Sowing the seeds

Published in IPProPatents

There have been a number of interesting announcements recently about innovations in the agricultural technology area, such as precision or automation farming. Developments include:

  • Walmart’s new patents on drones for farming automation, indicating a new player possibly planning to enter this space
  • AgEagle Aerial Systems’, an automated farming drone innovator, merger with EnerJex Resources, an exploration company
  • Soil sensor manufacturer, Teralytic, deploying LoRa technology from Semtech in their wireless sensors to detect nitrogen, phosphate and potassium levels in soil to reduce waste and improve crop yields

However, this is just a small snippet of the recent developments in this area, which contain business opportunities that law firms should not miss out on. In the second half of this article, I’ll share with you, how you may able to grow your footprint in this market.

The agtech sector in recent years has garnered a lot of attention, not only from the food and agriculture industry, but also the general public due to issues including food or a shortage thereof is an important consideration for the future of humanity as we face the growing effects of climate instability; shortage of farmers and people taking up farming as a profession; and the growing population and its impact on food and land requirements.

Agriculture can be a difficult industry to work in because of its land and freshwater requirements, which directly compete with its consumers—the general population. It’s a catch 22 situation, as the population increases so does the demand for food. Yet at the same time, the available land and freshwater for agriculture decreases. The use of technology to try and overcome these issues is revolutionising the way farming is planned and executed. Because of this, the agricultural technology area continues to grow and so does the patenting activity and the emergence of start-ups.

From this we see the emergence of innovative solutions such as:

  • Robotics and drones: At the forefront of hardware innovation in agtech are the drone manufacturers and service providers that offer monitoring and automating capabilities to farmers. In addition, robots or intelligent farm equipment that can perform farming functions more efficiently is increasing. Examples of start-up companies working in these areas include, Terravion, Blue River Tech, Farmbot, and Mavrx.
  • Farming sensors: This area is at the heart of AgTech farming. Collecting data on crop health, weather, soil quality and moisture levels with the help of farming sensors will increase farming efficiency. Centaur, Spensa, Phytech, and Sencrop are all examples of companies working in the farming sensors area.
  • Farm management platforms: These platforms allow farmers to efficiently manage their resources, crop and yield production and livestock. Companies such as AEGRO, Farmlogs, Agriwebb, and Farmdok are producing new technology developments in this area
  • Data management and analytics: Focusing on using machine learning and big data analytics to manage and analyse data on farm and livestock, that can assist farmers to make informed decisions that can save energy, increase efficiency, optimise herbicide and pesticide application, and manage risk. Companies such as Strider, Cibo, Prospera, TL biolabs, Farmnote, Gamaya, CropZilla, and Agralogics are providing data management and analytics solutions.
  • Smart irrigation: Systems for monitoring and automating water supply and usage for farms. Companies such as Flowius, cropX, Aquaspy, and Tevatronic are some examples of startups in this area.
  • Indoor farming: Indoor farming and hydroponics provide an alternative solution to the agricultural land shortage problem. InFarm are currently working in this area.

Autonomous farming equipment and vehicles plus navigation technology is moving at a fast pace. In some cases, the development is perceived to be even faster than in the standard automobile industry, as these off-road farming vehicles don’t have to deal with standard road challenges such as changing lanes, pedestrians, and other drivers on the road.

The agricultural technology field is filled with many business development opportunities for attorneys and law firms to obtain, as innovative start-ups produce new patents. Keeping in mind that there is the disadvantage of a low volume of work while they are in their infancy. While corporates may offer higher volumes, trying to establish a new business relationship with them can be a difficult and time consuming process.

Further, many corporates will do their filing in-house or have a preference for using an established group of law firms. For example, Bayer CropScience AG is a fairly ‘captured’ client, as they regularly use the same law firms to represent them in various jurisdictions, but more importantly they self-file a large volume of their work

What this means is that although the overall filing volume by Bayer CropScience is large, only a small portion of it is available for external law firms, and possibly none at all for any new law firms to try and obtain.

Another example of where a corporate already has many pre-existing business relationships with law firms is Monsanto. While Monsanto doesn’t have a large volume of self-filed applications, they appear to have very strong existing business relationships with external law firms, who get regular filings from them year by year. A snapshot of the PCT case flow for Monsanto LLC (US) from Filing Analytics displays this aspect clearly. Please note that law firm names have been replaced with generic titles such as “law firm A”.

However, startups have only a few patent filings due to their infancy and they usually work with one or at the most, a few law firms. Self-filing is rare, as startups tend to focus more on building their business rather than in-house legal capability. For example, the following agtech startups work solely with one law firm: Terravion works with Perkins Coie LLP; Strider Labs works with Kahler Käck Mollekopf, Infarm GmbH has worked with Reiniger und Partner for their EP and DE filings; and Centaur Inc is represented by Polsinelli Shugart in the US. It is quite possible that these startups will increase their patent filings and then widen their representation options in the future.

It’s also possible that if the start-up doesn’t already have a law firm representation in your jurisdiction, then perhaps you can grab the opportunity to be their representing law firm.

As the field of agtech area continues to grow, law firms should weigh up the time and expenditure they would need to invest to break into the market of being a preferred law firm for an existing corporate, against obtaining work from agtech start-ups. Especially, as the start-up business for your law firm could increase significantly in a one to five year period.

The growth and pace of innovation in this field and the opportunities to work with many startups certainly makes it a clear case on why law firms already working in related areas (automotive, high tech and electronics, automation and robotics) should not overlook the ripe business development opportunities in agricultural technology.