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Mentoring and money for innovative farming apps

Around Europe, 50 SMEs, start-ups and web entrepreneurs are receiving EU support as they put the final touches to their prototype apps for smart farming. Around 30 will be selected for further funding, which will be used by the developers to prepare their app for market launch in 2016.

Known as a ‘FIWARE accelerator project’, SmartAgriFood2 has been allotted €5 million in EU funding, €4 million of which is going directly to SMEs with innovative ideas on how apps can make farmers’ lives easier and lead to more efficient, high-quality agricultural production.

The idea must target large-scale arable farming, horticulture or livestock farming. Technology-wise, it must also use the open-source platform FIWARE. This was developed within the Future Internet Public-Private-Partnership launched by the European Commission in 2011.

Technical challenges include dealing with large amounts of data from agricultural equipment, interoperability between various systems, standardisation, and small-scale, isolated software development.

App ideas aplenty

It is clear from the response that plenty of people have an idea for an innovative agriculture app: when SmartAgriFood2 published a call for project proposals in September 2014, 158 companies or individuals from 22 European countries responded with 128 eligible proposals.

Of these, 50 were selected for initial funding following an evaluation that looked at potential market size, relevance and feasibility, among other criteria. Spain was the most successful country, with 11 projects selected for funding, but overall, 17 countries are represented.

Each company has a mentor to support them along the way as they develop the demonstrable prototype that is necessary to be in with a chance of receiving additional support.

One of the mentors is Carole Thurston of the South East Business & Innovation Centre in Ireland; she is supporting five Ireland and UK-based companies. One of her Irish companies is developing an app to keep farmers aware of the conditions inside poultry sheds. Sensors record parameters such as humidity, temperature and the presence of certain gases. If the threshold is reached for any of these, the poultry manager receives an alert via his or her smartphone.

Another project – a UK start-up created specifically around the developer’s concept – takes a similar approach but for the hydroponics industry.

In addition to regular telephone meetings, companies may contact their mentors whenever necessary for help and advice. The questions that Thurston deals with range in topic from the technicalities of FIWARE to prototype requirements and administration.

The 10-minute pitch

In September 2015, the 50 hopeful companies will each have 10 minutes to convince an evaluation panel that their idea – and prototype – should be awarded the additional funding that would support testing, the development of business plans and a market-entry strategy. “By the end of phase 2, we expect the companies to be ready to launch their app on the market,” says Thurston.

“It’s very competitive,” says Thurston. “If they don’t progress to the next phase, they get paid for the work done so far, but they will need to source their own funding from then on.”

Based on the pitches, five “high flyer” projects will also be selected for additional funding. Evaluators will be looking for scalable ideas with real commercial potential. This extra funding was not initially foreseen, but it “adds an additional incentive for SMEs to get their idea to commercial launch level,” explains Thurston.

With the first end-results due to appear in app stores from 2016, it won’t be long before farmers are reaching for their smartphones rather than wellington boots when they want to check what is going on in fields, greenhouses and sheds.

Posted on September 17, 2015 in Uncategorized

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