Incubators Help In Agricultural Upscaling

K Srinivas, Assistant Director General, Intellectual Property & Technology Management (IP&TM) Unit, ICAR, describes how startups germinating in these facilities are offering innovative solutions

The IP&TM unit of ICAR is working in the areas of protection of intellectual properties, technology transfer, incubators, and commercialisation of new technologies. K Srinivas, Assistant DG of the Unit, describes the ethos of IPR protection, and how ideas can be converted into business models while also alleviating specific agricultural problems, in an interview to BW Education. Excerpts:

What is the focus of IP&TM activities in agriculture education and research?

The IP&TM came into being to address IPR issues. Post-WTO, experts in agriculture were mulling over what will be the implications of the trade agreement on intellectual property. The ICAR came up with its IPR policy in 2006 to protect intellectual assets that we have created in India. The Government of India has also enacted the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act and Authority. Then in 2016, the Government passed the National Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) Policy and we have upgraded our policy in keeping with this.

The ICAR is ensuring that the transfer of technology that has been generated in the institution can be done without hassle and with proper licenses to the final stakeholders in the value chain.

Initially, the transfer of technology was not translating into businesses. So we came up with a project in 2012-13 called Business Planning and Development Unit, wherein we have helped entrepreneurs to upscale technologies. It has been a successful experiment, and based on that a National Agricultural Innovation Fund has been launched in ICAR. There are two components: one component is about intellectual property and the second is business incubator system wherein we try to develop entrepreneurships and startups. We are in the process of increasing the number of incubators, starting from 25. These incubators are basically supposed to help in terms of technology, regulatory issues like licenses, and upscaling products and services from lab level to business level and fill the gap in agricultural value chain. ICAR has a company called Agriinnovate, which is the commercial arm of the organisation, to take care of licensing of these technologies to different stakeholders.

What role will entrepreneurs and startups have in addressing agricultural distress?

The basis for any startup to start operations is business. In the whole agri-value chain there are a lot of issues. You can start from input supply — these need to be provided in a proper time, proper place and quantity. This is the first issue that farmers need to tackle. So, there are startups filling this particular gap at the pre-production stage. Then, all farmers cannot afford a tractor, so there is need in the area of hiring of tractors. Startups are doing custom farming services for farmers, tilling the land, pulverising and even seeding. During the whole cycle of a crop, the plant may get biotic or a-biotic stress. Understanding the causes requires specialist experience and many companies are trying to understand the biochemical changes in the plant by using hyperspectral images. Based on that, they can give proper advisory and provide inputs in time. This will save time, efforts and cost of the farmers. If timely care is taken, the problem will not spread and you won’t have to sprinkle medicine in the whole field. There are also issues in terms of ascertaining the quality of produce and fixing the price. So, companies come up with solutions. Similarly, to identify adulteration in milk, NDRI has developed an effective process, which has been licensed to one startup. So, we are identifying a distress and monetising it through different models.

Are the startups mostly coming through incubation centres?

They may start from incubation centre or may be independent, going to the field and understanding the issues. I see now engineers turning to agriculture to solve problems, especially in mechanisation, and using data-driven approach, using IOT.

Do you see any kind of gap that needs to be filled to relieve the distress?

Yes, India needs lot many startups to fill the distress, and more incubators to guide them. Most startups are run by engineers or non-agriculturalists, trying to understand issues, where ICAR and incubators come to their rescue. I would say, you need at least 10,000 startups India at this point of time.

How are we going to get youth involved in agricultural entrepreneurship?

For this, a lot of things are being done at ICAR level. Since 2016, when Startup India started, a lot of buzz has been created. Earlier, there would not have been more than 1,000 startups, in all sectors and not more than 50 incubators. Today, India has 800 incubators.

Incubators are there to help in different aspects of business. If you have an idea, it has to be converted into a concept. Incubators have the labs, where you can try your hands at these. Once you have developed the concept, you need to go to customers to test the product. Once you get the feedback, you improve upon the technology, again go to customer and see if he would pay for the product or not. They will, if they see value in your proposition. Once this is done, you need to raise funds to go to the market. For this you require network. In all this, incubators play an important role. The incubator gives you risk-free environment, and space at very low cost, when you don’t have deep pockets.

You have mentioned engineers entering this field. Is there any other profile of professionals entering this field?

When the startup wave started, it was mostly engineers. Now everyone is taking interest, especially graduates from biosciences. We don’t see that many graduates from agriculture sciences.

What is the reason for that?

Output of agriculture students is less than the demand. Eighty percent of agriculture students go to government jobs. Or they work on the field.

So what scope is there for agriculture students?

There is a huge demand for them in the private sector. You will be picked up the moment you complete graduation.

Can you point out some success stories of startups in agriculture?

One such success story is Bharat Rohan. Two aeronautical engineers passed out of college and decided to work in the field of agriculture. They came to us with the idea of use of drones for spraying. We suggested otherwise, as aerial spray might not reach the affected plant. So, they ventured into spectral imaging of plants. They got a huge grant to develop the product. Seeing the results in the case of pulses, farmers asked for same project in rice and potato and are ready to pay. With this, many seed companies have started giving contracts to these persons. So, in all instances farmers need not even pay.

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