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Agxio set to close gap between science and farming

Dr Stephen Christie, co-founder and CEO of Agxio, at the Bradfield Centre Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Stephen Christie, co-founder and CEO of Agxio, at the Bradfield Centre Picture: Keith Heppell

Everyone knows the agriculture sector is facing massive disruption thanks to a perfect storm of changing practices, changing weather, soil depletion and Brexit. So if there was a way to raise crop yields by 15 to 20 per cent, wouldn’t that be of interest?

Welcome to Centaur, an AI-driven data platform for anyone working with data from and for agriculture. That could be farmers, or agritech innovators, researchers or policy makers. Centaur identifies the best seeds for the soil, monitors growth to ensure the crop is optimally cared for, and analyses the data for improved future outcomes.

Bear in mind this development sits bang in the middle of ongoing discussions for a Cambridge agritech cluster. SmithsonHill’s proposals for a potential £500million agritech site near Hinxton are due before a government planning inspector.

Dr Stephen Christie, the CEO of Agxio, Centaur’s designers, is fully aware of the growing agritech cluster here: it is part of the reason for Agxio taking space in the Bradfield Centre.

“We’d like to take it out UK-wide from Cambridge,” Dr Christie, “with Cambridge as our lab. We have a lot of history with Cambridge, I’ve done work for the university and Cambridge Judge, so there’s commercial and educational connections. We want to be part of the ecosystem which is continuing to drive agricultural innovation in this country.”

Agxio was formed in July 2017. At that point Dr Christie had been running his own management consultancy, Neural Insights – with fintech the main client base – since 2010, “to incubate and invest in companies, some we piloted, some we built from scratch”.

But Agxio is a different type of project. It’s ahead of the curve. “Events have somewhat taken over.”

The staff count is now 15, not including outside consultants. The main facility – “the AI centre” – is in Aberystwyth University.

Agriculture is a big jump from fintech, though. How did that happen? It seems Dr Christie’s interest in the sector was triggered by his son, Charles Christie.

“My youngest son had just qualified in agriculture,” he explains, “and I was shocked at the gap between proper agricultural science and what people actually do. Most farmers take 25 to 30 seasons to get it right. That’s too long. We asked how can we give the farmer best practice knowledge? We came up with the idea of a command centre for agriculture with all the information. The farmer of the future will have to know how to use data science and smart technology almost in real time.”

The ‘command centre’ takes data from drones and sensors – and it’s future-proofed.

Farming is becoming more data-driven and a centralised platform such as Centaur offers all-round benefits
Farming is becoming more data-driven and a centralised platform such as Centaur offers all-round benefits

“We’ve opened that up so any sensor or sensor network can be integrated into our own platform. Agronomist reports are not being translated quickly, so the farmers apply heuristics and that’s not good enough to increase yields by 10 or 20 per cent. That needs data science. We’ve developed some of the world’s most successful fintech companies and are now applying that to agritech.”

Real-time field maps are, of course, both innovative and disruptive. “The field data is not provided 24 hours later like our competitors – it’s now.”

First up for Centaur is arable crops. What you get – for £250 a month when the service starts in September – includes data on crop disease: you can see it as soon as it starts and treat it early. Other metrics include water levels – how much moisture is in the soil. Every seed has yield and price optimisation data. Risk factors and disease tolerances are all factored in, along with weather and insurance analytics.

When it comes to selecting seeds, clients will get the best varieties for their land and business case – farm valuations and tenant analytics become far more focused in the context of Centaur, which can be operated either on the cloud or on-premise.

The drones take photos and Centaur “sticks them together” so you can see when the seed actually sprouts and pops up.

“The technology also factors in local weather patterns, and what the soil conditions are – it’s got an embedded model farm running within the software. People like to benchmark to understand if they’re investing appropriate resources.”

Right now Centaur is in soft launch mode. Bioinformatics is about to be introduced – and trials are on the way.

“We’re in discussion with five companies looking for a field trial option,” says Dr Christie. “One is for medical applications of medical cannabis using hydroponics, another is modelling for the behaviour of livestock enabling the early detection of disease...”

There are around 212,000 farms in the UK. They face an uncertain future. They need support. “A lot are not profitable,” says Dr Christie. “A lot will be forced to change.”

But that change doesn’t have to mean letting workers go. “Using this technology is not about technology doing the work instead of people – it helps farmers do their planning and run their business. We’re working on the underlying architecture.”

When it goes fully live in September, it could prove a game-changer. Whether it catches on or not is not a yes/no question – it’s just a question of time. And, because Agxio has world-class expertise on board, it’s likely to take less time than you’d think.

“Everything we do is to build a global business,” says Dr Christie.

When it comes to agriculture and agritech, the big boys seem to have stayed away. That’s all changed now, and the results could be sensational. A company like Agxio might even underpin the UK’s – and the world’s – ability to feed itself.

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