Farm Ireland

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Magnetic attraction -how ionising chemical sprays can solve the world food crisis

MagGrow spraying versus conventional spraying
MagGrow spraying versus conventional spraying
Derek Casey

Derek Casey

MagGrow CEO Gary Wickham tells our reporter how ionising chemical sprays can solve the world food crisis

Derek Casey: Tell me about your working life up to the point of becoming MagGrow boss.

Gary Wickham: I got my first job in 1989 in Dublin - where I'm from - as a process chemist with Loctite. It was a great learning ground for me as a fresh graduate and gave me a lifelong interest in science and management.

I worked hard and made my way up through the company, and then later went on to take a job as head of Reheis Pharmaceutical. After that I co-founded StayCity, a serviced apartment company with properties in most of the European capitals and revenues of €50m.

DC: When and how did MagGrow appear on the scene?

GW: It all started by chance. My brother Derek bought a house in Florida from a guy called Ted Lenhardt, an inventor with a background in agriculture. After the sale they went out for dinner and Ted told him how he had developed the basic concept for what is now MagGrow.

MagGrow CEO Gary Wickham who is particpating in the 2007 Pearse Lyons accelerator
MagGrow CEO Gary Wickham who is particpating in the 2007 Pearse Lyons accelerator

From his research he was aware that existing pesticide spray technologies for crops were a compromise between coverage and drift control, and that up to 70pc of what is sprayed during conventional pesticide spraying is wasted.

He felt that magnets could be the answer by inducting a chemical charge to the spray before it reaches the crop. My brother told me about it and I was intrigued to the extent that my brother and I, along with David Moore, decided to invest in the system.

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DC: How does it actually work?

GW: Magnetic inserts in the sprayer manifolds ionise the chemical spray, thereby giving it a charge that attracts it to the crop and leads to much better application rates with more complete leaf coverage and reduced drift/waste.

One of the biggest challenges in spraying is controlling pesticide spray drift from moving outside its intended target area. Droplets drift into adjacent fields of the farm, into neighbouring farmland or water sources, causing potential cross-contamination.

It is estimated that every year Europe's water, worth €30bn, is contaminated by pesticide run-off. We offer a 90pc better droplet attachment to the target.

DC: Where are you headquartered and what are staff numbers?

GW: We are based in Clonskeagh in Dublin. In 2013 we started out with two staff but now we employ 45 in total.

About half of those are based in Dublin, but most of the rest would be technical staff on the ground. These are based all over the world - Canada, Africa, Europe. We are continuing to expand and hire new graduates in ag science, engineering, pharma, agronomy and, of course, sales. Getting some ag graduates in has helped a lot because as founders none of us had any real farming background of note.

DC: What are your expected sales for 2017?

GW: We are projecting €3-4m this year and €10m-15m for 2018. That is based on some expanding uses of the technology in areas like drones and irrigation, and also on some new contracts that are already in the pipeline.

DC: What product lines do you sell?

GW: We have three main product lines: the first one is where farmers can retrofit their current sprayer boom with our technology at the cost of about €1,000 per metre boom width.

So, for example, €24,000 for a typical 24m boom. Customers typically have a nine-month payback. A second product is our Greenhouse product that is doing well within the flower industry in Africa; we now have customers using 50pc less water and 50pc less pesticide with our backpack product.

Our third offering, and probably the one with most potential for scale-up, is the small farm holder knapsack sprayer product. This is proving hugely popular with small farmers in Ethiopa, and we see it as a game changer for the 500 million small farm holders worldwide.

These farmers typically own one hectare holdings and do their spraying by hand. We have designed a bespoke knapsack sprayer for them with MagGrow technology.

A spraying application that typically took a farmer eight hours work can now be completed in under two hours, with a 300pc higher yield while using the same amount of active ingredient.

DC: Is your focus in Africa all about sustainability and altruism?

GW: Good question. Of course my main job is to make money for the company - that is the bottom line. But I honestly also get great satisfaction from seeing these very small farmers increase their yields of important crops like potatoes and wheat.

Our product has been a game-changer for these small farmers and it is something I am proud of.

DC: Have you sold MagGrow technology to any Irish farmers yet?

GW: No. In my experience Irish farmers tend to be followers rather than leaders. They are cautious and will wait to see what happens. We have done demonstrations in Ireland and are in a position to retrofit any sprayer make with MagGrow technology. But the market here is tiny; if it happens, it happens.

'Science says glyphosate is safe'

DC: What is MagGrow's position on the glyphosate debate?

GW: I am always guided by science, and the science tells us that glyphosate is not a proven carcinogen.

We have major challenges to meet in terms of worldwide food production; in the next 30-40 years as a planet we have to grow as much food as we did in the 1000 years before that.

If we ban glyphosate a replacement might not be available for 10 years - that's how long it takes to get a proven and safe product to market. The trick is to reduce drift and get the chemical to the target, which is where we can help.

DC: Who has had the most impact on you as a leader?

GW: I'd say Peter Dowling, who was CEO of Loctite where I started out. He just had a great way of managing people; he knew when to put an arm around a shoulder and when to motivate. I learned a lot from him as a young graduate.

DC: What would turn you off hiring a graduate?

GW: A lack of drive and work ethic. You can't teach it, and it doesn't bode well for future performance.

DC: Finally, will we have an election before Christmas?

GW: I hope not! My hunch is that the leaders of Fine Gael and Fine Fail will sort it out.

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I think we will get another six months from this Government and then it will have served its natural lifetime.

There's too many important Brexit deadlines coming up to mess around now.

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