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Saturday 17 November 2018

UK biotech firm goes greener than grass with move to Cork

 

Despite our producers being heavily dependent on the weather, in Ireland we have the best grass in the world. (Stock image)
Despite our producers being heavily dependent on the weather, in Ireland we have the best grass in the world. (Stock image)

Irish weather may not suit crops such as coffee beans, olives, bananas, and citrus fruits - but we have an abundance of grass. For that reason, we are one of the greatest global beef and dairy producers.

As the world becomes even more obsessed with clean food, clean water, sustainability and natural resources, the opportunities in this island of ours are significant. While our green grass is a prized national asset, other countries with less rain cannot say that.

Avocet Bio-Solutions

Martin Frost and Bob Jennings are former executive employees of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI). They and other individuals formed Avocet Infinite PLC in 2014. Having initially been instrumental in the development of advanced technology for ICI, they subsequently acquired key intellectual property ownership to the technology.

This propelled them to embark on a zealous drive to produce sustainable and environmentally friendly food. Over the years, they have advanced the technology even further and as the economy goes through its swings and roundabouts, Avocet is now a business with a viable future.

This is a pre-revenue company that has invested €60m to date. That may seem like an exorbitant amount of money but when viewed against the revenue potential and the growing capital value, it makes lots of sense.

To safeguard its future in a post-Brexit world, this Northumberland-based firm has set up an Irish division called Avocet Bio-solutions based in Cork, with an Irish team. This is a developing Irish company with Irish investment and a farm in Thurles where many trials are under way.

The Technology

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Despite our producers being heavily dependent on the weather, in Ireland we have the best grass in the world. We have a predominantly pasture-based system of farming, which in many ways is the envy of other producing countries.

They would dearly love to have access to our natural resource.

Imagine if global producers had a system that would guarantee their output in advance, regardless of the weather? Not only that, imagine if they could be sure of getting 500 times more output from the same acreage every year?

Hydroponics is a tried and tested method of growing plants and crops without soil, by using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent. It is a technique that goes back centuries but has been perfected over the years. Even used by Nasa, there is also a proud display of different forms in Disney's futuristic Epcot Centre to educate visitors.

Avocet has taken the technology to a new level. With environmental and temperature control, they can guarantee an eight-day cycle from seeding to harvesting, all year round. Mould is also a threat that Avocet has eliminated.

The Business Model

At our recent meeting, Martin gave me an overview of his technology as he set it in the context of global food and environmental challenges. I pictured my early years holidaying on a family farm and remembered some of the basic chores with fondness. But the commercial reality is that farming globally has moved on significantly.

As a non-techie, I listened carefully to the processes that have the potential to literally change the world. This indoor technology can be installed anywhere in the world. There are businesses in Saudi Arabia that have large sheds of cattle and in order to feed them, they import grass from Argentina. Picture the cost saving that this hydroponic system will deliver for them.

The founders also have a strong social conscience. They are of an age where if they could, they'd give this technology away for free. However, they have balanced their altruism with the needs of shareholders to get a reasonable return on investment. To sell the full system and equipment globally, would require very deep pockets indeed. Instead, the business model entails licensing or franchising its system and taking a royalty.

The Future

The expertise and ambition of Avocet extends much further beyond agriculture. The company is also working on ground-breaking and disruptive technology as part of the circular economy.

Imagine a process that captures the methane gas and CO2 from cattle, and uses that to make fuel? Not only that, this fuel can be used as an effective and economical replacement in diesel cars. This is all done in Avocet indoor 'cow palaces', while still allowing for cattle to spend time outdoors every day in their natural habitat.

In addition to capturing digestive gases, Avocet has also pioneered a technology to recover the energy from animal manure.

This is a system that will permit a farmer to become totally self-sufficient in energy to satisfy his own needs and develop an income stream by selling off the surplus. Watch this space. I suspect this company will be up there very soon in flashing lights, as a significant exporter of agri-tech.

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