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Competition versus compensation: the importance of speed to market in agtech

Alex Crichton-Miller

Published: 2019-12-10

In any industry, executives and consultants prize the concept of ‘speed to market’ highly. This is usually the result of the belief that if you don’t do it, someone else will – and, as with at least a majority of oft-repeated business phrases, it contains a degree of truth.

The assumption that lies behind the ‘someone else will’ maxim is, more or less, that your business will be beaten out of the market by a better, sleeker, or else bigger version of essentially the same product. However, amongst technologies whose business models don’t build momentum through speed but through defensible intellectual property positions, this challenge seems to take a rather different form. Instead, the threat is not so much competition as it is substitution, or rather compensation. Global industries, without the ability to gain access to the all-important IP, will patch up the problem they are facing with what they have. Even without your solution, they will make it work.

We saw a recent case of this ‘compensation’ effect with one of our clients working in the animal health space. When, a few years ago, an epidemic without a known cure swept the industry there was suddenly a billion-dollar problem our client could potentially solve. This was on the proviso, of course, that the product could be brought to market immediately; and, as is often the case when it comes to animal health, the regulatory pathway would add a number of years before any product launch.

Looking at the opportunity today, one find the landscape radically altered. In the intervening period, the size of the opportunity – and hence the drivers for adoption of new technology – has shrunk considerably. This is not, however, because a single solution has been found. On the contrary, no alternative ‘silver bullet’ has been found. Yet industry players have found a way to compensate for the lack of a single catch-all solution, instead deploying a plethora of partial solutions that, taken together, do enough to solve the problem. The market opportunity has not gone away, but it is not  the size it once was.

When you are dealing with animals – or for that matter plants – there are always multiple different factors that can affect whether the subject is healthy; environment hygiene, nutrition, stress, even the weather. Leave it too late to solve a problem, and those responsible for the animals will have compensated for it with changes to biosecurity, diet, and alternative treatments.

In the agtech space, the limiting factor for speed to market is very often the regulatory pathway, which – even when comparatively straightforward – can require >2 years before approval. This means that a lot of the work we do in the agrifood team focuses on what the market pull for a technology will look like in the future rather than today. If we can anticipate drivers for the adoption of innovation in advance, we can help position our client technology as the solution before competition emerges and, crucially, before compensation comes into play.