Angels help Irrigation idea find fertile ground

The world is running out of water. Demand has grown a staggering 60 per cent every decade for the past 50 years, says Isaac Bentwich, chief executive and chairman of a new Wellington-based irrigation software company.

An Israeli-turned-Kiwi entrepreneur, Bentwich should know, hailing from one of the planet’s drier regions. So perhaps it’s not surprising he was struck by the potential of the technology of his company, Varigate.

The concept is simple, he says. Land is not homogeneous, and hence water absorption and its availability to plants varies greatly across a field.

“Current irrigation systems waste a lot of water because they water fields evenly. Our uniqueness and focus is on ‘listening to the ground’, and providing each part of a field with exactly the right amount of water that it needs, at any given time.”

Varigate’s software technology works with automated irrigation systems to adjust spray levels in response to sensors in the ground, reducing the water needed to irrigate large fields by up to 20 per cent.

Bentwich stumbled across the seeds of Varigate’s technology at Landcare Research when visiting New Zealand in 2010. Landcare was doing some pioneering work on the management of terrestrial biodiversity and land resources.

“Its highly advanced technological approach to eco troubleshooting was inspiring,” says Bentwich, a former commercialisation consultant for Auckland University’s commercialisation arm, Uniservices, and the founder and successful seller of two Israeli technology companies.

“When I first visited New Zealand I was wowed by the strength of innovation here, but I also saw that there was room for significant improvement in the commercialisation of that innovation.”

Determined to commercialise Varigate’s technology and requiring capital and support to do so, Bentwich hooked up with Marcel van den Assum, an early-stage company or “angel” investor and chair of the New Zealand Angel Association, through mutual friend Dean Tilyard, head of the Palmerston North-based business incubator the BioCommerce Centre.

The Varigate system requires the user to download a mobile app and position three wireless sensors in the ground. The sensors send readings to the Varigate cloud.

The patent-pending pattern-recognition analysis methodology coupled with the software then studies a field’s condition and soil structure to determine how much water is required for a specific part of a field and automatically instructs the irrigation system to water where it’s needed.

The user can study irrigation field maps on a cellphone and change settings as needed.

For farmers and landowners, the appeal is obvious, Bentwich says. It’s “simple, cost-effective and low-maintenance” because it solves the puzzle of how to make significant water cost savings while increasing crop and dairy yield.

Van den Assum was first struck by Varigate’s strong intellectual property (IP) portfolio and Bentwich’s impressive track record. “It’s New Zealand IP which is exciting, but I was also attracted by the aspirational story around the planet’s water shortage and the demands on water globally.

“Plus Isaac is someone who has the global expertise to commercialise it effectively. It’s a good proposition for investment in New Zealand but I believe it will get world attention from an investment point of view.”

Varigate raised more than $1.5 million from investors this year.

Small, privately owned farms are embracing the technology and form the backbone of the customer body, van den Assum says.

“But while New Zealand is at the forefront of agricultural technology innovation, the truth is water’s commercial value is still not appreciated here,” he says. “So Varigate is not going to build a significant revenue stream in New Zealand.

“It’s going to be enough to validate the technology and show customers to recognise its value, but the big markets are in the massive arid regions of USA, China and the Middle East.”

Both van den Assum and Bentwich agree it’s hard to argue against any innovation that helps to save the Earth’s haemorrhaging water stocks.

“More than 40 per cent of the world’s food is provided by irrigated agriculture,” Bentwich says.

Produced in conjunction with the Angel Association of New Zealand.

Watering can-do
• Varigate uses a mobile app and sensors in the ground to measure where water is needed and how much.
• Irrigation systems can then deliver water only to the areas that need it based on the soil structure and condition.
• Adjustments can be made using the app from anywhere.
• Described as simple, cost-effective and low-maintenance.

First published on 24 July 2014



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