An update from Prof. Owen Atkin, CEAT Director

Well, what a wild start to 2020. 

Nature has reminded us how challenging the Australian environment can be, with a three-year drought and heat waves creating the conditions for a bushfire season that affected rural and metropolitan communities alike. Here in Canberra and surrounding regions, the arrival of desperately needed rain was preceded by an extraordinary hail event that left a path of destruction across the ANU and CSIRO Precinct – a Precinct that is home to world-leading fundamental and applied plant and agricultural sciences research, deep expertise in biodiversity and landscape management science, and leading-edge engineering and computer science programs of relevance to the agricultural sector. The hail resulted in every glasshouse being severely damaged. The damage was not just to infrastructure, as research to improve drought tolerance of Australia’s leading crops and work designed to protect Australia’s agricultural biosecurity were also heavily impacted. And then COVID-19 arrived began impacting our community. As I said, it has been a wild ride.

While awful in impact and scope, the hail event provided an ideal opportunity for the ANU and CSIRO to forge closer relationships through plans that would rapidly establish new state of the art facilities for growing crops, and to share analysis facilities. While those plans are currently delayed due to COVID-19, they nevertheless are an example of how the two organisations can work together to increase their capacity to address the most pressing challenges facing Australian agriculture. It was that same spirit of cooperation and collaboration between ANU and CSIRO that led to the formation of the Centre for Entrepreneurial Agri-Technology (CEAT). 

Launched in August 2018, CEAT is driven by the desire to build an agri-tech innovation ecosystem where world-class research and technology are used to address agricultural challenges, independent of traditional disciplinary boundaries. One of the most pressing challenges is the need to sustainably produce more food and more fibre, both in good and bad years. Significant investment in the development and application of digital and genetic disruptive technologies will be needed. At CEAT, we recognise that this will require:

  1. Significant innovation and technological advancement, built on fundamental science
  2. Working innovatively and collaboratively across sectors and disciplines
  3. Evolving new approaches to research, translation and adoption
  4. Entrepreneurial mind-sets. 

For me, one of the most exciting aspects of CEAT has been the opportunity to widen the career opportunities of students and early career researchers, while also changing how the Precinct collaborates with industry. It has been fantastic to see five small medium enterprises (SMEs) join the CEAT Innovation Hub. By co-locating with Precinct researchers and students, those five companies are ideally positioned to grow their businesses in a supportive and collaborative environment. We welcome other SMEs wishing to join CEAT – so please contact us if you are interested.

While our programs are still in their infancy, we have already had success at brokering new relationships between industry and the Precinct through our Innovation Project Team approach. An example is where a company comes to CEAT with a particular agricultural challenge that they would like addressed. After helping unpack the nature of that challenge, we bring together researchers from across the Precinct who have the knowledge and infrastructure needed to address the industry challenge. The next step may be a collaboration between the researchers and the industry organisation, with CEAT providing project management support. CEAT is happy to introduce industry organisations to what the ANU-CSIRO Precinct has to offer. 

Innovation Project Teams are just one of several CEAT initiatives and programs that will be developed through 2020 and beyond. New activities and events for CEAT in 2020 include:

  • Our Research Translation Initiative, a Strategic Investment Program designed to support industry-aligned research in areas relevant to the agri-tech sector, initially focussing on: resilient crops and communities; rangeland production systems; plants as factories; and, digital agriculture.
  • Our Innovation Training Initiative where funding will be available for students and early career researchers to undertake placements and internships with industry partners.
  • Events that bring students, researchers and industry together. For example, in the week of June 15th 2020, CEAT is collaborating with partners at Centre for Applied Water Science, CSIRO, Charles Sturt University, Bridge Hub and the Canberra Innovation Network to run ‘H2O Hack: technology to drought-proof the agri-food sector’ – an online hackathon to be run in the week where ambitious researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs will come together to create new solutions that future-proof Australian water. Please subscribe to our newsletter if you would like to hear more about emerging opportunities and initiatives.

Finally, I wanted to acknowledge everyone who has helped make CEAT a reality over the past two years. Without the enthusiasm and commitment of dozens of people at ANU, CSIRO, ACT Government and surrounding regions, CEAT would not have emerged.  Thank you.

Owen Atkin, Director, CEAT.

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