We talked to Dylan Banks of Liberty Produce about the urgent threat to food security through the development of next-generation sustainable technologies, and he had the following to say:-
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Dylan Banks: We’ve been coping as well as we can, thank you; I am lucky to have a great family around me. With Liberty Produce, I’ve been focusing on responding to immediate challenges presented by the pandemic while expanding our offering through some exciting innovations and collaborations.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Liberty Produce.
Dylan Banks: I originally began my career in academia, running a research group for biomedical engineering at Imperial College because I wanted to make a difference to humanity. However, I became disillusioned with academia, and I felt the commercial space of AgTech was a better driver of highly valuable innovation. I founded Liberty Produce with Philippe Mozzanega in 2018 to respond to the urgent threat to food security through the development of next-generation sustainable technologies. Our vision is to drive innovations that will enable us to meet our global crop requirements over the next century without harming the planet. Our fundamental philosophical driver is sustainability and protecting the environment. From my perspective, the goal of the company is an exciting one: to help advance and develop technologies that may ultimately assist in making humanity more sustainable and therefore benefit society by causing less physical harm to the planet.
How does Liberty Produce innovate?
Dylan Banks: Fundamental to our values and the development of our business is investing in innovative scientific research and twinning this with engineering innovations to deliver something new into the marketplace which has real potential to improve food production methods. The flagship Future Farming Hub facility enables us to test and improve all of our techs and demonstrate the value of using vertical farming for different crops. Last summer, we made huge leaps in research on blueberries by collaborating with the James Hutton Institute: the germination time of blueberries (10 weeks in a glasshouse) was reduced to 21 days in the Future Farming Hub.
Collaboration and building partnerships with other organizations, including CHAP and The James Hutton Institute, have been fundamental to our innovation. This created a culture of intrapreneurship and helped develop our cutting-edge Future Farming Hub R&D facility, which is designed to accelerate the development of new vertical farming technology and tackle the barriers to adoption.
Interdisciplinary and diverse approaches are also vital to the development of vertical farming. To be successful in the AgTech space, you need to take a global, holistic approach and work with people from different academic, professional, and social backgrounds. Alongside an interdisciplinary approach, diversity and inclusion are fundamental to innovation, just as it is to society; AgTech needs people from different genders, ages, ethnicities, etc., in order to meet the challenges of the next 50 years.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business?
Dylan Banks: We have been able to respond dynamically to the pandemic. Other than a few logistical issues with access to lab and farm facilities at the beginning of the first lockdown, we have continued business as usual with more remote working.
In fact, we have undertaken many interesting projects since March 2020, and our business has actually grown during this time in terms of new partnerships and the size of our staff and business premises. In the summer of 2020, we formalized our partnership with the James Hutton Institute by signing an MoU to transform modern agriculture through collaborative research and technological development.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Dylan Banks: We’ve almost doubled our team at Liberty since last March, making a number of new hires both at our Future Farming Hub in Dundee and in the London office. Fortunately, we have managed to avoid requiring the furlough scheme and have been able to invest in our workforce. This is broadly linked to the growth of the sector as a whole and the increased urgency of the food security crisis brought on by the pandemic and other factors in the UK, such as Brexit.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Dylan Banks: We use an industry-leading CRM as a tool to manage our data, remain compliant with GDPR, and increase our efficiency. We utilize digital communication platforms to keep our staff connected, wherever they are located, and we prioritize sustaining relationships with our customers via face-to-face meetings. Obviously, this has meant a switch to video calls over the past 12 months; and getting on the old fashioned phone as much as possible!
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Dylan Banks: We’ve utilized government support where available, which has helped us build and continue research at our Future Farming Hub R&D facility. Government investment in innovation is critical in allowing young, dynamic companies such as ours to flourish.
Your final thoughts?
Dylan Banks: This last year has been difficult for us all, and through it, we have been strengthened by our strong partnerships with the Hutton and CHAP through a number of joint projects. Without these collaborations and our mutual support, this year would have been much harder.
Liberty’s goal is to become a leading AgriTech center that drives forward our goals of sustainability and food democracy while also acting as a hub for technological innovators and scientists. We have a number of exciting products set to launch in 2021, such as the launch of our entry-level vertical farming system, which will help democratize the farming profession and is in line with our goals of knowledge sharing and education. We’ve also launched a webinar series with Writtle University College (WUC) on “Transforming Agriculture and its Workforce for a Sustainable Future.” It will focus on major issues currently facing our food production systems and potential solutions to transform and modernize agriculture for a more sustainable future.