Long Read: Big Data and Food Systems – An interview with David Flanders from Agrimetrics

As sponsors of the Cambridge Independent Science and Technology Awards AgriTech of the Year Award, we’ve been keeping a close eye on the finalists. As we prepare for the Awards ceremony on the 1st November 2018, we wanted to showcase a bit more about the four finalists as exciting members of the Cambridge AgriTech cluster.

We caught up with David Flanders, CEO of Agrimetrics to find out more about how big data is helping agriculture.

David being interviewed by Charlotte Smith, BBC Farming Today with Hannah Fry, mathematician and presenter .

All about Agrimetrics

Agrimetrics collects data, but also connects it by using pioneering digital technologies that enable individual pieces of data to be linked to each other, across sources in a highly flexible and adaptable way. Traditional solutions have not been able to do this, which has dramatically curtailed the sector’s ability to exploit diverse sources of information.

Agrimetrics is now the UK’s leading independent authority on AgriFood data with an ability to connect to, and combine, any source of data. This capability to structure and combine fragmented, and limitless, amounts of data enables businesses and individuals to derive value for their own purposes, but collectively deliver greater productivity, security and transparency across the food supply chain.

Agrimetrics is also a big data centre, one of four AgriTech centres with funding from the UK Government.

Why AgriTech?

David originally trained in agricultural botany, his career into big data took him through genomics and biotech.  He told us a bit about his journey,

I’ve been in senior management in biotech, but my heart has always been in Agriculture.  I was CEO of a big data company in genomics, and then in an AgriTech start-up. When I was young, I wanted to feed the world and I can now see that big data is a way to help feed the world.

He explained,

As the demands of population increase, combined with a need for reduction in chemicals, the global food system is already fragile, what we don’t want is a collapse in the global food system. Big data gives the potential to get cause and effect and inform the system, ultimately to strengthen it.

Why Cambridge?

David has worked in Biotech in Cambridge, including mentoring students at the Cambridge Judge Business School. He explained more about what he saw happening,

I was seeing smart young people choosing to come Cambridge to start AgriTech Biotech companies. There are lots of start- ups around Cambridge, with interested in Agriculture. Momentum is coming through in the sector and funding is following. AgriTech East as an organisation is also helping galvanise the sector across the region.

Challenges and Opportunities to Scale-up

As a growing business in the sector, and the leading big data company in AgriTech, we asked David what he thought were the biggest challenges and opportunities for global scale up of AgriTech companies.

In the 1980’s in New Zealand, Agriculture was the main industry, then the government cut all the subsidies, which was catastrophic at the time. But now the industry is leaner and punches above its weight in terms of agricultural innovation.

David went on to explain that he sees the new Agricuture Bill and Brexit as an opportunity to fully drive innovation and turn research into successful businesses, with global potential for UK. Agrimetrics are scaling globally and have large global customers including AirBus, Microsoft and Syngenta. David pointed out that Cambridge area has a strong track record in turning research into strong businesses and some, like AbCam are a great example of how to keep the company lightweight, quick and clever while it grows.  David would like to see more AgriTech companies adopting this model.

Global Food Security

At SmithsonHill, improving global food security is a key driver for us – we asked David what he thought is the single most important thing to improve global food security.

The first thing to recognise is that the Global Food System is fragile and complex – look what happened to the Global Financial system. Big data, combined with AI and modelling can help to simplify and, importantly, make a more resilient and sustainable food system.

Agricultural Revolution

At SmithsonHill, we see AgriTech as the beginning of the next agricultural revolution – we asked David if he thought one was needed.

Absolutely, we need an agricultural revolution, the end of the Common Agricultural Policy is the golden time to revolutionise for the future. The current Agriculture Bill doesn’t really answer the problems of global food security systems, however. You have to feed the world and we aren’t going to do that in a sustainable way given the proposed Bill as it stands now.

He went on to say,

A revolution is already happening both in AgriTech and in other sectors, I want Agrimetrics to empower players.  If the UK sector doesn’t wake up, it will be flattened or subsumed by someone else. One of the great things about Cambridge is flexibility and speed, which puts the Cambridge Cluster in a great place to lead the way in the UK and globally.”

I am so excited about the possibility of the proposed ARC facility going ahead, I am hoping the powers-that-be see the importance of it. I am sure the facility will attract major players from the global AgriTech industry to the UK and will act like a magnet to bring in companies, employment and investment in the UK.

We agree with David, this is an exciting time for AgriTech in the UK, and we look forward to watching Agrimetrics’ lead role in the developing cluster.