The following is an edited transcript of Tom Martin’s interview with Gary Wickham, CEO of MagGrow. MagGrow is an Irish ag-tech startup that was one of 10 global finalists in The Pearse Lyons Accelerator 2017 program.
To listen to our entire conversation with Gary, click on the player.
Tom: We’re talking with one of the 10 finalists in The Pearse Lyons Accelerator program, MagGrow. Gary Wickham is CEO and founding member of the Irish ag-tech startup. We wanted to talk with Gary about the company’s technology, which uses magnetic fields to reduce the waste of water in spraying crops. We thank you for joining us, Gary.
Gary: Thank you.
Tom: So, tell us about this technology.
Gary: MagGrow, as you said, is an Irish-based company. We were set up in University College Dublin in an incubation center to solve this particular problem around pesticide spray drift. It’s a consistent problem worldwide.
Using conventional technology, 70 percent of water sprayed is waste. There’s $60 billion of pesticides sold worldwide, but 70 percent does not reach its target.
The way farmers solved the problem of drift, driven by increased regulation, is to add water to the droplets, and they use coarse nozzles. All that does is create a secondary problem. You get runoff into the soil, rivers and streams, and you get massive contamination. So now, you’re wasting water and you’re creating waste.
So, only 30 percent of what they spray goes to the crop. All farmers are very clever. They know that if you use smaller droplets, you get better efficacy. Conventional technology does not deliver both. Up to now, we didn’t have a solution to control drift and also give you excellent coverage, until MagGrow came along.
Tom: So, you’re employing magnetic fields to make this happen. How does that work?
Gary: Effectively, electromagnetic fields. So, it’s actually similar to the principles of generating electricity, where you pass currents through magnets.
What we do is use permanent rare-earth magnets, the strongest magnets known to man. We retrofit a tractor boom, and we pass the fluid through that under turbulent flow conditions. That creates a positive-negative charge into the liquid. We basically transform the physical properties of the liquid, making it easier for those droplets to attach to the crop. Then, we can use the off-the-shelf nozzles for smaller droplets that are readily available, but farmers don’t use them because of drift. But, with our technology, you can spray without the drift. In fact, we reduced drift by over 80 percent using small droplets.
Tom: I was going to ask you, if you were to do them side by side, conventional versus the MagGrow method, what would you see?
Gary: We’ve done that worldwide with the major research centers and our customers worldwide as part of our validation. It’s a patented new technology, so that was vital. But, basically, you’ll just see a massive cloud with conventional technology, and you can hardly see the spray using the MagGrow system. We have a video on our website, which clearly shows that, on maggrow.com.
Tom: This sounds like a bonafide agricultural technology disruptor.
Gary: Absolutely. Hugely. Because if $60 billion of chemicals have been sold annually and growing…70 percent of that is not needed.
And, of the ingredient they spray, 99 percent of it is water. In California, Africa and Asia, we’re using over 80 percent of the total available water for agriculture right now.
The world needs 70 percent more food. Africa needs 300 percent more food. We need sustainable innovation, using less to grow more, and that’s where MagGrow steps in.
Tom: You mentioned that you manufactured a device that’s attached to a tractor boom. What about portability? Backpack sprayers, that kind of thing.
Gary: Yeah, we did two water products. One for greenhouses. Backpack for greenhouses. The fluid is piped into the system, and it goes through a MagGrow magnetic manifold. We basically then use the small nozzles again.
We have customers in East Africa who are the fourth- and fifth-biggest flower growers in the world that are using 50 percent less water, 50 percent fewer chemicals. They’re getting uniform coverage under the leaf as well as above the leaf and less disease pressure because there’s less humidity in the room.
And again, they are problems that we can solve.
Finally, we’ve developed a product for the small farm holder, which is 500 million farms worldwide. This is really exciting because they’re the poorest of the poor. We’re using a technology in East Africa right now that’s produced 300 percent higher yields because they’re working off a low base, using the same amount of chemicals they currently use right now because we make the chemical last four times longer with small droplets. Current technology would just waste and blow away. With our system, it’s very efficient, and we allow them to use six-nozzle systems instead of a one-nozzle system. We are trialing that with the World Bank, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Dutch government and other interested parties in East Africa right now.
Tom: Was it a challenge to make it cost-effective to bring the technology to the point where it’s affordable even to the small farmer?
Gary: For the small farmer, basically, they use a simple knapsack, which is $40. The air system is $1,000, but you don’t need one for each farm.
We’re using a pay-per-spray model for those small farm holders to take the (in)affordability away. Basically, what we do is we supply the equipment under license to an agent who is selling the inputs to them. We make sure the input is of the correct quality because you need to have the correct chemicals that are not diluted. Then we train the agent to spray for the farmers. We’re getting 300 percent higher yield for the same money. Africa needs 300 percent more food. And we’re saving 50 percent water.
Tom: I’ve read that attracting U.S. investors is a desire of many an Irish startup. What does it take to attract American investment?
Gary: We, from the very beginning, were solving a problem, not developing a technology and trying to find a problem. I think that’s a big distinction. We had a problem to solve that was worldwide and universal in a market that’s worth over $8 billion. So, that attracts the big U.S. investors, the size of the market. They also look at the team.
This is my second startup. My previous startup is now a $60 million business that I set up myself. It serves apartment business that’s operating all over Europe. I exited it two years ago to try and set up MagGrow, which is what we’ve done successfully. I brought a team of people that have over 50 years of collective startup experience as well as multinational experience.
You can have a wonderful product, but you need to have a world-class team. Then, you’ll need a business model that makes sense to the investors. So, we were very clear working with large customers, working with the leading research centers to validate our technology, get the patents in place and then start selling direct so that we could control the sales process, to get customers doing the early adapting, doing field demos and then find local distributors to scale and partner.
Tom: There were in excess of 180 applicants for The Pearse Lyons Accelerator program. What was it like to get that e-mail, or phone call, or letter in the mail telling you that you were one of the 10?
Gary: It was fabulous. It was fantastic because, actually, since we invented this technology, Alltech was on our radar, and we were trying to get to the top people in Alltech because I knew our technology would interest them as they’re in the crop protection space, especially in the biologics space, which is opposite to the petrochemical-based pesticides. With those products, too much of it gets blown away, so it’s not affordable for our farmers. The holy grail is those biologics for use for farms; you don’t even need to wash the crop. MagGrow can solve that problem.
I knew I needed to get in front of them. To be actually selected and now going to the mentorship program, having a very good mentor, getting access to their network, their channel partners, and now we’re working with them all over the world…so we were absolutely delighted and chuffed to achieve that.
Tom: For the listener whose focus may be more on the consumer end than on the producer end, how would you say that your technology, MagGrow technology, affects the average consumer’s dinner table?
Gary: There’s a number of ways we help the consumer. One, for the people that work in agriculture, we’re making their lives safer. They’re not breathing in these products because it’s going straight to the crop. We’re stopping the 70 percent waste going into our rivers and streams. We’re not contaminating. Pesticides blow into other fields and cross-contaminate. It’s called a minimum residual level problem. So, we’re not cross-contaminating other food with other pesticides. We’re making sure it only goes to the crop and nowhere else. So, water is not contaminated. Water is cleaner and healthier.
And, because you need fewer inputs, we can drive the cost of food down. That’s affecting the consumer in terms of having higher quality food, better use of scarce resources and making it more affordable when the world needs 70 percent more food.
Tom: Gary, what would you say you enjoy most about your work?
Gary: Myself and the team are very passionate about what we do because the world, as I said at the beginning, needs 70 percent more food, and it’s using 80 percent of all water. There’s a massive challenge over the next 30 years: 2 billion more people on this planet.
We get up every day excited because we know we’re doing our bit to solve some of the biggest food and water challenges this world is going to face, and we’re working with small farm holders. That makes us feel good every day.
Tom: Gary Wickham, CEO, founding member of MagGrow. Thank you so much for being with us.
Gary: Thank you.
Gary Wickham spoke at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference (ONE17). To hear more talks from the conference, sign up for the Alltech Idea Lab. For access, click on the button below.