“In the next 40 years, farmers will have to grow as much food as they have in the last 10,000 years – combined.” The words were spoken by Norman Borlaug the American biologist, humanitarian and Nobel Laureate – and he should know. Borlaug, who died in 2009, did much to develop, high-yield, disease-resistant crops in various parts of the world and his work has earned him plaudits such as “agriculture’s greatest spokesman” and the “the man who saved of a billion lives.”
The statistics are truly startling. There is for starters, Borlaug’s forecast about how food production will have to increase dramatically in the next four decades; then there is a UN report that stated the world faces a 40% water shortage by 2030. Added to all that is well-informed predictions that the world’s population will be a whopping NINE billion by 2050. Clearly much work needs to be done to ensure everybody is fed and has enough precious water to live on. Pioneering brothers David and Gary Wickham, along with business consultant David Moore, are playing their part in meeting the challenges involved. They have combined their skills - and resources - to develop and market a highly imaginative method of spraying crops using magnets to dramatically reduce wastage by using smaller drops without the associated drift problems. They call their product MagGrow and the unique system covers a larger area than conventional crop spraying systems. It also reduces spray drift by more than 80% overcoming in the process what was one of the key challenges facing existing drift control technology.
"I would have had an advantage as I was more seasoned in terms of setting up businesses before. I have worked for multinationals. I have an ability to raise funding but it doesn’t make a difference how seasoned or experienced you are without someone to hold your hand when you are entering a new market; someone to guide you through the process".
Wickham on why the thrive accelerator is an essential ingredient in the company's success.
The MagGrow way includes the use of spraying equipment such as knapsacks, tractor booms and greenhouse booms. “What our technology does, is it basically uses a magnetic spraying system. We allow all growers to use smaller drops but without the associated drift problems,” explained Gary Wickham to Silicon Valley Global magazine. “It is a game changer for the industry. Effectively our technology allows you to use less to grow more. That is what the world needs. The world needs to grow more food.” As soon as the drift problem has been diminished, adds Gary Wickham, other positives follow. “Once you solve the drift problem you get superior coverage of the crop. You get better disease control.
That in turn leads to better yields. Because our system is so targeted we can use less watering chemicals on the input side. He goes on to outline how it all works. “When you spray any pesticide product – whether it is fungicide, herbicide or insecticide – it gets carried by the wind and gets airborne, the drift. “To avoid that problem the world has used compromised technology which involves adding water. It causes the product to fall to the ground. Like rain, it just runs off the crop and you don’t get proper attachment to the crop.
Everybody knows if you use small droplets, you get better coverage but the drift gets more severe.” As well as solving the drift problem and improving productivity as a consequence, MagGrow also brings with it a host of other benefits. It is, for example, the type of product that helps to produce a cleaner, greener environment. “To put it context, currently in Europe there is €30 bn worth of water is contaminated each year due to pesticides using compromised technology. With MagGrow there’s no need for that waste,” added Wickham. Earlier this year MagGrow won the 2016 LAMMA Innovation Award for the ’Best Product or Innovation for the Environment’ category. The new system has already proved of great value to smallholder and commercial farms in Ethiopia and Kenya - and now it will be made available to European farmers. Further down the line there are plans to introduce MagGrow to the US market. “To give an example of the power of our technology. In Ethiopia right now on two acres in the US context, we have been spraying herbicide with the ministry and government over there on farms. They are getting 300% higher yields as a result of our technology.”
The level of potential in the new system was underlined in the way the MagGrow has been selected to participate in the Thrive Accelerator program. This unique international business program was originally established by SVG Partners (the investment branch of the Irish Technology Leadership Group) to identify the most promising start ups in the food and agtech sectors. Companies participating in the program have an opportunity to make their pitch to leading venture capitalists for funding. This can range from seed funding up to $5M. MagGrow was one of 12 companies selected from a pool of 240 applicants from 36 countries. CEO Gary Wickham describes the support and guidance he has received in the Thrive program and SVG, as “invaluable” and “fantastic.” It also helped to guide those behind MagGrow to avoid potential pitfalls. “I would have had an advantage as I was more seasoned in terms of setting up businesses before. I have worked for multinationals. I have an ability to raise funding but it doesn’t make a difference how seasoned or experienced you are without someone to hold your hand when you are entering a new market; someone to guide you through the process. Those involved in the MagGrow concept have not only spent several millions in developing and commercializing the product, they have also set up a company to operate the business, – Auranta MagGrow - based in the NovaUCD center at University College Dublin. So far MagGrow employs 12 people. The origins of what is already a groundbreaking venture can be traced back to 2013 when Derek Wickham encountered by chance, American Ted Lenhardt who had his own innovative ideas in how to approach the issue of spraying crops – and how improvements could be made. Gary Wickham quickly saw the potential in Lenhardt’s idea.
Plans were drawn up and it all led to the development of the technology while the process of putting the product out on the market also got underway. The challenges involved in getting a new venture on the road were already familiar to Gary Wickham. He had worked in multinationals for many years but eager to express his own entrepreneurial flair he set up staycity.com which allowed people to book into apartments instead of hotels when traveling to major cities, considerably reducing the cost out of a trip. It has proved to be a major success. Today staycity.com is operating in 11 countries and 15 cities in Europe. It is a €45 business and employs over 500 people. Two years ago Gary Wickham moved out of the staycity.com business. A chemist by profession, he wanted to get back into the technological sector and by that stage anyway the MagGrow idea was gathering momentum.
Once convinced about the merits of a venture or enterprise the Wickhams tend to get fully involved - and it is the same with the MagGrow project. They have shown their faith by providing the necessary investment to get the venture up and running generating the capital required through a network of family, friends and supporters of the concept. “Once I did that, we made sure we had patent security worldwide. I started gradually increasing the team and developing our products that we have today. We are no effectively in commercial rollout mode. “We have now raised €5.5M all through networking and family. There is no debt at this point.” Having previously worked with David Moore in a number of US multinationals and at staycity.com Gary Wickham also invited him on board as the MagGrow concept took off.
Now new horizons await. Gary Wickham is encouraged in what he sees as a new-found confidence among Irish start-ups. He is impressed by their willingness to put themselves and their ideas out there. “There is a thriving start-up community in Dublin and Ireland in general. I see it. They have that confidence that the younger people in America have. They will knock doors down to get heard. If they fail, they get up and go again. We have suffered in the past, about not having that confidence – if you fail, you won’t get up and do it again. “Now, I think there is an awareness that entrepreneurs are brave people. They take risks. They are beginning to say, well done and tray again if it doesn’t work out. The gap is closing.” Gary Wickham, and those other courageous entrepreneurs behind MagGrow, are displaying that confidence and spirit. Like pioneers conquering new lands – and doing their bit to help feed the world’s rapidly growing population.