At the recent Nikkei Ag/Sum Agritech Summit, Tokyo welcomed agtech and food tech start-ups from around the world to exhibit and present. However, some of the highlights were Japan’s own homegrown start-ups, who may have gotten less attention because less information was available in English.
In the global agtech universe, if you mention Japan, the immediate association is usually hydroponic vertical farming technology (called “plant factories” in Japanese) and robotics/drones. This is not surprising. Japan is a country where nearly 50% of the country lives in one of three densely packed metro areas (Tokyo-Yokahama, Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto and Nagoya). In rural areas, the number of farmers is dropping dramatically, farm land increasingly lies uncultivated and the average age of a Japanese farmer is 66. Japan’s food self-sufficiency rate is now less than 40%.
Japan’s tech, engineering, machinery and robotics industries have been increasingly active in agtech R&D, aiming for potential solutions to the hot button Japanese issues of decreasing farm production, aging farmers and food security. Hydroponic farming, led by names such as Spread and Mirai, and robotics and drones being developed by universities and research institutes as well as companies like Yamaha, Fujitsu or Panasonic, have received significant media attention.
But indoor farming and drones are far from the only agtech innovation in Japan. Below are three interesting Japanese start-ups that recently exhibited at Nikkei’s Ag/Sum Agritech Summit.
ad-dice Co., Ltd.’s Bee Sensing
Bee Sensing offers an IoT sensor device that allows bee keepers to remotely monitor bee health and activity. Through a smartphone app, beekeepers can check temperature, humidly and how active bees are as well as receive alerts and record memos. Bee hives are often placed in distant or remote areas, making it difficult for farmers to visit them every day. This IoT sensor system is expected to increase beekeeper productivity by freeing them from constant patrolling of distant beehives. It will also allow timely reactions to changes in bee health and decrease beekeeper worry about the health of their remote apiaries. It also creates honey production data records to share with customers who are increasingly interested in the differences in local honeys and their different tastes and colors.
Bee Sensing’s patented technology was a collaboration between Japanese IT company, ad-dice, founded by Daisuke Ito and featured as one of Toyo Keizai Magazine’s Top 100 Ventures That Will Change Japan in Feb 2017, and innovative beekeeper Hideki Matsubara from Hiroshima.
Bee sensing technology may be a niche industry within agtech but these emerging technologies can serve an extremely important industry. According to FAO statistics, honey production is around 1.2 million metric tons globally, mainly concentrated in China, North Eastern Europe and the US. It is a high value industry. For example, the US retail price of natural honey is around 5-7 US$/pound and bee by-products, like propolis, are even more expensive. In addition to those products, the bee industry itself is also creating extremely important economic value – pollination.
There are now number of bee hive remote monitoring technologies being developed around the world, from the UK, US and Bulgaria among others as interest in this high value agricultural industry increases.
Kisvin Science’s Sap Flow Sensor
Kisvin Science’s sap flow sensor was developed to support the grape-growing and wine making industry. Japan may be better known for its beer or sake, but Japan actually also has a significant wine industry, centered in Yamanashi prefecture. The sap flow sensors monitor grape stem heat and soil moisture.
Co-founder Kazuhiro Nishioka originally established a small sap flow sensor manufacturing company, Nissy Instruments, as a side-business when he was a PhD student. He then created Team Kisvin, an initiative with two wine grape farmers (Hitoshi Ikegawa of i-vines and Yasuhiro Ogihara founder of the Kisvin winery) to study and improve viticulture in Yamanashi. They have been using the with sap sensors to produce premium wine grapes now for 10 years ago.
With the increasing number of cooperative farms, they have released their own branded Kisvin wines. In 2015, Team Kisvin decided to found Kisvin Science in order to support other wine grape farmers and wineries around the world. Their first new market target is California.
There are several sap flow sensors in the market, but Kisvin Science feels its strength is its low cost achieved with cutting-edge printing technology, Nishioka and his team’s aggregate knowledge of plant physiology and its relationship to wine grape farming. His team is aiming to raise its next round of funding soon, and is considering whether to target Japanese or US funds.
Rice Technology Kawachi’s Rice Gel
Some of the best inventions are accidents. Dr. Junichi Sugiyama unintentionally developed a new food ingredient – a type of rice gel – when he was a senior researcher under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. He found an innovative way to convert cooked rice into a gel-like paste which retains moisture well. Since retiring from the institute, Dr Sugiyama has dedicated his energy to commercializing this product, with the strong support from the local rice-growing community in Kawachi, Ibaraki, and leading agriculture machinery manufacturer Yanmar.
Dr Sugiyama’s rice gel is a smooth white paste, which can be produced in any level of solidity or density, depending on customer needs. The product is made only from rice and water, so it is free from major allergens.
This rice gel food technology addresses two major problems the food industry in Japan and overseas has found when using rice flour. First, rice flour has low absorption capacity for water, meaning most rice flour breads and cakes also have add wheat in order to improve moisture absorption. Second, rice flour usually is also more expensive than wheat or other flours, as rice production costs are high.
However the rice gel retains moisture, meaning bakers can eliminate wheat, which can be an allergen for some consumers. It has been particularly attractive to cake and confectionery bakers who aim for moist, fluffy creations.
In addition, Kawachi is able to produce for a competitive price, because they use rice which is high in amylose (a type of starch component that forms a solid gel at room temperature) which is a high yield type of rice. High amylose rice production for non-table rice can currently receive subsidies under the rice acreage reduction policy of the Japanese government which is helping Kawachi Rice Technology maintain lower costs than rice flour producers.
Full disclosure, Nikkei Ag/Sum event was not the first time Meros has encountered Kawachi rice gel. Last year Team Meros’ Lucia Vancura discussed the product as a panelist on NHK World’s Biz Buzz Japan when the gel was still in its R&D stage. This is why we were even more pleased to get an update from Dr Sugiyama and see his progress in commercializing this product. There is hope that this ingredient will have opportunities in the global baking industry, especially in the gluten free baking market, where rice flour is usually too expensive to use as the main substitute for wheat flour.