Trinity AgTech, a new entrant to the UK digital agriculture sector, launched its new digital assistant Sandy in the UK last month. AgriTrade News spoke to Trinity founder and executive chairman Hosein Khajeh-Hosseiny about the rationale behind his investment.
Dr Khajeh-Hosseiny chairs Trinity Sky, a family investment office active in the US and UK, and is founder and chairman of Open X Innovations, a London and San Francisco-based investment, advisory and asset management firm that focuses on artificial intelligence-enabled enterprise technologies. He was formerly the managing partner and CEO of the global private equity and venture capital firm Northgate Capital and was McKinsey’s head of global private equity investments.
He is a successful investor across many industries but had no previous link to agriculture. However, looking for a new venture where his experience could make a difference, he saw the opportunity “to work with remarkable people to drive a renaissance in agriculture; the 17th century renaissance brought us from a flat world to one with perspective and depth. Our renaissance could take us to new dimensions, advancing our deepest human values, innovation, economic prosperity and environmental progress.”
After spending time researching the industry and talking to people involved in it, he saw from his outsider perspective that agriculture consists of many smaller farm businesses caught between a few, largely multinational input suppliers and a consolidated retail sector buying their output. Therefore, he concluded that farmers are not receiving a fair share of the agrifood chain’s value.
The Trinity AgTech vision is to help farmers become more profitable, more environmentally efficient, and get the most from their diversified businesses through digital systems and related new technologies that give them better control of their businesses and help with decision support. This is not a revolution, he stresses but will restore the connectivity between farmer and consumer that has perhaps been lost over past decades. Better economic support will “release the genius of many, rather than relying on the advice of a few – a bottom-up approach that will be as inclusive as possible.
“Agriculture can learn from the past,” he continues, “with peer-to-peer relationships and localism but underpinned by digital connectivity and the science and technology that enables it to happen.”
Farmers are faced with a lot of “system noise, bias and misinformation” says Dr Khajeh-Hosseiny, coming from commercial interests, NGOs and pressure groups. An independent authoritative science-based support platform will help them cut through much of this interference, allowing greater clarity and better decision making.
“Businesses naturally acquire, filter and share information,” he notes. “Misinformation undermines this process. Shared standards and independent, objective insight are needed to move forward – otherwise progress is disrupted, and business paralysed.”
Dr Khajeh-Hosseiny has spent the best part of three years and considerable resource assembling a heavyweight UK farm advisory panel, a scientific board and software design team. He is confident that the resultant Sandy digital assistant is the best package currently available to UK farmers. But in the best venture capital tradition, it will be benchmarked against the market to ensure it constantly improves, evaluating and learning from user feedback with built-in agility to improve.
Sandy is designed to let farmers take control of the dialogue but leverages a huge amount of independent science and is connected to a number of parties that can help advance their interests. Dr Khajeh-Hosseiny sees the Sandy platform as supporting the growth of a strong knowledge culture for further ideas, innovation and constant improvement. He also believes the platform is benefitting from the UK’s leadership in many science and technology fields – “the UK sector is a lighthouse for the world” – with Sandy establishing itself here before moving to a more global presence.
Dr Khajeh-Hosseiny has funded the development of Trinity Agritech so far himself, but with a long investment career behind him, is less concerned about rates of return than what he terms ‘purposeful capitalism’ that emphasises values. He plans to eventually transfer at least 45% of the equity to company staff and advisors to reward and incentivise the long-term resilience and development of the platforms.
He says he is not looking to consolidate the existing digital agriculture industry – the Trinity offering is grounded in the best science and technology to support farmers, rather than trying to compete or replace what is already out there. The ‘ground-up authoritative’ approach means that the Trinity suite is based on what farmers want – but the company is happy to partner with other digital platforms where they are complementary or perhaps to acquire them.
But fundamental to the Trinity offer is its independence. Many existing platforms and suites have been developed by corporate agribusinesses with a route to market through their existing supply chains and farm customer bases. This is not available to Trinity, but Dr Khajeh-Hosseiny is confident that Sandy will differentiate itself in the market through its breadth, accuracy, traceability and ease of use, while its independence lends credibility.
Sandy is the farmer facing part of the Trinity platform, but other software assistants will build on the concept. Candy is a smart procurement module which will be offered to farm co-operatives as part of the push to help farmer owners raise their countervailing power.
Dr Khajeh-Hosseiny believes that harnessing artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies through Candy will help co-operatives obtain even better value from their supply chains. In addition, he sees co-operatives as key to the empowerment of farmer members through thought leadership and the transfer of innovation and technical advance to farm level. This will become more important with a national farm policy direction away from maximum production and towards more sustainability and environmental enhancement.
The Mandy module aims to improve the relationship between farmers and their financiers – better and faster banking services will allow farmers to make better economic decisions.
Trinity’s research has shown that many farmers rate their banks as too slow and bureaucratic when it comes to approvals for credit and loans. The Mandy suite will connect farmers with experienced agricultural financiers – it is not restricted to companies or lenders. A better understanding of a project proposal – the opportunity and risk – will enable a faster decision at source without involving multiple layers of management within a bank. Mandy promises easier communications between farmer and lender, with expertise bought to bear quickly and efficiently to expedite a decision.
The Stanley module aims to empower producers by making more of the provenance of their produce. Better connections along the retail chain from farm to retailer will help add value, says Dr Khajeh-Hosseiny. This is possible even where commodity products are aggregated – perhaps by stressing the locality of origin and shortening food chains. Simple traceability software can add value and meet growing consumer demands for provenance. There is also an Andy module in the pipeline to cover standards assurance and liaison with government agencies.
In summary, Dr Khajeh-Hosseiny says the Trinity AgriTech project seeks to “empower farmers by connecting humanity, nature and profitability. Too few farmers are making a proportionate return to the level of risk and uncertainty embedded in their businesses.”
With the post-Brexit withdrawal of EU levels of farm support, UK farmers are facing more commercial exposure at the same time as national policy direction shifts towards more environmental protection and climate change mitigation measures. “Sandy can help the industry to cope with this challenge – harnessing science and technology so that farmers retain better control of their businesses within a rapid period of change,” he concludes.