‘There’s a great opportunity for new tech to emerge from the agri sector’

22 Sep 2022

Niamh Collins. Image: AgTechUCD

As AgTechUCD prepares for its next accelerator programme, director Niamh Collins discusses agritech opportunities and gives her tips for start-up founders.

Niamh Collins is director of the AgTechUCD Innovation Centre, based at the University College Dublin (UCD) Lyons Research Farm in Co Kildare. It is part of NovaUCD, which is responsible for commercialisation and enterprise activities at the university. Last year, AgTechUCD launched a new accelerator programme to support early-stage agritech and food-tech start-ups.

Prior to joining AgTechUCD, Collins was director of programmes and operations at Dublin City University’s Ryan Academy from 2009 to 2021. She has extensive accelerator management experience and has worked with early-stage start-ups across many sectors.

‘It’s one thing to develop a product or service which you as a founder think is great, but unless you have a customer who will pay for it, you don’t really have a business’

What’s your role at AgTechUCD?

Having joined AgTechUCD in February 2021, my first task was the design and delivery of the centre’s flagship Agccelerator Programme, which is now in its second year of recruitment. Applications are currently open until 26 September for early-stage agtech and agri-food start-ups with global potential, from Ireland and internationally, to join this year’s Agccelerator Programme.

The AgTechUCD Innovation Centre is currently under construction and will open in 2023. When open, AgTechUCD will mirror the activities of NovaUCD by promoting and accelerating start-ups in the agri, agtech, agri-food and veterinary sectors.

AgTechUCD will provide offices, labs, co-working spaces, meeting rooms and an exhibition space for the sector. We also support start-ups with on-farm testing and trialling of their products and services at the UCD Lyons Farm, Ireland’s only university research farm.

In your opinion, which areas of science and technology hold the greatest scope for opportunities?

With my current job and given the role Ireland is playing in the future of food on a global scale – coupled with the role agri-food technologies will play in helping Ireland, and other countries, to deliver climate change commitments – I believe that there is a great opportunity for new technologies to emerge from the agri, agtech, agri-food and veterinary sectors, which have global impact potential.

What are the qualities of a good founder? Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

A good founder is passionate about their product or service – their passion will in turn inspire those he or she is trying to convince to buy, invest or partner with them. Most importantly, a good founder needs to be coachable, have good self-awareness and a strong vision, with determination and resilience to bring their idea to reality.

A good founder must have the ability to listen to others – this includes their team (if they have one), advisers, mentors, investors and, most importantly, their customer. A good founder will be aware that they don’t know it all. They also understand the competition.

I’m on the fence as to whether founders are born. I think entrepreneurship can be hereditary – the know-how and experience can be passed through generations. But in my experience running accelerator programmes, I’ve seen that founders who come to a programme with a great idea come with great drive to learn the skills needed to bring their product or service to the next stage. They are willing to take all learnings on board – how to talk to customers, to further validate their product, how to talk to investors, look for partners and also look at the skills gaps that they need to fill.

Most of these founders have developed their solution out of a personal need, or a gap in a product or service that they have seen in a particular market. These founders can be developed further.

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

Remind themselves daily of why they are doing what they are doing. Have a clear vision and be focused.

In the early stages of development, the founder is everything in their business; strategy planning, operations, marketing, sales, raising investment and making the tea. The founder will need to build his or her tribe, a network of supporters.

A successful founder never loses sight of the customer and their needs. Surround yourself with an effective network to help with finding customers, doing introductions, helping to you to solve issues, because the life of a founder or entrepreneur in the early days is very challenging.

What is the critical ingredient to start-up success?

Understanding your customer is critical. It’s one thing to develop a product or service which you as a founder think is great, but unless you have a customer who will pay for it, you don’t really have a business.

Good market research is key. Understanding where your customer is, what their pains points are, are you really solving a problem for them, is critical to a founder in the early stages of development. Once you identify product market fit, the other building blocks of your business can be worked on.

How can founders assemble a good team?

Being clear on the gaps in the business is key, understanding the skills required and then focusing on the people needed. Having a good network, word of mouth and recommendations from your network is a great way to source new team members. Always ask for recommendations.

What advice do you have for founders who are starting to look for investment?

Know why you are looking for investment, what you need the investment for, if you actually need investment or a loan. Have a clear plan on how you will spend the investment.

And when you approach an investor, whether a private investor, an angel investor or a venture capital company, always do your due diligence on them. Make sure they are the right fit for your company – remember you are giving away equity.

Get advice from others who have gone down the investment route or ask a mentor for advice.

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?
  • Investing their own money and time into a product or service without ever speaking to a potential customer and not understanding the real need of the customer
  • Not accepting advice from those who have experience or understand the start-up journey
  • Getting distracted by attending too many events, wanting to be seen in all the right places and losing focus
  • Not thinking big enough
  • Hiring the wrong people
  • Not surrounding yourself with a good network of support, so you can tap into advice and guidance when needed
What are your views on mentorship and the qualities one should look for in a mentor?

Mentorship is key in supporting you on your business journey and mentors come in many formats.

Find someone who listens to you and guides you rather than tells you what do to. A mentor that says ‘Have you considered this?’ Someone who helps you think clearly but for yourself, so that you make the decisions.

A mentor doesn’t always have all the answers either, so a mentor who can redirect you to someone who can help you with a specific issue is gold. It’s also important as a founder not to abuse a mentor’s support.

Separately, but complimentary to the work I do at AgTechUCD, I run a monthly Mentoring for Scale event where tech companies in the early stages get the opportunity to sit down for a one-on-one with experienced, serial entrepreneurs and industry experts who have successfully built and scaled a business, for advice, guidance and introductions. All the mentors are giving their time freely to support these founders – it’s a super initiative running successfully since 2015.

What’s the number-one piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs?

Find your tribe, surround yourself with like-minded founders and entrepreneurs who are on the same journey as you, or a few stages ahead, and ask for advice and guidance. Ensure you have a support network to reach out to in the early stages of building your start-up, which can be a lonely place if you are a solo entrepreneur.

Joining a well-recommended accelerator programme where you will meet like-minded founders and be part of a good peer-to-peer network in the early stages is hugely helpful. A good programme will help you learn new skills and understand the skills gap in your business. It will also provide good mentoring and profiling for your start-up and support you on your journey.

But also, I say “just do it”. And I admire greatly all founders who have the ambition and drive to bring their ideas to reality and put themselves through the arduous start-up journey and the ups and downs to achieve their ambition.

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