Deep Tech Summit 2021 Spotlight: Sowing the seeds of agricultural innovation
A conversation with Dr Pun-Arj Chairatana, who has served as the Executive Director of the National Innovation Agency (NIA) of Thailand for the past six years, and played an active part in shaping the country’s startup ecosystem. Before joining the NIA, Dr Chairatana was the CEO of his own innovation management consultancy company, NOVISCAPE Consulting Group. He will be speaking during the ‘Global Agrifood Epicentres’ session at Deep Tech Summit 2021.
1. Tell us about your work at NIA.
When I became the Executive Director of NIA, Thailand’s government was already keen to support startups, launching the National Startup committee to promote innovation projects. Accordingly, the NIA’s work has shifted to focus on both small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and startups. We position ourselves as system integrators of innovation in the country.
Through our national promotion platform called Startup Thailand, we aim to boost the number of startups in the country by supporting them with grants in the early stages. We also connect with banks and pitch to venture capitalists, universities and even smaller-scale investors in provincial areas to build up investments.
Two years ago, we also started to develop a Deep Tech ecosystem through our Innovation Thailand event. We aim to have at least 100 Deep Tech startups in our ecosystem in the next two years, including companies in the areas of agritech and foodtech.
2. How does NIA support Thailand’s agriculture and food sector?
We spearhead various initiatives to foster a more innovative agriculture and food tech ecosystem in Thailand. About four years ago, we developed the SPARK programme to become accelerators and managers for startups nationwide.
NIA also joined hands with Siam Kubota Corporation and Magnolia Quality Development Corporation for the first run of our AGROWTH AgTech Accelerator programme, which aims to build innovative applications in smart and urban farming.
Another initiative to note is SPACE-F, which we co-founded with Thai Union Group PCL and Mahidol University. SPACE-F is both an accelerator and incubator, and enables us to promote the development of foodtech startups together with partners such as Thai Beverage PCL.
One initial pain point in driving these programmes was the small number of startups coming in. That is why we launched Startup Thailand League, involving 40 universities from all over the country. We teach students to become entrepreneurs and provide them with financial resources to establish their own in-campus startups.
3. What are the biggest challenges facing the agrifood industries in Southeast Asia today?
People often refer to the industry as the ‘agrifood’ sector, but I consider them to be separate. Food tech is more advanced than agriculture in Thailand. We have successfully brought in international food tech companies to grow their business in Bangkok, and these big companies are already working with local food chain startups.
For agriculture, there are still barriers to entry preventing similar relationships between large companies and startups. There is limited investment in agriculture startups from venture capitalists, large firms and conglomerates, which is another issue we hope to address.
4. What kinds of strategies and initiatives will be key to making Thailand a global agrifood innovation epicentre?
In Thailand, the agricultural industry is already extensive, with many world-class corporations, but we do not have that many tech startups in the ecosystem. We need to create value so conglomerates and large corporations will work with emerging Deep Tech startups.
One new initiative we launched is called the Deep Tech Regionalisation Programme. As part of this programme, one of our big corporate partners shifted their agtech research facilities to Khon Kaen, in Northeastern Thailand, and are now working with startups in the province. We are also building the Maejo Agritech Innovation District in Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand, working closely with local administration to transform the city’s outskirts into a great agritech hub.
By promoting Deep Tech innovations in this area, we envision developing startups that can catch up with global demands and set agricultural trends.
5. Which areas of the agricultural sector do you think have the greatest potential to be improved through Deep Tech innovations?
There are so many companies that should focus on Deep Tech. One area where we want to boost tech development is creating artificial intelligence (AI) technology for agriculture. We worked with three leading universities in AI in agritech to form a consortium, to allow these institutions and their students to work together. The aim is to establish AI companies in agriculture and train students who want to become AI-agritech experts.
Geographical indication (GI) is another area of innovation, in line with the government’s One Tambon One Product (OTOP) initiative to promote local and traditional products. By bridging the public sector and startups, the latter can be solutions providers. They can engage, for example, in drone operation or support farmers and communities to enter the digital marketplace, GI and cloudification space. These efforts can reduce the development gap in agriculture.
6. What are the key takeaways you hope the audience will gain at the Deep Tech Summit?
Two things: first, I hope to increase awareness about the specific characteristics of Deep Tech. What does it really mean to build a Deep Tech startup? You need to be patient and have an adequate risk appetite, because pursuing Deep Tech is a long-term investment.
Second, the applications of Deep Tech are endless. You need the right scientific expertise, or it will be very difficult to understand the value of a startup’s technology. Succeeding in Deep Tech is not purely about commercial considerations, but also about having the knowledge to harness it.
Register for the Deep Tech Summit, happening from 8-10 November 2021, to hear experts like Dr Pun-Arj Chairatana discuss how Deep Tech is impacting our future economy.
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