At its most basic level, food and agriculture are fundamental to the human condition. As population growth continues to soar, so too does the demand for safe, consumable products.
In Australia, 135,000 farmers supply 93 per cent of the domestic food market — producing enough food to feed 80 million people a year — and contributing more than $41 billion per annum to the export market.
While we account for only three per cent of the global food market, Australia has remained competitive and is one of only 11 countries classified as net food producers.
So how has this traditional sector maintained a leading position producing food on the driest inhabited continent, in the face of continual climate variability and facing challenges unique to our region, such as our geographic location?
In a word, innovation.
According to a report by Luminaries,* agriculture in Australia is one of our most innovative and efficient industries, underpinned by sophisticated and highly technical advances, technologies and innovations that keep us competitive in a global food market — despite having low level subsides relative to our major competitors.
Sunshine Coast food technology company, Naturo, is one such example of the extraordinary innovation happening right here in Queensland’s agricultural and food sector.
Having already developed technology that stops processed avocado turning brown, Naturo has turned its attention to the dairy industry and uncovered the biggest global breakthrough in milk production since pasteurisation was introduced in 1864.
Naturo CEO, Jeff Hastings said the company has developed a world-first, globally patented technology for processing fresh refrigerated milk that is safe for consumption for 60 days, and does not compromise on the taste or quality of the product.
“We have developed a process that gives our refrigerated milk a long shelf life of up to 60 days that is similar to milk straight out of the vat, meaning we’ve ended up with a healthier and tastier milk offering that can be transported by sea to the four corners of the world,” Jeff said.
“This process does not involve heat that you see in pasteurisation, therefore, it is able to retain certain enzymes and vitamins that are otherwise destroyed or denatured by pasteurisation.”
Over the past four years, Naturo has worked tirelessly with Dairy Food Safety Victoria and a leading Australian research company to have the processing technology approved as an alternative to pasteurisation in the treatment of milk for human consumption.
“It has been a three to four year journey to get the process to a point where we have successfully proven we can kill the required pathogens and produce a safe product for human consumption,” Jeff said.
“Our product has now been certified, validated by a leading Australian research organisation and approved by Dairy Food Safety Victoria — who designed the protocols that must be met, and confirmed which pathogens we need to kill for our product to be considered safe for human consumption.”
Third only to wheat and beef, the dairy sector is one of Australia’s leading rural industries. According to the Queensland Farmers’ Federation, the farmgate value alone is estimated at $4 billion and in terms of farming, manufacturing and exports, it is a $13 billion industry.
With 150,000 cows milked across approximately 430 farms, Queensland’s dairy sector produces more than 411 million litres of fresh milk annually. This translates to an estimated $220 million contribution to the state’s economy — and as much of the product processing occurs close to farming areas, it is a major driver for economic activity in country regions.
As global demand for dairy products continues to increase with population growth, how do we ensure we stay competitive and tap into global markets?
According to Jeff the key to success is embracing the inevitable challenges with innovation and ensuring we are supporting those trying to do things differently.
“Queensland is a big state, with big land masses and big holdings of cattle, sheep and grain but our agricultural and food sector face continuing challenges, the global markets are extremely competitive, and we have the tyranny of distance to compete with, so commodity based agricultural products can be a difficult industry,” Jeff said.
“To combat these challenges and remain competitive into the future clearly depends on innovation, in finding value added products, in finding unique markets, in finding clever solutions to product or market opportunities.
“We are a unique state and we are known for our ability to apply innovation and ‘smarts’ to the food industry.
“No better example can be given than right here on the Sunshine Coast where there are more than 100 businesses in the food industry, many of those are highly innovative and are applying new technologies, or manipulating existing technologies, to find new markets around the world.
“By innovating, Queensland can create high value products and launch them into existing and or unique markets which is extremely important for the food sector.”
While Jeff believes that the innovation and entrepreneurial scene in Queensland has a huge depth of ability, he says lots of people are constrained in their ability to develop and commercialise innovations.
“Entrepreneurship is intrinsically expensive and time consuming, so the ability for people to actually commercialise is very difficult,” Jeff said.
“This is where governments can potentially play a greater role in supporting entrepreneurs and innovators with bigger purses and longer timeframes to really create the incubator for innovation to occur.”
As recipients of the fourth round of Advance Queensland’s Ignite Ideas Fund, Naturo Milk have experienced first-hand how the right government support can help startups grow and take their innovations to the next level.
“The Queensland government plays a key role in innovation and entrepreneurial space for both the funding that it provides and the connections it presents to help innovators complete whatever project they are working on,” Jeff said.
“The involvement of Advance Queensland is both helpful financially and critical in terms of opening doors and introducing marketing channels to new businesses.
“We all know that opening doors is particularly important for startups and new innovators when you either don’t have many doors to open or don’t know how to open them.
“The support we’ve received with the Ignite Ideas Fund has been very welcome, it has allowed us to complete some very specific work, particularly around finalising further validation work for our products.
“We have been able to advance aspects of final product development, such as analysing the nutritional value of our milk, identifying and developing marketing options for the milk and doing the embryonic commercial activities that are essential to converting it from an idea to a commercial reality.”
Looking to the future, Naturo said they will draw on the key benefits of their milk product — its long shelf life — to take their product and the technology behind it, to the global market.
“We have a very positive outlook for our milk technology and are working on completing all aspects of the technology, supply chain, market acceptance, price positioning and customer feedback, which is the main purpose of the pilot factory we are about to embark on,” Jeff said.
“Our ability to sea freight the Naturo milk product around the world and still have plenty of shelf life for our customers to sell within the retail environment and food service industries provides an opportunity to expand into the global market.
“There are many countries that have difficulty in getting fresh milk and we see the qualities of the Naturo milk technology feeding directly into that, thus, we are looking to build infrastructure and freight logistics systems around exporting the product globally from Australia.
“Big picture wise, we are very buoyant on what this technology can achieve and in a subsequent stage of the business, we are looking at a global expansion of the technology, not so much production, but the technology, where we can offer other companies around the world access to the technology.
When asked what advice he would give to budding Queensland innovators and entrepreneurs starting out on their journey, Jeff had five tops tips to share.
“My view is the future is in value adding, finding or creating unique and novel products and technologies for unique and novel markets, try to put a square peg in a round hole,” Jeff said.
“Secure your IP, there is a lot of interest in IP and a lot of people looking at Australia that might place exposure of your IP at risk, so make sure you secure your IP because you have a valuable asset that can only grow.
“Access government schemes like Advance Queensland’s Ignite Ideas Fund. There are both state and federal schemes that have programs that can support entrepreneurship and innovation, so we recommend you find them and access them.
“Attract and surround yourself with people who have skills that you don’t have. Good people equals good business, you can’t be expected to know everything about every aspect of a business, so surround yourself with people that know the parts you don’t know well or are not confident in.
“Don’t be afraid to give away some of your control and ownership in your technology to grow a bigger pie. If the business or technology is worth anything, it is worth surrounding yourself with good people, be prepared to give away some parts of your business to reap larger rewards.”
Visit Advance Queensland to learn more about how you can be supported on your entrepreneurial journey.
*Agriculture in Australia: Growing more than our farming future