Australia Israel Agritech collaboration: an opportunity for ‘growth’

27 February 2019

A country where more than half the land is desert, Israel is renowned globally as a provider of quality agricultural and water technology and expertise. Out of rocky soil, swamps and desert, Israelis have created gardens, vineyards and farms with some of the most innovative techniques in the world.

The unique combination of Israel’s harsh climate, unsuitable soil and a lack of natural resources, together with an advanced high-tech sector and a culture of entrepreneurship has led to wide-scale investments in R&D, and the successful commercialisation of research.

The Israeli Agritech sector is booming. Reports estimate export turnover at US$4 billion a year. According to Start-Up Nation Central, Israeli Foodtech and Agritech companies raised $US189 million in capital funds in 2017. In 2018, new investment in Israeli Agritech totalled $US120 million. Total investment in Israeli Agritech companies now exceeds $US1.62 billion

At an Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce lunch on 21 February 2019, a panel of visiting Israeli experts discussed what Australia can learn from Israel’s thriving AgriTech, FoodTech and WaterTech sectors, and how the two countries can leverage their strengths and work together to overcome global agricultural challenges.

Discussing Israel’s success in the sector, Gideon Soesman, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of GreenSoil Investments said that in Israel, everything started out as necessity.

“You have neighbours who don’t like you, so you have to produce your own food. There is an overflow of technologies [from the high-tech sector] like data and sensors, and we have great universities. Government support is a big part of Israel’s success – for every $1 that is privately invested, the government adds another $6.

“Finally,” he said, “there’s the DNA of Israelis – we have ‘chutzpah’ and failure isn’t a problem for us.”

There are 800 Agrifood Tech start-ups in Israel – 550 in Agritech and 250 in Foodtech. These companies work across all sub-sectors: IoT technologies and data analytics empower farmers to make informed decisions about their crops, resulting in increased yields and reduced water and chemical usage. Robotics and advanced machinery automate tasks, replacing manual labour. Gene-editing processes make breeding new crops with favourable traits more efficient. Alternative-protein sources substitute resource-heavy meat production. Monitoring technologies ensure food safety from farm to table.

Ethy Levy, Co-Founder of Bridge Hub, said that international collaboration is a big part of why Israel’s Agritech sector, and its innovation ecosystem more broadly, is so successful.

“It’s part of our culture to share, with each other but also outwardly. We think global from day one,” she said. Ethy also pointed to the roughly 400 multinational R&D centres in Israel as important contributors to the success of the ecosystem.

Oded Shoseyov, Professor in plant molecular biology, protein engineering and nano-biotechnology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, emphasised the importance of commercialisation of research from the outset.

“Israel’s research sector is all about helping the economy,” said Oded. “Commercialisation is built in to the ecosystem.”

He said it is imperative to start with a real unmet need in the market, but universities also have a role to play.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem offers incentives to its researchers to commercialise. It gives weight to patents and successfully licensed technologies for promotion for professors.

As an example of using agricultural research to create a commercially successful biotech outcome, Oded citied an Israeli biotech company that engineers tobacco plants to express all five human genes, enabling the plants to produce human collagen. The collagen can be used in different forms, including as a building block in 3D printing. Oded said the plan is to print a human lung. If successful, it will be revolutionary – the first time that human body parts will be made using plant matter anywhere in the world.

Oded said that with our geographical proximity close to Asia, our excellent regulatory system and our agricultural capabilities, Australia is the ideal place to grow the tobacco.

While Israel has some great ideas in the Agritech space, it lacks the access to farmland and varied climatic conditions and crops to refine and validate the technology at commercial scale. This is where Australia comes in. We have a large amount of land under cultivation, a diversity of crops and climates, and farmers who are willing to innovate and experiment.

The panel all spoke about the natural synergies between Israel and Australia to collaborate in the Agritech space.

Ethy said “Australia is the ideal place to launch the technologies, and Israeli technologies need larger places to trial them. The seasons are opposite in Israel and Australia. Many of the technologies have to be trialled in the season, but we can double the pace of development by trialling in Australia and doing two trials in the same year.”

Gideon said we need to look at the synergies between the two countries and see how we can work together.

“Israel is a small country – if you have 10 acres you’re considered a big farmer,” he said. “But our Agrifood tech sector is booming –1 in 1000 Israelis work in the industry. Australia has less tech in this space but lots of farmers. [We see] Australia as a bridge to Asia, and it’s important to bring global investors into our deals and open up markets,” he said.

Like Israel, Australia has a relatively small, isolated population, and we need our knowledge industries to be successful and continue to grow on a global scale.

Australia can and should be the testing ground, natural partner and early adopter for many of Israeli start-ups. It is a perfect match: Australia’s agricultural sector will get the commercial and competitive edge from being at the frontiers of technology. And Israeli Agritech start-ups will be able to validate their technology and commercial model.

Opportunities for Australia and Israel to collaborate in the Agrifood Tech space abound. In March, the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce will be taking an important delegation of Australian food producers and farmers to visit Israel to see the breadth of Israeli Agritech and Watertech innovation. Both sides are slowly waking up to the possibility of this partnership, and it is in all our interests that this partnership grows and thrive.