Aquaculture is in the midst of a technological revolution, with investors identifying plenty of scope for further uptake and value creation, writes Jason Holland
Industry 4.0 Technologies – encompassing data-centric smart devices and machinery, robotics, AI, IoT, cloud and much more – are already responsible for disrupting many key industries, with early adopters in each space demonstrating that faster decision making and being more flexible and customer-focused offers a means to put more light between themselves and their competition.
Relatively speaking, aquaculture’s rapid expansion in recent decades – to the point that it today accounts for more than half of the seafood that the human race consumes – has come without barely scratching the surface in terms of applying such innovations and dynamic data. However, the recent GOAL 2021 virtual conference, entitled ‘Tomorrow’s aquaculture will be shaped by today’s emerging technologies’, recognised that producers of all sizes are increasingly looking to adapt by embracing new tech, and that the time has indeed come for these solutions to play a much more emphatic role in the future of the industry.
The event also highlighted that tech companies and investors are showing much more interest in aquaculture.
Supply chain support
If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the appetite for tech application, with the acceptance that the world needs a resilient food system, and that what’s currently in place is not quite making it, advised Amy Novogratz of aquaculture investment fund Aqua-Spark.
The growing consensus is that tech can play a role, with some farmers already proving that it works, she added.
“But we’re doing more with data than just optimising farming; it’s serving multiple purposes, so the track record is starting to be there. And we have a better pipeline and more exciting deal flow right now than when we launched.
“We’re not developing tech for tech’s sake; we’re developing tech that serves farmers. There are specific needs and farmers really need to be a part of the transition into a technology-enabled industry.”
As an investor, Aqua-Spark therefore seeks companies with teams that listen to the market, and which are flexible and able to evolve. They must also be determined to solve what’s necessary, explained Novogratz.
“Those are the teams we need in aquaculture right now. We’re in a unique moment where there’s a global movement of aligned entrepreneurs, investors and stakeholders and these teams need to be a part of that.”
Right place, right time
Ten years from now, aquaculture will be very different from today, with the sector on the cusp of pulling in a whole new set of entrepreneurs, and this will entice many new investors who recognise that its potential is now very real, anticipates the event’s keynote speaker and tech pioneer, Tony Fadell.
Fadell, who led the team at Apple Computers that created the first 18 generations of the iPod and first three generations of iPhone, before going on to co-found Nest Labs, is now founder and head of Future Shape, a global investment and advisory firm with half a dozen stakes in sustainable aquaculture and the application of technological innovations in that space.
Across its extensive portfolio, Future Shape’s focus is on nurturing foundational deep technologies (or “deep tech”), which Fadell defines as truly different, game-changing ideas that disrupt the existing state of play – essentially changing the way that people interact with the value chain and giving them greater confidence in it.
“There are so many different ways of applying technology to each segment of this value chain,” he told the conference.
“That’s what’s so exciting – to be in the right place at the right time. Ten or 20 years ago, this couldn’t have happened; we didn’t have smartphones or all this other stuff. Now is absolutely the right time for this revolution to occur. I’ve seen it happen in other markets over my 30 or 40-year career, and it’s right to happen now – here in aquaculture.”
Fadell said that he’s learned a lot in the four years that he has been involved in aquaculture. As well as noting many parallels with land-based agriculture, which Future Shape also has “a bunch of investments in”, he’s also seen that several of the technologies that he helped create for billions of people in the consumer electronics space are now helping shape these farming sectors.
This, he said, is thanks to the heavy commoditising of those goods, which has made everything from hardware and sensors to software that’s on the devices or in the cloud very prevalent, affordable and accessible.
“We can bundle it all together to address every part of the aquaculture supply chain,” said Fadell. “I can take those skillsets and then reapply them to these markets and help out.
“For us, we really love to see that these technologies don’t just go to ‘big aqua’; that they also go to small producers and family aquaculture farms. That’s what’s been really fun for us. Learning about a new market, but with the technologies that we’ve already built.
“This market has basically been the same for decades and decades and decades, with just slight changes here and there. It really was a case of two worlds, with people who couldn’t get the technology having to live with what they had because the technology was so specific, so costly and only targeted for certain sized farms. Now that’s changed and everyone can get access to it; they can get more for less – data networks included.”
Every industry has its first or early movers as well as those ventures at the other end of the scale that hang back on introducing new innovations, and aquaculture is not going to be any different, insisted Fadell. He also underlined that all producers care about return on investment (ROI) and advised that this needs to be duly taken into account by any start-ups looking to put new technologies into the sector.
As such, the ROI needs to be highly visible, and the technologies must be made very cheap for producers to try out, he said.
Returning to the smaller, family-run aquaculture sector, Fadell said that he and his team have observed that it’s the younger, tech-savvy generations that are increasingly taking fresh ideas back to these farms, and that they’re also applying innovations that they’ve seen used by other industries.
“That’s what’s wonderful. We are going to see a lot of success from this, and while there’s also going to be a lot of failures along the way, that’s ok. What’s refreshing for me is there’s this full evolution-revolution thing going on that’s being driven by multiple generation families that are in this business.
“They are seeing that they can finally get access to the technologies that they’ve been dreaming of for years. And if these start-ups do a good job of allowing producers to try them cheaply and easily, then this flywheel of creation, destruction and creation will start spinning, with continual innovation,” said Fadell, adding that such a scenario can be seen every year in consumer electronics, with technological progress enabling the latest phone, computer or television to offer something new.
“We are now going to see it in the aquaculture world because the technology and the speed of that is going to advance. And as soon as investors see that there’s a bigger market for this type of technology than just in ‘big aqua’, I think we are going to see a lot more revolution happening at many more farms and in different places around the world.”