PlantTech’s first year

PlantTech CEO Dr Mark Begbie and research director Professor Ian Yule.

One year on from being formally launched, the team from Tauranga research organisation PlantTech reflect proudly say it has created a great foundation to build from, says PlantTech CEO Mark Begbie.

PlantTech was established through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Regional Research Institute fund, which was awarded to four regional research organisations – all with a different focus.

With support of MBIE and eight stakeholders, the investment into PlantTech totalled $9.4million, with the organisation broadly focusing on developing AI technology to make plant-based value chains more automated. “We’ve already added value to our stakeholders, which we’re really happy about,” says Mark.

For Bluelab, formally NZ Hydroponics International Ltd, PlantTech created software to work with their probe, which can give information about the growing environment of a hydroponic plant’s roots.

Therefore, alterations to the environment can be made before a plant becomes unhealthy.

A faster, more accurate method of predicting kiwifruit volume for the season was developed for Zespri, giving them greater opportunity to plan before going to market.

Other stakeholders include robotics, tech, business and machinery companies that contribute to horticulture.

“We help them achieve plant-based value chain solutions in a variety of ways. For example, Trimax is looking to automate their commercial lawnmowers, which will have benefits for businesses throughout the sector.”

As well as establishing good stakeholder relationships, Mark says he’s stoked with the team they’ve created. “In a year, we’ve grown from a team of four to 12 people from 10 different countries.”

Contacted through LinkedIn for the position while working in his home country of Scotland, Mark moved to New Zealand with his wife, daughter and dog for the role. “And remarkably, the dog cost the same amount to bring here.”

As well as a variety of cultures, the PlantTech team stem from different careers. Mark’s background is in tech stimulation, and PlantTech research director Ian Yule, from Scotland, specialises in precision agriculture. “It’s a real mix. One of our team members got their PHD in how to detect the evolution and dialects of birdsong through machine learning, and another in cosmology and astronomy.

“We all bring something culturally and professionally unique to the table.”

PlantTech hired their latest two team members just prior to lockdown. “We’d also just moved into our new building just days prior to Alert Level 4. There was just enough time to see if we could work remotely, and we didn’t get to use the new office until Alert Level 2.”

The institute differs to many others by being demand-driven – their focus is directed by stakeholders’ needs. “We’re not a product company, we’re driven to deliver value that our clients can integrate into their own products.

“By coming together and collaborating around pre-competitive challenges, we can create new capabilities based on research and science that are tuned to company needs.”

PlantTech has a research plan for the next few years, and is looking to take on more shareholders. “We’re excited for what’s to come,” says Mark.


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