Soil is sexier than most people think, according to Armidale-based entrepreneur Sam Duncan.
"We generally underestimate its importance when it comes to our climate and environment," Mr Duncan said. "That really needs to change."
He and business partner Shahriar Jamshidi founded their agtech startup FarmLab, part of UNE's Smart Region Incubator, in 2016, to develop a soil sampler kit for farmers and agronomists.
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"We're trying to show people the impact testing their soil can have on their business and the environment," Mr Duncan said.
That kit has won Mr Duncan a trip to Israel in May. He was awarded the Austrade / Bridge Hub special prize, worth $10,000, at evokeAG, Australia's largest agrifood tech event, in Melbourne on February 20. The award is the first of its kind in Australia.
"We're very chuffed, and a bit shocked, still," Mr Duncan said. "It's going to be valuable for what we try to do."
The trip is tailored to start-ups; Mr Duncan will go on an agrifood tech boot camp, meet Israeli agtech start-ups and investors, and get an overview of the country's start-up ecosystem. He's keen on heading out to kibbutzes, and seeing how they manage soil.
"We've had Israel on our roadmap for a little while," he said, although hadn't planned to go for another year. "Their agtech systems are fairly advanced, so our software and tools might be of some use over there."
FarmLab's kit helps farmers connect to labs, order soil sample kits, and replace paperwork - "a really simple, seamless process".
FarmLab are going to Israel!— FarmLab (@getFarmLab) February 20, 2019
We just won the @evokeAG Austrade Bridgehub prize. Thanks @unesmartri for the support and to all our early adopters, especially @AGRIvisionag, @SiaSydney and mentors for getting us here.
Can’t wait to take better soil management global. pic.twitter.com/QKxtfWy9ba
Farmers can have soil and plant samples analysed at partner labs in Tamworth (East West Enviroag) and Lismore (the Environmental Analysis Laboratory at Southern Cross University). Results come back through a mobile app, "the Uber for soil testing", released later this month.
Most soil data at the moment, Mr Duncan explained, is captured in PDFs or Excel, and kept in office cabinets. Capturing soil data digitally will make it easier to analyse trends, forecasts, and figure out if farmers are improving their land.
In the project's second phase, FarmLab is turning decades of University of Sydney soil science research into free digital tools for farmers, a $1.1 million project funded by a Landcare Smart Farming Partnership.
The tool will improve soil management across Australia, making it easier for growers and farmers to better identify where to sample soil, and visualise soil test results.
The inspiration for FarmLab came when Mr Duncan returned to Australia, after 12 years deployed with the airforce in Africa and the Middle East.
"Every farmer out there wants to manage their soil well, because that increases yields and productivity," he said. "There was a big missing piece of that puzzle: soil data. We set out to fill that gap by capturing data to help farmers understand if they had a problem with their soil."
Because soil is a massive carbon sink, it could be vital in tackling climate change, Mr Duncan believes.
"With climate change, a lot of people are trying to decrease carbon emissions, but we're beyond the point of no return. We need to start putting more carbon back into carbon sinks like the ocean and soil."
There's been a "big uptick" in interest since the conference, Mr Duncan said - but the start-up is still looking for the right strategic investor. with an agricultural background.
Customers, too, want to buy - especially, surprisingly, home gardeners. FarmLab will talk to partner labs about offering cheaper garden soil tests.
Visit www.farmlab.com.au for more information.