutions undertaking world-leading research, with the ability to test ideas and prototype concepts. A key reason that organisations like John Deere, Caterpillar and Dow being located at the University of Illinois Research Park is to have access to talented and motivated researchers and students at the agriculture and engineering faculties.
  • Partnerships: For innovations hubs to be successful a truly collaborative partnership needs to exist between industry, research institutions and government that is committed to a vision and strategy.

So how well do New Zealand's innovation hubs compare with the points listed above, and what is the primary industries' and funding agencies' measure of success for innovation hubs normally launched with so much fanfare and promise.

It is simply not enough to think that being in the business of leasing out spare office space, or allocating time to use a dryer or some other manufacturing equipment is sufficient to warrant being an innovation hub.

Unfortunately New Zealand lacks scale, is resource constrained and distant from our international markets, which in some respects reflects what we see with innovation hubs spread across the country.

If we are serious about establishing a high-performing, world-leading and flourishing innovation ecosystem within the food and agriculture sectors, it is time for industry, research institutions and government to step up and have the debate to develop a national vision and strategy on what this could look like and resource it accordingly.