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Opinion

Clarke: U.K. agritech delegation envisions partnerships with St. Louis region

For members of the British agritech sector who had the opportunity to visit St. Louis before the spread of COVID-19 temporarily put an end to such international travel, the tight collaboration in the region could make it an attractive launch pad to the wider U.S. market.

That was a key takeaway I had after leading a delegation of scientists, entrepreneurs and business leaders from Agri-TechE, a premiere agriculture technology association in the United Kingdom, on a trade mission to the region.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that my fellow travelers felt the same way, seeing the bi-state region as rich in partnership opportunities and somewhere businesses could find it easy to start up, thrive and grow.

Collaboration was the word of the mission as we explored increased partnership and investment between the U.K. and the St. Louis region with a packed agenda filled with meetings with world leaders in agriculture technology, leading research institutions, business accelerators and venture capital firms.

At every stage, it was clear that collaboration was seen as the way to help build on the already strong agri-tech foundations in the greater St. Louis region and complement those in the U.K.

We also visited St. Louis’ leading innovation districts and learned why the bi-state St. Louis region is recognized as the “Ag Coast” of America. That moniker seemed particularly relevant as our group was introduced to the region’s concentrations of talent, capital, facilities, agritech companies, producers and exceptional freight assets.

The strategic location of the greater St. Louis area at the confluence of the Illinois, Missouri and Mississippi rivers has made it a historic epicenter of trading, manufacturing, freight, including grain and fertilizer, and increasingly agritech innovation.

It’s a location with a solid freight network offering national and global access and delivering the highest level of grain barge handling capacity anywhere along the Mississippi River.

Fifty percent of U.S. crops and livestock are produced within a 500-mile radius of the St. Louis region, including approximately 80% of corn and soybean acreage, providing a huge market to absorb new agri-technologies and innovations.

All this productivity actually invites major opportunities for innovation, and the potential for creation and capture of more value via better use of data, as well as deployment of precision agriculture tools and improved risk management tools, offer ready markets for new technologies and services.

It was evident the agritech “shopping list” of innovation priorities, as compiled by BioSTL, for the St. Louis cluster closely aligned with U.K. priorities.

The St. Louis region has all the hallmarks of an effective agritech innovation ecosystem. It is internationally recognized for advancing plant science and agritech around the globe and has attracted more than 1,000 Ph.D. plant scientists — the highest concentration anywhere in the world.

World-leading research via the various universities, Danforth Plant Science Center and other institutions, as well as private sector players, including Bayer, Bunge, rapidly growing “startup” Benson Hill and a host of smaller agritech firms underpins the translation of innovation into impact via a vibrant private investment community. Also key to enabling this translation are the activities of The Yield Lab and the BioSTL BioGenerator.

Individually, each element of this ecosystem is worthy of note, and it shares similarities with the U.K.’s exceptional agritech innovation system. However, it’s the tight collaboration between them, and with city, county and state officials and economic development organizations on both sides of the Mississippi River, that make it such a strong potential partner for the U.K.

It’s a collaboration that includes the host organizations for our trip — the World Trade Center and the 39 North district, which since 2016 has worked with others bringing together farmers and innovators with the research community to help develop and grow the innovation ecosystem.

It also includes the St. Louis Regional Freightway, which helped us all to understand that, when it comes to addressing global food security concerns, moving food across the globe will be just as important as the production of that food.

Working together, we have the potential to forge meaningful partnerships that will play a key role in helping to feed the world.

Dr. Belinda Clarke is director for Agri-TechE, a U.K.-based, business-focused membership organization supporting the growth of a world-leading network of innovative farmers, producers, scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs sharing a vision of increasing the productivity, profitability and sustainability of agriculture.

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